Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Ostrich Syndrome: An End to Developmental Education

Connecticut is proposing legislation to end remediation education as it currently is: a separate entity.  Instead, the idea is to place developmental students into college level classes and provide support there.

I refer to approaches like this as the ostrich syndrome.  Basically, ignore it and it will go away.  My hypothesis is that this approach will not be successful and could actually create new issues that are more serious than the current ones.  Having taught developmental and college level math for years, my concerns come from both sides of the fence.

First, this idea is against all the research done in the past 30 years on mandatory testing and placement.  Years ago, most colleges allowed to students to take whatever courses they liked, regardless of a placement test score.  And the outcome?  Students failed.  Research and practice has shown consistently students will not be successful in courses above their placement.

This is not to say the placement measurements are perfect.  They're not by a long shot.  Could some students who place into intermediate algebra try a liberal arts math class and be successful? Absolutely.  And that's why so many of us are working are new pathways to college level courses.  We want to shorten the path but we want to do so appropriately.

There are many remediation programs that can help students brush up and improve placement, potentially out of developmental math.  And data shows those students who place up can often pass those classes.  But this isn't all of the students we teach in developmental math.

The issue are those huge numbers of students who place into beginning algebra and below, and those numbers are significant.  Those students lack so much more than a few algebra skills.  They often have cognitive issues, learning disabilities, and socioeconomic issues.  They are not ready for math specifically and college in general.  So the legislature suggests placing them up but just providing additional support there.

Can that work for some?  Yes, but it's that same body of students I wrote about earlier who could probably brush up and place up.  They aren't that far from college level and the leaps to be made are fewer.  That's why some initiatives include embedding students into college level and giving them help.  I won't be surprised that those ideas can work for some.  But for the majority who place low?  I'm not so optimistic.

The premise behind the proposal of embedding all remedial level students in college level courses is that anyone can learn anything given enough time and support.  Those who teach math and science know that is almost always not true.  I know that I could spend the next 5 years working on astrophysics and it's not necessarily going to make sense for me.  And one semester with intense help in addition to all my other obligations?  Even less likely to happen.  And for some students who are at the level of "what is 3 times 3?", the idea of college statistics or college algebra is like astrophysics to them.  It's intangible.  Pretending they really are college level and just need "some help" is unrealistic and I think, detrimental to this student.  They will feel more frustrated and lose more faith in their future in college. 

Yes, we absolutely need to get developmental education in better shape.  Less money, less time, and better outcomes are the goals.  There are many schools like mine that are getting their developmental programs into tremendous shape.  The pass rates are strong and the outcomes in college level course work is too.  Plus, we now have new accelerated options, like MLCS, that update the curriculum and tailor it to the non-STEM bound population that is not served by the traditional curriculum.

The problems with the current developmental math curriculum is that is fast-paced, tedious, skill-based, a repeat of high school, not engaging to most students, and outdated.  Plus, the student is not getting the "college knowledge" skills they also need to be successful.  Learning how to add rational expressions does not give students what they need in statistics or general education math.  And it takes a really long time to learn how to add rational expressions well.  Is that worth it?

This is what I believe we need to make developmental math work:

1.  Provide course options for all levels and goals (fast, slow, self-paced, online, face-to-face, hybrid, STEM-bound, non-STEM bound). 

This is a huge population of students who don't all learn the same way or at the same speed.  They have differing goals.  Give them options that make sense for their needs.  Then they will learn and pass, therefore, getting out of the program faster while getting the skills and knowledge they need.  We have seen this work in practice at my college.  It's also a trend taking hold at other colleges throughout the country.  In essence, one size does not fit all.  Let's stop pretending it does.

2.  Provide alternatives around traditional placement.

There are some students who just need a brush-up and who will place up and out of developmental math.  Institute sound policies with flexibility.  Data supports that students can place out of developmental math and be successful. 

3.  Improve the courses we offer.

Content needs to be relevant, engaging, and yet still challenging.  It's hard enough to be in a class for which you're not getting college credit.  If it also seems to have no bearing on your life or major, your motivation to learn can drop quickly. 

Instruction needs balance between active parts and direct instruction.  This student is not the same student from 1970.  Our world has changed and students expect more activity.  Their lives revolve around electronic screens with constant activity.  Give them active learning opportunities and they will learn.

The development of content needs to move away from linear approaches that often leave students with a list of skills instead of mathematical understanding.  We need to spiral and connect topics, and bring in new ones that we don't currently cover.  Bring in statistics, talk about data, expose students to modeling.  Connect all of those topics to algebra, geometry, and numbers. 

Keep expectations high.  Put students into courses with college level expectations with some material they haven't seen before so that students are pushed and prepared.  Developmental math is more than plugging holes of missed knowledge.  It's about building a strong base from which to build upon in college level course work.  That base not need be high school all over again.  We need to move away from mimicking and repetition since jobs that require those skills are being eliminated by the day.  Instead, create courses that force students to think and work in new ways (projects, open-ended problems, modeling).  Flexibility, adaptability, agility, and critical thinking are skills that will serve them well in all their college courses, not just math. 

Support these courses by providing strong support structures.  Integrate student success in new ways and talk about traits needed to attain mathematical success.  Give the teacher time to remediate as needed individually during class.  Incorporate online systems for skill development and mastery beyond the time that is provided in class.  Give the student the help they need, but in a course designed to push them up to college level.

4.  Train faculty to work with the developmental student.

Provide workshops, mentoring, ongoing support and collaboration for the faculty teaching this population.  The student has unique needs, necessitating faculty prepared to deal with them.  They are not college level students yet.  We can get them there but it takes knowledge of their challenges to get there.

I believe MLCS is a good first step in the direction of making significant change to developmental math in ways that embody the four points made above.  It's not the magic bullet, but a sign of progress and change.  We need more innovative options and practices, more pilots, more testing, and continual refinement.  I know from practice that this approach can get a program to a successful level and keep it there.

But throwing the baby out with the bath water doesn't solve the problem.  It simply creates new ones elsewhere.  Those who teach college level courses will be overwhelmed with students who are simply not ready to sit in those courses.  Those students tend to stop attending or make their frustrations loudly known during class, negatively affecting other students.  I've taught classes where the placement was wrong.  As a teacher, one of your options is to forge ahead and leave many behind.  Frustration, irritation, and complaints ensue from students who are not prepared.  The other option is to work with the student at their current level.  Before long, the teacher is not teaching the content of the course, but the course below it:  developmental math.  The complaints will also occur with this approach, but in this case from the student who signed up a college level course and is not getting one.  Ultimately, this approach can water down our college level courses so that they mean little.  They become the developmental courses students were getting before.

I wish developmental education was not necessary, but the fact remains that it is.  Ignoring it is like noticing giant cracks and crumbing rock in your house foundation and choosing to just build a bigger house on top of it so the cracks aren't seen.  Eventually, the cracks make themselves known, but the problem is even greater than originally.  That's not an outcome I want to see.

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