How to improve remedial education

Beth Gulley, an associate English professor who teaches remedial writing at the 22,000-student Johnson County Community College in northeast Kansas, acknowledges the remediation statistics are “pretty dismal.” But she noted it sometimes takes students longer to graduate than the span of time the statistics track.

“I think there is lots of hope,” she said.

Take her assistant Brandon True, who dropped a remedial math class twice before completing it and College Algebra. Now 23, he is taking a calculus-heavy class for aspiring video game designers and preparing to transfer to a four-year institution.

“I was terrified,” he recalled of his earlier math struggles. Because of those initial struggles problems, he feels like he truly understands the remedial writing students he helps. “I think they choke. It’s scary.”

Research shows placement exams routinely misplace students in remedial courses, and colleges would do so far less often if they also examined high school transcripts, said Davis Jenkins, a senior researcher at the Community College Research Center at Teachers College at Columbia University in New York.

True knows the limitations of placement exams firsthand. He went from being identified as needing remedial writing help the first time he took the test to qualifying for the gifted writing program the second time.

The classes are being rethought as well. Jenkins recommends doing away with the one-size-fits-all college algebra requirement and having math classes tailored to a few broad areas of study. For instance, those studying history, law, or psychology might take a math class focused more on statistics.

“It just kills their desire for learning,” Jenkins said, noting that some students are being placed in classes that make them basically redo middle school pre-algebra. “There really is a stigma, so it is clear that we need to rethink it.”

The Complete College America report also says research shows half or more of remedial students would be better off being placed in required classes and having the schools building in extra help, such as tutors or more frequent class meetings.

The report said institutions that have used those approaches have seen their unprepared students succeed at the same rates as their college-ready peers.

Legislation passed earlier this month in Connecticut allows underprepared students to take full-credit, college-level courses with built-in supports, such as extended instruction, extra tutoring, and mandatory labs.

“We’re failing these students if we don’t change,” said Democratic state Rep. Roberta Willis, co-chairwoman of Joint Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee in Connecticut.

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