Category: college completion

Trump Method: Complete College America

Whatever your political persuasion, I hope this comparison makes sense to you.  Most politicians use selective fact usage, and it’s normal to have candidates repeat ‘information’ that fails the fact-checking process.  Mr. Trump is just a bit more extreme in his use of these strategies.  I’m actually not saying anything against “the Donald”.

However, the Trump Method is being employed by the folks at Complete College America (CCA).  The CCA is a change agent, advocating for a select set of ‘game changers’ … which are based on a conclusion about remedial education as a useful construct.  The CCA repeats the same information that does not pass the fact-checking process, much to the detriment of developmental education and community colleges in general.

It’s not that professionals in the field believe that our traditional curriculum and methods are anywhere near what they should be.  I’ve talked with hundreds of teaching faculty over the past ten years, relative to various constructs and methods to use; though we differ on eventual solutions and how to get there, we have a strong consensus that basic changes are needed in remedial mathematics.

However, the CCA brings its anvil and hammer communication … promising simple solutions to complicated problems (just like Mr. Trump).  The recent email newsletter has this headline:

Stuck at Square One
College Students Increasingly Caught in Remedial Education Trap

Following up on this headline leads one to a profession-bashing ‘documentary’ about how bad things are.  Did you notice the word “increasingly”?  Things getting worse clearly calls for change … if only there was evidence of things getting worse.  Not only are the facts cited in the documentary old (some from 2004), there is no discussion of any change in the results.

Like “immigrants” for Mr. Trump, remedial education is a bad thing in the view of the CCA.  Since remedial education can not be deported or locked up, the only option is to get rid of it.  The headline says that we ‘trap’ students in our remedial courses, as if we had criminal intent to limit students.  No evidence is presented that the outcomes are a ‘trap’; the word ‘trap’ is more negative than ‘limitations’ or ‘inefficient’ … never mind the lack of accuracy.

Some people have theorized that Mr. Trump appeals to less educated voters.  Who does the CCA material appeal to?  Their intended audience is not ‘us’ … it’s policy makers and state leaders.  These policy makers and state leaders are not generally ignorant nor mean-spirited.  However, the CCA has succeeded in creating an atmosphere of panic relative to remedial education.  Because of the long-term repetition of simplistic conclusions (lacking research evidence) we have this situation at state level groups and college campuses:

Remedial education is a failure, because the CCA has data [sic].
Everybody is working on basic changes, and getting rid of stand-alone remediation.
We better get with the band-wagon, or risk looking like we don’t care (‘unpatriotic’).

This is why the CCA work is so harmful to community colleges.  Instead of academia and local needs driving changes, we have a ‘one size fits all’ mania sweeping the country.  Was this the intent of the CCA?  I doubt it; I think there intent was to destroy remediation as it’s been practiced in this country.  Under the right conditions, I could even work with the CCA on this goal: if ‘destroy’ involved a reasoned examination of all alternatives within the framework present at individual community colleges, with transparent use of data on results.

Sadly, the debate … the academic process for creating long-lasting change … has been usurped by the Trump Method of the CCA.  I can only hope that our policy makers and college leaders will discover their proven change methods; at that point, all of us can work together to create changes that both serve our students and have the stability to remain in place after the CCA is long gone.

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Alignment of Remediation with Student Programs

My college is one of the institutions in the AACC Pathways Project; we’ve got a meeting coming up, for which we were directed to read some documents … including the famous (or infamous) “Core Principles” for remediation.  [See]  In that list of Core Principles, this is #4:

Students for whom the default college-level course placement is not appropriate, even with additional mandatory support, are enrolled in rigorous, streamlined remediation options that align with the knowledge and skills required for success in gateway courses in their academic or career area of interest.

What does that word “align” mean?  It seems to be a key focus of this principle … and the principle also implies that colleges are failing if they can not implement co-requisite remediation.  In early posts, I have shared data which suggests that stand-alone remediation can be effective; the issue is length-of-sequence, meaning that we can not justify a sequence of 3 or 4 developmental courses (up to and including intermediate algebra).

The general meaning of “align” simply means to put items in their proper position.  The ‘align’ in the Core Principles must mean something more than that … ‘proper position’ does not add any meaning to the statement.  [It already said ‘streamlined’ and later says ‘required or’.]  What do they really mean by ‘align’?

In the supporting narrative, the document actually talks more about co-requisite remediation than alignment.  That does not help us understand what was intended.

