Remaking remedial education

Dr. Katie Hern’s college students were discussing Bruce Alexander’s morphine-addicted rodents in his Rat Park experiment on a recent Wednesday morning. “It usually just comes down to the dopamine depletion hypothesis,” said student Michael Fleming, leaning forward in his chair as he made his point. Across the room in the back corner, Alex Gomez was more conflicted. “This is hard for me,” admitted Gomez. “If anything, I think I’d be on Alexander’s side; people take drugs to cope with situations that they’re in, but I can’t stand fully on his side because I think that cigarettes are addicting.” What a cool psychology class discussion; except this is an English class at Chabot, a community college in Hayward – a remedial English class.

Perhaps it doesn’t need to be said, but this is not your typical remedial education class. If all goes well, most of these students will enroll in college-level English after just one semester of what’s generally referred to as basic skills or developmental education courses. At nearly all of the other 111 community colleges in California, as we reported yesterday, these students could expect to spend at least two semesters – or one academic year – in a course that doesn’t count toward an Associate’s degree or transfer credits to Cal State University or the University of California.

Chabot is on the leading edge of a movement to improve the odds of college success for students whose scores on community college placement exams put them in developmental education where their chances of succeeding aren’t good. In a 2008 report, Thomas Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University, wrote that “only 44 percent of those referred to developmental reading completed their full sequence, and only 31 percent of those referred to developmental math completed theirs.”

Dr. Katie Hern's accelerated basic skills English class at Chabot.  Click for slideshow.
Dr. Katie Hern's accelerated basic skills English class at Chabot. Click for slideshow.

Long running with lots of data

Chabot began revamping its basic skills English curriculum in 1994 when faculty realized that their separate remedial writing and reading classes weren’t working out so well for students.  Initially, they combined the two subjects and maintained all but a few two-semester courses.  Hern arrived in 2002, and soon after she began extensive reviews of the data, which included thousands of students by that time, and found that students in the accelerated, one-semester courses were nearly twice as likely to complete college-level English than those enrolled in the longer basic skills sequences – 45% compared with 23%.

Chabot College students in accelerated basic skills English courses are nearly twice as likely to complete college-level English.  Click for powerpoint. (Source:  3csn)
Chabot College students in accelerated basic skills English courses are nearly twice as likely to complete college-level English. Click for powerpoint. (Source: 3csn)

Those figures are just averages.  Do a little disaggregation, and most of the successes come from students at the top levels of remediation.  Nationwide, CCRC’s Bailey reports that few students “who start three levels below college-level ever complete their full sequence within three years — just 16 percent for math and 22 percent for reading.”  And many more students who are referred to developmental courses don’t even bother enrolling.

“Every time you add a level you add additional exit points,” Hern told several dozen community college math and English teachers gathered at Fresno City College on a Saturday in mid-March.  She and math professor Myra Snell, who developed an accelerated course at Los Medanos Community College in Pittsburg, traveled across the state this past year holding workshops to present their data and to help other teachers strategize ways to convince their colleagues to support pilot acceleration programs.

Making the pitch

During one role-playing session, a group of math teachers grappled with concerns over tracking students and the amount of algebra most people really need to know.  Acceleration means that some lessons are eliminated from the curriculum.  Snell told the teachers that she’s not worried about that.  “If math folks are making the argument that they need all this content in algebra to be a well-rounded human being, I really want to say to them, ‘Okay, let’s go through that curriculum and think about factoring trinomials,’ ” argued Snell.  “Do we hold that piece of content so dear that we’re willing to let 90% of our students never achieve a college degree because of it?”

As it turned out, many of those skeptics were in the room.  “I saw it as more added work for us and I just felt at the same time that somehow the students were going to be cheated,” said Lilia Becerra, a basic skills English teacher at San Joaquin Delta College.  By the end of the day, Becerra was, if not a convert, definitely a novitiate.  “We have sequences in our English department and the numbers are not very convincing, so we know we’re doing something wrong,” said Becerra, “So I’m more open, I am willing to try something else.”

More research is needed

While there is widespread belief that something else needs to be done, there’s hardly agreement on what that should be.  Even Chabot’s strong success rate has some community college leaders lukewarm over acceleration, and it was the subject of two competing resolutions at last month’s spring plenary of the California Community College Academic Senate.  David Morse, who’s on the English faculty at Long Beach City College and is a member of the Academic Senate’s Executive Committee, sponsored the measure urging restraint.  “I have less concern over acceleration than with people accelerating the adoption of such programs,” said Morse with a laugh. Then in a more serious tone, he said there needs to be more qualitative research on acceleration and other models before colleges make sweeping changes.  “That’s all the resolution is doing; it’s not saying don’t, it’s saying think about this carefully before you dive in and really consider the various factors.”  The academic senate approved Morse’s resolution, with an amendment calling for colleges to start pilot programs.

