Remaking remedial education

Chabot presses accelerator on basic skills

Dr. Katie Hern’s college students were discussing Bruce Alexander’s morphine-addicted rodents in his Rat Park experiment on a recent Wednesday morning. “It usually just comes down to the dopamine depletion hypothesis,” said student Michael Fleming, leaning forward in his chair as he made his point. Across the room in the back corner, Alex Gomez was more conflicted. “This is hard for me,” admitted Gomez. “If anything, I think I’d be on Alexander’s side; people take drugs to cope with situations that they’re in, but I can’t stand fully on his side because I think that cigarettes are addicting.” What a cool psychology class discussion; except this is an English class at Chabot, a community college in Hayward – a remedial English class.

Perhaps it doesn’t need to be said, but this is not your typical remedial education class. If all goes well, most of these students will enroll in college-level English after just one semester of what’s generally referred to as basic skills or developmental education courses. At nearly all of the other 111 community colleges in California, as we reported yesterday, these students could expect to spend at least two semesters – or one academic year – in a course that doesn’t count toward an Associate’s degree or transfer credits to Cal State University or the University of California.

Chabot is on the leading edge of a movement to improve the odds of college success for students whose scores on community college placement exams put them in developmental education where their chances of succeeding aren’t good. In a 2008 report, Thomas Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University, wrote that “only 44 percent of those referred to developmental reading completed their full sequence, and only 31 percent of those referred to developmental math completed theirs.”

Dr. Katie Hern's accelerated basic skills English class at Chabot.  Click for slideshow.

Dr. Katie Hern's accelerated basic skills English class at Chabot. Click for slideshow.

Long running with lots of data

Chabot began revamping its basic skills English curriculum in 1994 when faculty realized that their separate remedial writing and reading classes weren’t working out so well for students.  Initially, they combined the two subjects and maintained all but a few two-semester courses.  Hern arrived in 2002, and soon after she began extensive reviews of the data, which included thousands of students by that time, and found that students in the accelerated, one-semester courses were nearly twice as likely to complete college-level English than those enrolled in the longer basic skills sequences – 45% compared with 23%.

Chabot College students in accelerated basic skills English courses are nearly twice as likely to complete college-level English.  Click for powerpoint. (Source:  3csn)

Chabot College students in accelerated basic skills English courses are nearly twice as likely to complete college-level English. Click for powerpoint. (Source: 3csn)

Those figures are just averages.  Do a little disaggregation, and most of the successes come from students at the top levels of remediation.  Nationwide, CCRC’s Bailey reports that few students “who start three levels below college-level ever complete their full sequence within three years — just 16 percent for math and 22 percent for reading.”  And many more students who are referred to developmental courses don’t even bother enrolling.

“Every time you add a level you add additional exit points,” Hern told several dozen community college math and English teachers gathered at Fresno City College on a Saturday in mid-March.  She and math professor Myra Snell, who developed an accelerated course at Los Medanos Community College in Pittsburg, traveled across the state this past year holding workshops to present their data and to help other teachers strategize ways to convince their colleagues to support pilot acceleration programs.

Making the pitch

During one role-playing session, a group of math teachers grappled with concerns over tracking students and the amount of algebra most people really need to know.  Acceleration means that some lessons are eliminated from the curriculum.  Snell told the teachers that she’s not worried about that.  “If math folks are making the argument that they need all this content in algebra to be a well-rounded human being, I really want to say to them, ‘Okay, let’s go through that curriculum and think about factoring trinomials,’ ” argued Snell.  “Do we hold that piece of content so dear that we’re willing to let 90% of our students never achieve a college degree because of it?”

As it turned out, many of those skeptics were in the room.  “I saw it as more added work for us and I just felt at the same time that somehow the students were going to be cheated,” said Lilia Becerra, a basic skills English teacher at San Joaquin Delta College.  By the end of the day, Becerra was, if not a convert, definitely a novitiate.  “We have sequences in our English department and the numbers are not very convincing, so we know we’re doing something wrong,” said Becerra, “So I’m more open, I am willing to try something else.”

