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By Paul Bradley  /  
2010 May 31 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Playing Catch Up

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Playing Catch Up
Gates Foundation Spearheads Remediation Effort

Community college officials recoil when they hear their institutions derided as the “13th grade,” merely an extension of high school.

Yet for large numbers of community college students who arrive on campuses each fall unprepared for college-level work, the term has become an all-too-accurate description of the first days of their college careers.

Photo courtesy Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

These are the students who can’t explore academic options or start on a firm career path because they have been assigned to remedial classes — courses intended to help them catch up academically, but which also pose a serious barrier to their long-term scholastic success.

According to U. S. Department of Education statistics, about 60 percent of first-year students at community colleges test into at least one remedial class, and many test into two or more. Among black and Hispanic students, the numbers are even higher. Across all community colleges, the most common course is developmental math.

Even as colleges try to meet President Obama’s ambitious goal of increasing the number of college graduates by 50 percent by the year 2020, they are being thwarted by the fact that so few of their students are ready for college-level work when they walk through the college’s front door.

The phenomenon has its roots in the open-access mission of community colleges, and has dogged colleges for decades. But even as public and private groups try to devise solutions, the situation appears to be getting worse.

Speaking at the Innovations community college conference in Baltimore, John Roueche, the longtime director of the Community College Leadership Program at the University of Texas at Austin, said he has witnessed little progress in solving the remediation conumdrum over his four-decade-long career.

“For whatever reason, we are getting more and more under-prepared students,” he said. “It’s not going away. In fact, it’s worse than it was 40 years ago.”

Jerry Sue Thorton, president of Cuyahoga Community College, has been part of the community college movement since 1973. She said that colleges struggled then, and still struggle now, to move students through catch-up courses.

“There was the mindset that the need for developmental education would go away, she said. “The reality is, it hasn’t gone away.”

At her college, she said, 80 percent of incoming students test into developmental math, and 60 percent into developmental English.

“It’s not an urban problem only,” she said. “If we’re honest, it’s across all community colleges.”

Just 23 percent of 2009 high school graduates were ready to earn a “C” or better in all four subject areas (English, math, reading and science) in tests administered by the the ACT testing service, according to ACT’s 2009 College Readiness Report.

While that figure represented a 1 percent increase over 2008, the report found “the large majority of U.S. high school students that continue to lack at least some of the academic skills they will need to earn a “C” or better in first-year, for-credit coursework.”

The academic shortcomings were most apparent in science and math. The ACT reported that only 28 percent of ACT-tested graduates were ready for college-level biology, and 42 percent were ready for college-level algebra.

The cost of helping the under-prepared students is steep, both in financial and human terms. The Alliance for Excellent Education, a non-profit group, estimates the nation loses $3.7 billion a year because college students have not learned needed skills, said an Associated Press report.

Students, too, pay a dear price. Statistics show that most students directed into a remedial course never graduate. Instead, they expend their time and resources on courses that don’t yield college credit, often exhausting their financial aid without a credential to show for their efforts.

Public and private groups are busy trying to help community colleges get students through the remediation process. Chief among them is the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is investing $110 million in the belief it can help improve remedial education outcomes at community colleges. That’s the amount that the foundation has pledged in grants to help colleges devise ways to improve remedial education and spread them to colleges across the country.

Solving the Riddle

“We have a predisposition to take on the big issues,” said Mark David Milliron, the foundation’s deputy director for postsecondary improvement. “You have to do the math. We did the math. Our country has some real challenges. We once were first in the number of post-secondary degrees, and now we’re 10th, and we’re headed to 15th if we don’t do something.

“The intransigence of the transfer of poverty from generation to generation is stark. We think the game-changer is a post-secondary degree. And one of the major impediments to that is developmental education.”

Last month, at the annual convention of the American Association of Community Colleges, foundation co-chair Melinda French Gates said colleges can never reach their essential goal of helping more students complete their studies if they don’t first solve the remediation riddle.

To do that, colleges must scrap what has not worked and welcome new approaches, she said.

“Community colleges led the way on college access, now they must lead the way on college completion,” Gates said. “Research shows that improving remediation is the single most important thing community colleges can do to increase the number of students who graduate with a certificate or a degree.”

She added: “In a crisis, you can either keep doing what you’ve been doing, or you can change. In this case, if you stay on the same path, you will gradually find yourself able to meet fewer and fewer of your students’ needs. But if you change — if you innovate —you can teach your students in new ways that yield dramatically better results for a fraction of the cost.”

The foundation’s research has identified four primary reasons are responsible for the remediation crisis:

A mismatch between what skills high schools require students learn to graduate and what colleges expect students to know to enroll in a college-level course.

Crude assessment tools which are often unable to diagnose academic weaknesses with accuracy. Students often are forced to take entire courses when they only need reinforcement on one or two concepts.

Once enrolled, colleges often have no system to guide students through the remedial process to help them access additional academic support and transition into college-level courses.

Courses are not taught with the student in mind, and little effort is made to ensure the course is more than a rehash of what the student failed to grasp in high school.

The Obama administration, for its part, is trying to improve high school outcomes as it rewrites the Elementary & Secondary Education Act. A first draft was released in March, and a final proposal could come this summer. The blueprint would push core academic standards that stress college readiness rather than results of standardized tests.

But groups like the Gates Foundation say that improving high schools could take decades. They are urging community colleges to make remedial education a central part of their mission now.

Improving Completion

“I understand that some of you don’t consider developmental education to be a core part of your job description,” Gates told the AACC convention. “And it may be true that high school is supposed to prepare students for college. But while some of you say that high schools should live up to their end of the bargain, high schools answer that they meet the standards that have been set for them. In the meantime, about 60 percent of incoming community college students test into at least one remedial class.”

Said Milliron: “Community colleges today are heavily tasked. They are charged with workforce education and helping students transfer to four-year schools amid dwindling resources. We understand that. Developmental education may not be as exciting as the high-end health programs or green energy programs. But we really think that community colleges can really bring some new energy and new thinking to developmental education.”

The foundation believes in strategies that help under-prepared students spend less time and money in remediation, which would lead to improved retention and completion.

“There is nothing more painful than making a low-income student sit through a 16-week math course to get the five concepts that they had forgotten,” Milliron said.

About half of the foundation’s $110 million commitment has already been disbursed. The remaining $57 million will be given as grants over the next two years and will be guided by lessons learned through the earlier investments.

Those lessons include:

Early and effective collaboration between middle schools, high schools and colleges that can prevent the need for remediation in the first place.

Improve the testing and placement practices for remedial courses to make sure students are matched to the proper level of coursework.

Tightly structured blending of credit-bearing classes with enhanced academic support.

Flexible and personalized programs to address specific skill gaps, ensuring students learn what they need.

All of those steps are worthy, but leaders like Roueche said he believes successful remediation demands another essential element: faculty buy-in.

“I think it’s the missing link in all the efforts that are under way today,” he said. “(Faculty) think they are teaching math and English. They are teaching students.

“It doesn’t matter how competent you are in your discipline or how many books you have written. None of that matters if you can’t get the students excited. That’s the piece that’s missing.”

Comments: editor@ccweek.com

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