Even academic researchers agree that more rigorous evaluations are needed.  “It’s remarkable how popular acceleration is becoming in the community college field and how little research there is,” said Mary Visher, a senior analyst with MDRC, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education and social policy research organization.  Visher said MDRC is preparing to launch a randomized, longitudinal study of acceleration programs.  Still, she’s a big fan of Katie Hern.  After watching a short video of Hern’s class, Visher was impressed.  “What I’m seeing here are examples of good teaching.  It’s about engaging students around topics that matter so they’re not going to sleep.  It’s about encouraging critical thinking and problem-solving skills.  It’s about lots and lots of interaction between the teacher and the students.”

Hern’s students agree.  Three visiting teachers from Gavilan College in Gilroy asked the students pointed questions about the class.  One young man captured the sentiment of his classmates – although not exactly their choice of words.  “When I first started this class, I was like oh crap it’s a bunch of psychological crap and s**t, and I was like really? These books? I want to read something funny, but then I started reading it, and this is actually really interesting.”  Now, he says, he doesn’t want to miss class.

The Gavilan group is sold.  They’re among 17 community college English and math departments participating in a six-month program, run by Hern and Myra Snell and set to begin this June, to start growing acceleration in California.

Abandon Hope, All Who Enter

Developmental education in California’s community colleges is a study in unintended consequences. The very courses designed to assist students who need a little help climbing over the ledge from high school to college level work will more than likely send them tumbling off the college path. “Of those who enroll in developmental education, particularly those who have to enroll at the lowest level, they actually have almost no chance of earning a credential,” says Mary Visher, a senior associate with MDRC, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education and social policy and research organization that’s about to publish an overview of the current research on remedial education.

Before examining the abysmal statistics, first a word about, well, words. What used to be known as remedial education now goes by either developmental education or basic skills. Lexicon aside, it’s become apparent that these classes don’t work. At least half a dozen reports released in the past year (two in the past couple of weeks alone) warn that the United States is headed for an economic calamity unless we can figure out how to get more students to successfully complete some type of postsecondary education program. It doesn’t have to be a baccalaureate degree. It could be an associate’s degree or a professional certification, but by the year 2018 about two-thirds of all jobs will require some college education, according to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce. Of those, 22 million will require actual degrees, AA or better, but at the current rate, we’re already off track by some 3 million degrees.

Basic skills courses rarely lead to success

70% of community college students fail to earn a certificate, AA degree or transfer within six years. Click to enlarge. (Source: Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy)
70% of community college students fail to earn a certificate, AA degree or transfer within six years. Click to enlarge. (Source: Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy)

Community Colleges are the mainstay of that effort, especially in California. Nearly 2.8 million students are enrolled in the state’s 112 community colleges this year, making it the largest higher education system in the world. However, in their 2010 report, Divided We Fail: Improving Completion and Closing Racial Gaps in California’s Community Colleges,” researchers Colleen Moore and Nancy Shulock found that six years after enrolling in a community college, “only 30% of degree-seeking students had completed a certificate or degree, or had transferred to a university. Most of the other 70% had dropped out; only 15% were still enrolled.”

A major reason for the dramatic fall-off is the huge number of students who are unprepared for college work. According to a brief from the state Legislative Analyst’s Office, about 85% of incoming community college students aren’t prepared for college-level math, and some 70% aren’t ready for college English, even though they’ve passed the California High School Exit Exam and graduated from high school, often with respectable grade point averages. According to the aptly named report Diploma to Nowhere, four out of five students who place in developmental education had a GPA above 3.0 in high school. Kyle, a first-year student at Foothill College in Los Altos when I spoke with him a while ago, told me that his GPA was 3.7 and he nailed the exit exam on his first try as a sophomore in high school. A classmate of his had a 3.5 GPA and considered herself one of the “smart kids” in high school. Both of them flunked the math placement exam and wound up in basic skills math. “It was a shock when I came to this class and the first thing I was learning was addition and subtraction,” said Kyle.

The higher the level of developmental education, the more likely students are to try to continue. Click to enlarge. (Source:  EdSource
The higher the level of developmental education, the more likely students are to try to continue. Click to enlarge. (Source: EdSource

Basic skills classes can take students anywhere from one to five semesters to complete – and that’s before they can even enroll in regular college courses needed for an AA degree or to transfer into Cal State or the University of California. Most students don’t stick with them. An EdSource study commissioned by the state Community College Chancellor’s Office found that 54% of students who passed the lowest level of freshman composition enrolled in the next level up. But continuing that pattern over time doesn’t look so good after all. Myra Snell, a math professor at Los Medanos Community College in Pittsburg, describes spending five years revamping the school’s basic skills algebra sequence in order to boost the success rate by 10%. They did it. “I was so proud of it,” recalls Snell, but then she asked the office of institutional research to do a persistence study to see how many students who started in elementary algebra continued on to a college-level course. It was 17%. Devastated, Snell began thinking about what happened and realized “that a student who starts in elementary algebra has five exit possibilities because they have to pass elementary algebra, choose to enroll in intermediate, pass intermediate algebra, choose to enroll in the transfer level course, and pass the transfer level course.” Along the way they lost 83 percent of their students.

