On Campus

Improving the performance of poor students

Remedial education is about the least glamorous thing a university can do. But it’s also among the most important

In the Chronicle of Higher Education this week, Kevin Carey of think tank Education Sector takes a look at a remedial education program at the not-exactly-celebrated Cleveland State Community College. Cleveland State is not anyone’s idea of a prestigious institution of higher learning, and remedial education is about the least glamorous thing a university or college can do. Professors and administrators dream of landing NIH grants, partnering with NASA and mentoring Rhodes Scholars — not teaching first year calculus to Johnny the D student. But as Carey points out, more and more of America’s students are the kind of students who end up at places like Cleveland State: people who want and need higher education, but who may also need a lot of extra help. (Ditto for Canada’s university and colleges). And unless universities and colleges devote their attention to figuring out how to educate these people, instead of just processing them, they won’t graduate with knowledge and skills. Or they won’t graduate at all. If that happens, all of the extra spending on higher education, all the extra opportunity costs of people staying school instead of joining the work force, will be so much buck for so little bang.

There’s a big push on in both Canada and the US to send more young people to higher education. But all other things being equal, the higher the percentage of high school graduates (or even non graduates) that we send to university/college, the higher the percentage of students in university/college with academic challenges. Given that the percentage of the population enrolled in post secondary education is higher than ever (and in Canada, higher than anywhere on Earth), its not hard to see why that the problems Carey describes are widespread.

Cleveland State Community College is a typical American institution of higher education. Meaning: (a) It’s publicly supported and struggles to raise money; (b) admissions standards aren’t stringent; (c) most students come from local high schools; and (d) many students don’t arrive prepared for college-level work. It’s easy to forget, given how much sway elite institutions and their graduates hold, that the Cleveland States of this country educate most of our college students.

Every year nearly two-thirds of Cleveland State freshman are forced to take at least one remedial course. (Again, that is not unusual. A 2004 study by the U.S. Department of Education found that more than 40 percent of all students — and over 60 percent of community-college students — needed remediation.) Until recently nearly 50 percent of the remedial students at Cleveland State were failing those courses, greatly increasing their odds of dropping out.

As John Squires, the chair of Cleveland State’s math department put it, “if half your students fail, you can’t call that a success.” So he decided to try something different. I’ll let you read the article to find out exactly what Squires did, but it worked:

The results were impressive. The percentage of remedial students at Cleveland State earning at least a C in the three math courses jumped from 55 percent to 72 percent. Of course, pass rates are always subject to changing academic standards. But when the college compared students’ test results in basic math with common items on final exams from the previous five years, the proportion answered correctly increased from 73 to 86 percent.

And when remedial students went on to college-level math, their success continued — completion rates increased from 71 to 81 percent, even as rates for other students stayed flat. For the first time, students coming from the remedial sequence earned higher grades than their peers did. Enrollment in college-level math at Cleveland State is up 42 percent this spring. Now the English department is looking to do the same.

Oh, and Cleveland State’s success approach to remediation, according to Carey, is not based on a windfall of new money. In fact, it’s cheaper than the previous, failed approach. But Carey nevertheless doubts that colleges and universities will quickly move to copy the success approach due to what he calls the inherent conservatism of higher ed, and a kind of NIMBYism at both the high school and university level.

Remedial education is a particular challenge. The K-12 system considers every student who graduates and then enrolls in college as a success — anything that happens afterward is someone else’s problem. The higher-education system considers every remedial student as a product of K-12 failure, and therefore someone else’s problem. The only “someone else” left is the student, dogged by the shadows of two systems that refuse to take responsibility for the educational killing zone that lies between them.

Final thought: this all comes around to one of the arguments made by one of last year’s best books on education: Amar Bhide’s “The Venturesome Economy.” Bhide, a business professor at Columbia, decries the excessive focus on the highest-end of post-secondary education, namely PhDs and basic research. The challenge and opportunity, in Bhide’s well-argued and carefully documented view, is not to produce even more PhD’s and even more high level research. Research is a good, but, as he puts it, because a certain amount of something is good more of it is not necessarily better — particularly if the cost of producing more of this good means that we produce less of some other good. Instead, we should be worrying about what he calls the mid-level and ground-level impediments to our society and economy making full use of those high level innovations. What are those impediments? They’re educational: A society where people are more literate, more numerate, understand basic science, etc, is more “venturesome”, more able to innovate and more prosperous. And we clearly have some huge gaps in our society on that scare.

That’s the promise of the remedial math program at Cleveland State Community College.

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