More research is needed

While there is widespread belief that something else needs to be done, there’s hardly agreement on what that should be.  Even Chabot’s strong success rate has some community college leaders lukewarm over acceleration, and it was the subject of two competing resolutions at last month’s spring plenary of the California Community College Academic Senate.  David Morse, who’s on the English faculty at Long Beach City College and is a member of the Academic Senate’s Executive Committee, sponsored the measure urging restraint.  “I have less concern over acceleration than with people accelerating the adoption of such programs,” said Morse with a laugh. Then in a more serious tone, he said there needs to be more qualitative research on acceleration and other models before colleges make sweeping changes.  “That’s all the resolution is doing; it’s not saying don’t, it’s saying think about this carefully before you dive in and really consider the various factors.”  The academic senate approved Morse’s resolution, with an amendment calling for colleges to start pilot programs.

Even academic researchers agree that more rigorous evaluations are needed.  “It’s remarkable how popular acceleration is becoming in the community college field and how little research there is,” said Mary Visher, a senior analyst with MDRC, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education and social policy research organization.  Visher said MDRC is preparing to launch a randomized, longitudinal study of acceleration programs.  Still, she’s a big fan of Katie Hern.  After watching a short video of Hern’s class, Visher was impressed.  “What I’m seeing here are examples of good teaching.  It’s about engaging students around topics that matter so they’re not going to sleep.  It’s about encouraging critical thinking and problem-solving skills.  It’s about lots and lots of interaction between the teacher and the students.”

Hern’s students agree.  Three visiting teachers from Gavilan College in Gilroy asked the students pointed questions about the class.  One young man captured the sentiment of his classmates – although not exactly their choice of words.  “When I first started this class, I was like oh crap it’s a bunch of psychological crap and s**t, and I was like really? These books? I want to read something funny, but then I started reading it, and this is actually really interesting.”  Now, he says, he doesn’t want to miss class.

The Gavilan group is sold.  They’re among 17 community college English and math departments participating in a six-month program, run by Hern and Myra Snell and set to begin this June, to start growing acceleration in California.

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  1. Great article, Kathryn. Obviously, a major part of the problem of unprepared freshman community college students starts earlier. I think policymakers in California should be taking a strong look at high-school/community college transition issues. Currently, high-schools are driven primarily by A-G requirements. It should be possible to continue to urge maximizing the number of students meeting those requirements while also emphasizing better preparation for community college. The standard should become “all students should graduate high-school at least qualified for a tech-prep sequence in a CC.”  Of course, the main piece of policy work which needs to be accomplished is to have K-12 and the community colleges specify the levels of language arts and math preparation (and other subjects)  necessary to be able to enter a tech-prep program and let high-schools use that goal in helping more students attain proper levels. This effort needs to be negotiated with the 4-yr colleges so that the goal of increasing A-G requirements doesn’t detract from concentrating on the performance of those not going to a 4 yr institution.

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  2. Colleges interested in implementing accelerated English and Math should check out the resources posted at the California Community Colleges’ Success Network (3CSN):

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  3. I agree very much with Bill Honig when he states that the problem of “unprepared freshman community college (or university) students starts earlier,” though I don’t believe that high schools are primarily driven by A-G requirements.  High schools, and schools in general, have become primarily driven by AYP and, in California, API scores from standardized tests and high school exit exams.  While these assessments MAY provide some useful data, the result of this almost exclusive focus on such tests has resulted in instruction that is the complete antithesis of what this article suggests as effective teaching.  In fact, as more and more schools fall into “program improvement status” in the era of NCLB (No Child Left Behind), we see students who have not reached proficiency being placed in remediation courses that limit their exposure to meaningful discussion and inquiry all in the name of improving their school’s status.  The difference between the colleges and K-12 educational institutions, when it comes to remediation, is that innovative educators such as Katie Hern can implement a program that engages students in powerful learning and be assessed by the students continuing in the college system, while K-12 educators and their schools have become solely judged by a test score that may or may not reflect what the students have learned and in no way measures their desire to continue learning.  The “number” that indicates a school’s success has frequently had a negative impacted how the A-G content is delivered  with emphases on test preparation and skills devoid of meaning.  And, as our students become less engaged requiring even more “remediation,” we find schools removing elective and exploratory offerings that engage students in the application of skills.  Even programs such as AVID, that promote critical reading, writing, and academic discussions, are being cut back as schools try to attain the magic number that ranks them as “successful,” all the while shooting themselves in their foot as students become less and less engaged.  So while I agree that we must specify the level of preparation needed to enter college, we must find a better way to assess those levels and give the abundance of innovative “Katie Herns” in all of our schools the ability to implement engaging programs.

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