Placement exams are all over the place

What happened at Los Medanos isn’t unique, but there are enough variations at each campus to make it impossible for the state to get an accurate picture of student preparation for college. To start with, there is no uniformity in the type of placement test that each campus uses. The National Center for Public Policy in Higher Education counted more than 94 different placement tests given to entering students, although the Center said three exams were most commonly used.

On top of that, each campus sets its own cutoff score, the level it considers ready for college-level work, and if a student transfers from one school where they met the cutoff, there’s no guarantee that the new community college will accept the score. Assemblyman Marty Block, who chairs the state assembly higher education committee, has introduced a bill, AB 743, that would require the California Community College Board of Governors to establish a common assessment system. It passed Block’s committee, but has been placed in the suspense file in the appropriations committee. Block introduced a similar bill last year that passed the legislature, but was vetoed by Gov. Schwarzenegger.

The high price of developmental education

At a time when education is about to take another financial beating in California, the current system of basic skills classes is a bit of a money pit. The California Budget Project estimates that California spends nearly $600 million a year in state and local funding on developmental education in community colleges. The system has already taken a $400 million hit, and faces $800 million under the governor’s draconian “all cuts” budget.

The price of basic skills doesn’t include federal Pell grants or student loans that must be repaid whether or not there’s a degree attached to the invoice. While it’s true that at $26 a unit, California community colleges are one of the best higher education bargains in the country, basic skills students can count on spending at least one additional year in college to earn a certificate or AA degree, and even longer if they hope to transfer to a four-year school. Fees are currently expected to rise to $36 a unit, but the LAO is recommending nearly doubling that to $66.

If that happens, community college enrollment could fall by 400,000 students, according to the Chancellor’s office, and that doesn’t count the ongoing hemorrhaging from developmental education.

Tomorrow: Inside an English basic skills class that gets students in and out quickly and successfully.

Further Reading:

  1. Performance Incentives to Improve Community College Completion:  Learning From Washington State’s Student Achievement Initiative. Community College Research Center, March 2011
  2. One-Shot Deal?  Students’ Perceptions of Assessment and Course Placement in California’s Community Colleges. WestEd 2010
  3. Linking Adults to Opportunity: A Blueprint for the Transformation of the California Department of Education Adult Education Program, California Department of Education, Oct. 2010
  4. Adult Education in California: Strategic Planning Process Needs Assessment, WestEd, Nov. 2009
  5. Rethinking Developmental Education in Community college, Community College Research Center, Feb. 2009
  6. Referral, Enrollment and Completion in Developmental Education Sequences in Community College. Community College Research Center, Dec. 2008.
  7. Mixed Signals in California:  A Mismatch Between High Schools and Community Colleges, National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, March  2008
  8. The Kiss of Death?  An alternative view of college remediation, National Crosstalk, published by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, 1998

Cutting a break for foster youth

It takes exceptional tenacity – and a measure of good fortune – for a child who grows up in foster care in California to make it through college. A bill that would ease the way for these students moves a step forward tomorrow, when it goes before the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

AB 194, introduced by Democratic Assemblyman Jim Beall of San Jose, would give current and former foster youth priority registration for classes at California State University and California community colleges, and urges the University of California to do the same. The costs are negligible, but Beall says the “impact on this vulnerable population can be huge.”

There are about 75,000 foster youth in California, and their chances of going to college are dismal. Although 70% of foster youth say they’d like to attend college, only 20% enroll, and just 2-3% graduate, according to the California Foster Youth Education Task Force.

“After overcoming every imaginable obstacle to going to college, we’re losing foster youth because they cannot get the classes they need,” said David Ambroz, executive director of the Los Angeles City College Foundation, shortly after the bill was introduced. It could get worse, too, as colleges drop classes to deal with multimillion-dollar budget shortfalls.

UC Berkeley undergrad Lashay Massey, who spent her entire childhood in foster care, managed to hold on when that happened to her, but it came at a cost. “I either had to take it another semester which could give me more units and increase my workload that particular semester or I would end up having to take it during summer school which is not paid for by grants or scholarships usually,” said Massey, “so I had to pull out loans which contributes to college debt.”

If it passes, the bill would make foster youth the third group of students given preference in registration. Current law already grants priority registration to students with disabilities and to active duty military personnel and military vets.

One of the biggest barriers to college for foster youth is that they’re moved so often that school is a continuing series of interruptions. Just 15% take the college prep or A-G classes required for admission to Cal State and the University of California. Crystal Lowry was 8 years old when she was placed in foster care, and attended 23 different schools before enrolling in college. Today, she has two bachelor’s degrees and two master’s degrees, and works in a college admissions office trying to help other students like herself.

Starting next year, foster youth will have more support than Lowry did. Until now, foster youth were on their own as soon as they turned 18. They lost housing and their entire support network. But under AB 12, also introduced by Assemblyman Beall, they’ll be allowed to continue receiving assistance while they’re in school or work programs.

The California Community College Chancellor’s Office has signed on in support of the bill, along with the University of California. As of its last legislative report a month ago, Cal State hasn’t taken a position. While there is no formal opposition on file, two members of the Assembly Higher Education Committee, Republicans Tim Donnelly and Jeff Miller, voted against the measure when it came up for a vote last month.