The Case for Remediation

Today, I am at a state-wide conference on developmental education (“MDEC”), where two presenters have addressed the question “is remediation a failure?”.  As you likely know, much of the recent conversation about developmental mathematics is based on a conclusion that the existing system is a failure.  The ‘failure’ or ‘success’ conclusion depends primarily on who is asking — not on the actual data itself.

The “failure” conclusion is presented by a set of change agents (CCA, CCRC, JFF); if you don’t know those acronyms, it’s worth your time to learn them (Complete College America; Community College Research Center; Jobs For the Future).  These conclusions are almost always based on a specific standard:

Of the students placed into developmental mathematics, how many of them take and pass a college-level math course.

In other words, the ‘failure’ conclusion is based on reducing the process of developmental mathematics down to a narrow and binary variable.  One of today’s presenters pointed out that the ‘failure’ conclusion for developmental math is actually a initial-college-course issue — most initial college courses have high failure rates and reduced retention to the next level.

The ‘success’ conclusion is reached by some researchers who employ a more sophisticated analysis.  A particular example of this is Peter Bahr, who has published several studies.  One of these is “Revisiting the Efficacy of Postsecondary Remediation”, which you can see at

My findings indicate that, with just two systematic exceptions, skill-deficient students who attain college-level English and math skill experience the various academic outcomes at rates that are very similar to those of college-prepared students who attain college-level competency in English and math. Thus, the results of this study demonstrate that postsecondary remediation is highly efficacious with respect to ameliorating both moderate and severe skill deficiencies, and both single and dual skill deficiencies, for those skill-deficient students who proceed successfully through the remedial sequence.  [discussion section of article]

In other words, students who arrive at college needing developmental mathematics achieve similar academic outcomes in completion, compared to those who arrived college-ready.  There is, of course, the problem of getting students through a sequence of developmental courses … and the problems of antiquated content.  Fixing those problems would further improve the results of remediation.

One of the issues we discuss in statistics is “know the author” … who wrote the study, and what was their motivation?  The authors who conclude ‘failure’ (CCA, CCRC, JFF) are either direct change agents or designed to support change; in addition, these authors have seldom included any depth in their analysis of developmental mathematics.  Compare this to the Bahr article cited; Bahr is an academic (sociologist) looking for patterns in data relative to larger issues of theory (equity, access, etc); Bahr did extensive analysis of the curriculum in ‘developmental math’ within the study, prior to producing any conclusions.

Who are you going to believe?

Some of us live in places where our answer does not matter … for now, because other people in power roles have decided who they are going to believe.  We have to trust that the current storms of change will eventually subside and a more reasoned approach can be applied.

In mathematics, we have our own reasons for modernizing the curriculum; sometimes, we can make progress on this goal at the same time as the ‘directed reforms’.  Some of us may have to delay that work, until the current storm fades.

Our work is important; remediation has value.  Look for opportunities to make changes based on professional standards and decisions.

I’ll look for other research with sound designs to share.  If you are aware of any, let me know!


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