The policy makers and leaders I’ve heard on this issue often use this type of statement about aligning remediation:

The remediation covers skills and applications like those the student will encounter in their required math course.

In other words, what ‘align’ means is “restricted” … restricted to those mathematical concepts or procedures that the student will directly use in the required math course.  The result is that the remedial math course will consist of the same stuff included in the mandatory support course in the co-requisite model.  The authors, then, are saying that we need to do co-requisite remediation … or co-requisite remediation; the only option is concurrent versus preceding.

If the only quantitative needs a student faced were restricted to the required math course, this might be reasonable.

I again find a basic flaw in this use of co-requisite remediation in two flavors (concurrent, sequential).  We fail to serve our fundamental charge to prepare students for success in their PROGRAM … not just one math course.  As long as the student’s program requires any quantitative work in courses such as these, the ‘aligned’ remediation will fail to serve student needs:

  • Chemistry
  • Physiology
  • Economics
  • Political science
  • Psychology
  • Basic Physics

Dozens of non-math courses on each campus have strong quantitative components.  Should we avoid remedial math courses just to get students through one required math course … and cause them to face unnecessary challenges in several other courses in their program?

In some rare cases, the required math course actually covers most of the quantitative knowledge a student needs for their program.  However, in my experience, the required math course only partially provides that background … or has absolutely no connection to those needs.

Whom does remediation serve?  Policy makers … or students?

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Algebra in General Education, or “What good is THAT?”

One of the questions I’ve heard for decades is “Is (or should) intermediate algebra be considered developmental?”  Sometimes, people ask this just to know which office or committee is appropriate for some work.  However, the question is fundamental to a few current issues in community colleges.

Surprising to some, one of the current issues is general education.  Most colleges require some mathematics for associate degrees, as part of their general education program.  Here is a definition from AACU (Association of American Colleges and Universities):

General education, invented to help college students gain the knowledge and collaborative capacities they need to navigate a complex world, is today and should remain an essential part of a high-quality college education.  [, preface]

What is a common (perhaps the most common) general education mathematics course in the country?  In community colleges, it’s likely to be intermediate algebra.  This is a ‘fail’ in a variety of ways.

  1. Algebra is seldom taught as a search for knowledge — the emphasis is almost always on procedures and ‘correct answers’.
  2. The content of intermediate algebra seldom maps onto the complex world.  [When was the last time you represented a situation by a rational expression containing polynomials?  Do we need cube roots of variable expressions to ‘navigate’ a complex world?]
  3. Intermediate algebra is a re-mix of high school courses, and is not ‘college education’.
  4. Intermediate algebra is used as preparation for pre-calculus; using it for general education places conflicting purposes which are almost impossible to reconcile.

We have entire states which have codified the intermediate algebra as general education ‘lie’.  There were good reasons why this was done (sometimes decades ago … sometimes recently).  Is it really our professional judgment as mathematicians that intermediate algebra is a good general education course?  I doubt that very much; the rationale for doing so is almost always rooted in practicality — the system determines that ‘anything higher’ is not realistic.

Of course, that connects to the ‘pathways movement’.  The initial uses of our New Life Project were for the purpose of getting students in to a statistics or quantitative reasoning course, where these courses were alternatives in the general education requirements.  In practice, these pathways were often marketed as “not algebra” which continues to bother me.

Algebra, even symbolic algebra, can be very useful in navigating a complex world.

If we see this statement as having a basic truth, then our general education requirements should reflect that judgment.  Yes, understanding basic statistics will help students navigate a complex world; of course!  However, so does algebra (and trigonometry & geometry).  The word “general” means “not specialized” … how can we justify a math course in one domain as being a ‘good general education course’?

Statistics is necessary, but not sufficient, for general education in college.

All of these ideas then connect to ‘guided pathways’, where the concept is to align the mathematics courses with the student’s program.  This reflects a confusion between general education and program courses; general education is deliberately greater in scope than program courses.  To the extent that we allow or support our colleges using specialized math courses for general education requirements … we contribute to the failure of general education.

In my view, the way to implement general education mathematics in a way that really works is to use a strong quantitative reasoning (QR) design.  My college’s QR course (Math119) is designed this way, with an emphasis on fundamental ideas at a college level:

  • Proportional reasoning in a variety of settings (including geometry)
  • Rate of change (constant and proportional)
  • Statistics
  • Algebraic functions and basic modeling

If a college does not have a strong QR course, meeting the general education vision means requiring two or more college mathematics courses (statistics AND college algebra with modeling, for example).  Students in STEM and STEM-related programs will generally have multiple math courses, but … for everybody else … the multiple math courses for general education will not work.  For one thing, people accept that written and/or oral communication needs two courses in general education … sometimes in science as well; for non-mathematicians, they often see one math course as their ‘compromise’.

