Getting Remediation Right: New Insights from California
Dec 18, 2013
By Julie Strawn
Along with college costs, helping underprepared students succeed in college is arguably the most important issue facing higher education. Given changing demographics, America's future global competitiveness and the prosperity of our families and communities depend on finding a solution. Two recent reports from California's LearningWorks—a nonprofit founded by community college leaders and faculty, researchers, and policy experts—shed new light on the nuts and bolts of effective remediation reform and how it can help more disadvantaged students graduate.
One report focuses on a reform strategy with promising results: accelerated learning for students needing remediation. Toward a Vision of Accelerated Curriculum & Pedagogy: High Challenge, High Support Classrooms for Underprepared Students identifies core principles and practices essential for effectively teaching accelerated English and math. The authors reject two common myths: that acceleration means simply teaching the same material in the same way, only faster—leaving some students behind; or that acceleration requires "dumbing down" the curriculum so that more students can complete remediation more quickly. Instead, they argue, effective acceleration entails letting remedial students get to college-level content, skills, and reasoning faster—asking them to think about big questions on topics that matter—while helping them master basic building blocks along the way. This is the opposite of how literacy and math remediation works now, with students stuck learning basic literacy and match processes for long stretches before being allowed to apply those skills.
For the second report, Changing Equations: How Community Colleges are Re-thinking College Readiness in Math, the author interviewed community college researchers and practitioners to explore why colleges and college systems are overhauling remedial math, what reforms they're adopting, what results they're getting, and what other colleges and states can learn from their experience. The why of reform isn't hard to grasp: just one out of five students placed into remedial math ultimately complete remediation and go on to pass a college-level math course; further, the three college courses with the lowest rates of success nationally are all remedial math courses.
Many experts have concluded that the current high school and college math pathway, which emphasizes mastery of algebra in preparation for calculus, doesn't make sense given that 80 percent of college students don't ever take calculus because their majors don't require it. Increasingly community college researchers and practitioners advocate for customizing math requirements to competencies needed for a student's college and career pathway, which might demand statistics, probability or quantitative reasoning rather than algebra or calculus. Another change colleges and state systems are experimenting with is keeping the standard curriculum but change course sequences or instruction, through compressed courses, modularized courses, contextualized courses, and non-academic supports. Yet a third set of reforms tackles how students are assessed and placed into remediation, and involve new placement tests and/or new placement policies.
The report highlights examples of these reforms in various colleges and states. These include Carnegie Foundation pilots of alternative math sequences called Statway and Quantway in 11 states; the California Acceleration Project's support for implementation statistics-oriented pathways in 21 colleges; the New Mathways Project in Texas; and, statewide modularized curriculum reforms in North Carolina and Virginia connected to student pathways.
Both of these reports are welcome antidotes to tired debates about which students are "college material" and recognize that far more students can be successful than they are now, if we stop relegating them to what one reformer, Mathematician Uri Treisman of the University of Texas-Austin, calls the "burial ground" for traditional college remediation.