What’s Wrong with That? Mainstreaming, Co-requisite Remediation

Some of us perceive “co-requisite remediation” as a risk to mathematics education because the model is based on a perceived lack of benefits from stand-alone remedial courses.  I believe that we also have additional reasons to be concerned.

I’ve written previously on academic research on the actual benefits of stand-alone remedial courses, including http://www.devmathrevival.net/?p=2541.  This does not mean that all developmental math courses provide benefits for all students; the data does mean that passing developmental math courses provides benefits in that later performance is greater than would be predicted for the abilities of the student at the onset.

The people and groups advocating co-requisite remediation (aka ‘mainstreaming’) do not use academic research to justify the approach.  Almost all data shared publicly in their efforts is demographic in nature and framed in a way that can only support what they want us to see, just like a graph with a scale chosen so that the results are skewed in the chosen direction.  I want to ignore this dishonesty issue, and move on to matters of substance.

Issue Number 1:  No Problem Being Solved
The advocates start with statements such as the following [TBR is Tennessee Board of Regents]:

Prior to 2014, more than 60 percent of TBR’s students system-wide began college needing remediation in math, reading and/or writing. In response, faculty across the system paid significant attention over the last decade to improving the effectiveness of developmental education. Schools implemented and developed nationally acclaimed models around modularization, computer-aided instruction and personalized learning support rather than traditional developmental instruction.
Despite all of this effort, while more students were completing their developmental work, credit-bearing classes were another matter. Overall, only 12.3 percent of the students who began in developmental instruction completed a credit-bearing mathematics class within an academic year, and 30.9 percent completed a credit-bearing writing class. Something had to change.

[See https://higheredtoday.org/2015/10/21/reimagining-remediation-in-tennessee/]

The implication is that the 12.3% rate is the problem being addressed.  This rate is the result of several factors: number of developmental math courses for each student; quality of those courses; quality of the faculty; institutional support for dev math; appropriateness of the math prerequisite of the college math course; quality of the college math course; advising about college math; quality of the college math faculty; institutional support for the college math course, etc.  The solution blames the ‘problem’ on the first set as a single factor, called ‘developmental math’.  As we know, an ill-defined ‘problem’ will not lead to scientific progress … progress will be luck and local coincidences.

Issue Number 2:  Ignoring Student Differences
By placing the blame on an ill-defined ‘developmental mathematics’, the advocates place all students in the same treatment.  Developmental mathematics courses can range from arithmetic to intermediate algebra; in our grade-level fixation, this corresponds to 4 to 6 different grade levels … can one treatment provide success for all of these students?

I’ve previously published this chart, which provides a more scientific method of matching the new treatment to students.

Matching students to remediation model






Issue Number 3:  Ignoring Course Issues at the College Level
What is an appropriate prerequisite to intro statistics?  How about liberal arts math?  A quantitative reasoning course?  College algebra?  The settings for most data cited by the advocates involve the same prerequisite for all of those — intermediate algebra.   We in AMATYC know that intermediate algebra is not an appropriate prerequisite for non-STEM math courses.

The advocates waste institutional and state resources by providing extra course support for courses which had inappropriate prerequisites … most of the improved throughput could have been achieved by simply correcting the faulty prerequisite on the non-STEM math courses.  However, the advocates don’t mind wasting these resources:  because many students would have passed the college math course WITHOUT support, their “results” are guaranteed to be better.

Issue Number 4:  Ignoring Course Issues at the Developmental Level
The advocates never seem to have raised the basic question:

What pre-college mathematics abilities can be justified as necessary and sufficient for success in various college math courses?

I have written repeatedly about the mis-match between traditional remedial math courses and the needs of college math courses (STEM and non-STEM).  Recall that the advocates treat ‘developmental math’ as a single concept and conclude that it does not help students.  Apparently, the advocates see no benefit in looking at fixing the basic problem … they would rather play the snake-oil-salesman role for co-requisite remediation.  There is no scientific method in their advocacy, so they will end up solving the wrong problem as well as creating some new problems.

If the advocates of co-requisite were really interested in solving the real problems, the advocates would also support basic reform in developmental mathematics such as Mathematical Literacy & Algebraic Literacy and similar efforts.  However, the advocates are generally just as dismissive of these professional efforts as they are the traditional courses.  If the advocates took a little time to investigate, they would discover that the reform courses generally use just-in-time remediation to minimize the number of pre-college math courses for every student.   I’ve never seen or heard an advocate voluntarily mention AMATYC New Life, Carnegie Pathways, or Dana Center New Mathways.

Issue Number 5:  Jeopardizing the STEM Path
Co-requisite remediation is almost always implemented only for non-STEM paths.  In some cases, a student who does not qualify for the first college-level STEM math course (pre-calculus, for example) is tracked OUT of the STEM programs.  This has led some people to comment that the recent movements are relegating community colleges to the trade-school and vocational roles, since relatively few students arrive ready for STEM math courses.

This relates to issue #2 (equating all students) … students arrive with gaps in abilities for a variety of reasons.  One of my students this semester is an immigrant from Cuba, who placed in to beginning algebra … with a goal of being a medical doctor.  I’ve no doubt that he will achieve his goal, and he is happy with the opportunity he’s had in our developmental math courses.  However, in the world envisioned by the advocates … this student would be told to select a different major.

Issue Number 6:  Ignoring Any Data that Does Not Support the Cause
In the scientific method, we make a hypotheses … we test it, and then we look for the results when others try ideas related to it (same, related or different).  The advocates never cite data that is not flattering to their cause.  I can’t cite much data like that either — because almost all of the data being collected is done at a low-level of sophistication and it therefore not published anywhere else.

Are you aware of any treatment for humans that ALWAYS works for any sample and any population?  That is what the advocates say: Co-requisite remediation is always better.  Do we think that it is reasonable for a model to always work, even when not implemented well?  We should be seeing some failure stories; analyzing failures teaches more than successes.  By only publicizing success stories, the advocates doom their own cause; they are more interested in selling their particular solution than they are in helping create long-term progress for our students.

I’m reminded of an interesting article by John Ioanidis  called “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False  http://robotics.cs.tamu.edu/RSS2015NegativeResults/pmed.0020124.pdf  .  Note that the advocates present data that is not research, so they have even more reason to be ‘false’ positives.


The advocates of co-requisite remediation (mainstreaming) include some within academia.  With the presence of so many issues and defects in their work, I am left with major concerns about the health of higher education:  How can we help our students achieve a quality education and upward mobility when such an ill-founded movement can control so much of our enterprise?

It’s time to push back; a prolonged conversation between doubters and advocates so that we can find real solutions to problems based on a deep analysis of root causes and other contributing factors.  A ‘quick fix’ is seldom either.  We need better solutions, starting with better math courses.

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