We’ve got to stop using high school courses taught in college as a general education option.  We’ve got to advocate for the value of algebra within general education.

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Why Does Co-Requisite Remediation “Work”?

Our academic leaders and policy makers continue to get strongly worded messages about the great results using co-requisite remediation.  Led by Complete College America (CCA), the originators of such messages suggest that this method avoids the failures of developmental mathematics.   [For example, see] Those of us in the field need to understand why intelligent people with the best of intentions continue to suggest this uni-directional ‘fix’ for a complex problem.  #CCA #CorequisiteRemediation

I want to focus on the educational component of the situation — not the political or fiscal.  In particular, I want to explore why the co-requisite remediation results have been so encouraging to these influencers.

One of the steps in my process was a nice conversation with Myra Snell.  I’ve known Myra for a while now, and she was involved with the New Life Project as well as the Carnegie Foundation’s Statway work.   What I got from this conversation is that Myra believes that there is a structural cause for the increased ‘throughput’ in the co-requisite models.  “Throughput” refers to the rate at which students complete their college math requirement.  Considerable data exists on the throughput using a traditional developmental math model (pre-algebra, beginning algebra, then intermediate algebra); these rates usually are from 7% to 15% for the larger studies.  In each of the co-requisite systems, the throughput is usually about 60%.  Since the curriculum varies across these implementations, Myra’s conclusion is that the cause is structural … the structures of co-requisite remediation.

The conclusion is logical, although it is difficult to determine if it is reasonable.  Scientific research in education is very rare, and the data used for the remediation results is very simplistic.  However, there can be no question that the target of increased throughput is an appropriate and good target.  In order for me to conclude that the structure is the cause for the increased results, I need to see patterns in the data suggesting that ‘how well’ a method is done relates to the level of results … well done methods should connect to the best results, less well done methods connect with lower results.  A condition of “all results are equal” does not seem reasonable to me.

Given that different approaches to co-requisite remediation, done to varying degrees of quality, produce similar results indicates some different conclusions to me.

  • Introductory statistics might have a very small set of prerequisite skills, perhaps so small a set as to result in ‘no remediation’ being almost equal to co-requisite remediation.
  • Some liberal arts math courses might have properties similar to intro statistics with respect to prerequisite skills.
  • Some co-requisite remediation models involve increased time-on-task in class for the content of the college course; that increased class time might be the salient variable.
  • The prerequisites for college math are likely to have been inappropriate, especially for statistics and liberal arts math/quantitative reasoning.
  • Assessments used for placement are more likely to give false ‘remediation’ signals than they are false ‘college level’ signals.

Three of these points relate to prerequisite issues for the college math courses used in co-requisite remediation.  Briefly stated, I think the co-requisite results are strong indictments of how we have set prerequisites … far too often, a higher-than-necessary prerequisite has been used for inappropriate purposes (such as course transfer or state policy).  In the New Life model, we list one course prior to statistics or quantitative reasoning.  I think it is reasonable to achieve similar results with the MLCS model; if 60% of incoming students place directly in the college course … and 40% into MLCS, the predicted throughput is between 55% and 60%.  [This assumes a 70% pass rate in both courses, which is reasonable in my view.]  That throughput with a prerequisite course compares favorably to the co-requisite results.

The other point in my list (time-on-task) is a structural issue that would make sense:  If we add class time where help is available for the college math course, more students would be able to complete the course.  The states using co-requisite remediation have provided funds to support this extra class time; will they be willing to continue this investment in the long term?  That issue is not a matter of science, but of politics (both state and institution); my view of the history of our work is that extra class time is usually an unstable condition.

Overall, I think the ‘success’ seen with corequisite remediation is due to the very small sets of prerequisite skills present for the courses involved along with the benefits of additional time-on-task.   I  do not think we will see quite the same levels of results for the methods over time; a slide into the 50% to 55% throughput rate seems likely, as the systems become the new normal.

It is my view that we can achieve a stable system with comparable results (throughput) by using Math Literacy as the prerequisite course … without having to fail 40% of the students as is seen in the corequisite systems.

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