Do we have a vision of effective remediation … a model which minimizes the pre-college level work for students, in total, while providing an opportunity for all adults to be included in the process of completing credentials leading to better employment and quality of life? Based on some 39 years in developmental education, what would I suggest?
I have been thinking, as hard as I can, lately on the problems caused by policy makers looking for a simple solution. Often, the policy makers’ interest in remediation has been prompted by reports issued by groups like Complete College America (CCA); the CCA “Bridge to Nowhere” report is excellent use of rhetorical tools, but is not a good foundation for building policies in support of effective remediation. The simple solutions involved are usually crafted by groups that do not include people with expertise in developmental education. Somehow, the viewpoint that we present, as experts, is difficult to understand by non-experts; perhaps some policy makers are worried that experts will only want to preserve the current system, or that we will suggest that even more courses be provided in our field.
Effective remediation involves providing the appropriate learning opportunities for each learner so that the learner reaches college courses with adequate preparation. Traditionally, we establish remediation in discrete content areas (reading, writing, math), with an independent decision in each area based on a placement test. Some promising practices have evolved recently with efforts to link developmental content courses, and efforts to include learning skills. Especially within mathematics, considerable effort has been invested in creating a modularized approach; modularization is a topic of its own. However, two observations might help us:
- Each student is considered for 0 to 4 developmental courses in each of the 3 content areas, usually based on one placement test in each area.
- The content is the developmental courses is often severely constrained by the historical roots of the system; especially in mathematics (though still true in reading and writing), the focus is on mechanics and procedure, with less emphasis on reasoning and analysis.
For us to develop a vision of effective remediation, we need to understand the deeper problems with the existing system such as those suggested by these observations. In order to provide appropriate learning opportunities (whether courses, workshops, or other experiences), we need a more advanced conceptualization of remediation itself. We need to more beyond a simple binary choice independently made in discrete content areas based on one test in each.
I suggest that we consider the following framework:
- Students roughly within a standard error of placing in to college work in a content area be provided just-in-time remediation and register for the college course.
- Students over one standard error away are placed into one of two populations based on other measures (such as high school GPA). Some might be placed into the ‘just-in-time’ remediation group.
- The low-intensity developmental students are placed into a one-semester ‘get ready for college work’ course in one or more content areas.
- The high-intensity developmental students are provided a year of connected course work which blends reading, writing, math, and learning skills designed to address content and thinking needs.
The first two categories involve a significant portion of our developmental students, who have less intense needs; their remediation can be quicker than we often provide now. For those who ‘almost place’ into college work, the ‘discontinuity’ research on placement tests suggests that we might be able to avoid any developmental enrollments in that content area. The low-intensity developmental students are those who are not predicted to succeed in college but have limited needs; within mathematics, this group would include those who can review areas of algebra and quantitative reasoning in one course with minimal support outside of the class.
The high-intensity developmental group would include students with broad needs across multiple content areas. These are the students who now struggle to complete developmental courses. However, their educational needs are not limited to the content area skills; reasoning skills and study skills are a problem for many students in this group. I am envisioning a two-semester package of courses (three or four each semester) with intentional overlap of cognitive skills being addressed … the math course, the reading course, and the writing course would all address issues of inference and concise language use. This high-intensity group would also have a student-success type course to prepare them for the academic demands of the college course that lie outside of a content area.
Here is an image of this model:
A goal of this model is to make a better match between student needs and the remediation that they receive. Our traditional system is designed for the ‘low-intensity’ type of student, and I believe that these students are well served on average. The just-in-time remediation group is the source of our current problems from the policy makers; because these people exist in our current developmental program when the evidence raises questions about this practice, policy makers generalize the conclusion to all developmental students.
The biggest change, and our largest opportunity, comes from the high-intensity group of students. In our society, these are often called ‘low-skilled’ adults; they might be functionally literate (or perhaps not), and generally have few options in the economy. Our traditional developmental program tends to be either limited in helpfulness or a problem for these students. In a mathematics class, the high-intensity students have difficulty with both the mathematical ideas and the language factors in the work. We tend to expect some magical cognitive growth in these students, as if working on discrete content areas will generate spontaneous global changes in the brain; I have no doubt that this does, in fact, happen to some students … I have seen it. However, we do not create conditions for the larger cognitive changes.
Colleges might create a one-semester option for the less intense of the high-intensity group — those who can accomplish the goals with a one-semester package. Smaller colleges might have difficulty with the logistics of this, while larger colleges would probably benefit from having two categories of high-intensity students. Part of the rationale for the design for high-intensity need students is that preparation for them, is a more complex challenge. Some will have had special services in the K-12 schools, and some will have significant learning disabilities. This is the group most at risk; if community colleges are to serve all adults, then our remediation design needs to provide an appropriate pathway through to college work. The alternative is to have a significant group of adults who will always be economically and socially vulnerable. This high-intensity group are the ones that we need to educate policy makers about, so that they can understand the needs better — both the student needs, and our needs if we are to truly help them.
If you would like to do some reading on research related to this model, much of what I am thinking of resides in reports from the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Columbia (http://ccrc.tc.columbia.edu/). Two specific articles: placement tests in general (http://ccrc.tc.columbia.edu/Publication.asp?uid=1033) and skipping developmental based on discontinuity analysis (http://ccrc.tc.columbia.edu/Publication.asp?uid=1035). An article of interest by Tom Bailey and others on state policy appears at http://articles.courant.com/2012-05-18/news/hc-op-bailey-college-remedial-education-bill-too-r-20120518_1_remedial-classes-community-college-research-center-remedial-education.
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