California community colleges are hemorrhaging students at the front door. More than 70 percent of students who take an initial academic assessment are deemed “unprepared for college” and required to take as many as four semesters of remedial math and/or English courses.
Sadly, most of these students drop out without ever transferring to a four-year college or earning a two-year degree. This is a terrible waste of state resources and, more importantly, a tragic outcome for students desiring a college education and better employment opportunities.
Why such a high failure rate? Too often remedial courses are a repeat of high school classes involving tedious drills and low standards that already haven’t worked for students. Poorly prepared students become bored and discouraged, especially since they earn no college credits during their multiple semesters of remedial work.
In response to this dysfunctional situation, a number of community college faculty members created the California Acceleration Project to help underprepared entering students. Project faculty are developing innovative courses that look very different from a typical remedial English or math class. Instead of filling in the blanks in grammar workbooks, students are writing essays about the ethics of controversial psychology experiments. Instead of word problems about two trains traveling toward each other, they’re analyzing real-life data from pregnant women to identify factors correlated with low birth weights.
The key principles underlying their strategy are a curriculum redesign that emphasizes challenging, relevant materials and that allows students to complete college-level English and math requirements within one academic year; teaching strategies that emphasize small group work, activities that develop positive student attitudes, and targeted support for foundational math and English skills; and professional development for all participating faculty.
And the results? A just-completed study by the research and planning group for California Community Colleges shows remarkable success among participating campuses: Students’ odds of completing college-level English more than doubled and their odds of completing college math were more than four times higher than regular remedial students.
The findings are not that surprising. They reinforce studies at Columbia University’s Community College Research Center that found significantly better outcomes for students in similar accelerated English programs in Maryland, Colorado and California. Columbia’s research in California zeroed in on Chabot College in the East Bay, which has offered accelerated English for close to two decades. Investigators could follow student progress over an extended period of time, and the results at Chabot were as impressive as those documented in the recent California community colleges study.
In addition, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching has developed an accelerated math program called Statway that is similar to the California Acceleration Project and that has also yielded dramatic gains in student completion. American River College in Sacramento has been a California leader in the Statway program, and participating students and faculty are very enthusiastic.
In light of all these promising results, why isn’t accelerated remediation offered at all California’s community colleges? Why are most students still stuck in the traditional system and dropping out at high rates? There are some modest retooling costs that are necessary, but the major problem seems to be inertia and a failure of imagination.
Another factor may be in play. Two years ago the Legislature adopted and Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law with great fanfare the California Community College Student Success Act, which includes important initiatives such as campus-by-campus student progress scorecards, a more consistent assessment system, and new funding structures for services such as student orientation and counseling. They are all important reforms, yet curricular redesign and a focus on effective teaching strategies were absent.
I believe until the heart of the education process is addressed (what is taught and how it is taught), our community college reforms will fall short, and large numbers of students who deserve a chance to work hard and earn a degree will continue to be casualties of a dysfunctional system.
The state needs to provide resources for colleges to retool remedial curricula, set meaningful goals for increasing completion among underprepared students, and hold campuses accountable for meeting those goals. We need to move beyond pilot projects and ensure that effective, accelerated remediation is available to all students, not just the lucky few. We owe it to aspiring students as well as Californians who deserve a better use of their tax dollars.
Gary K. Hart, a former California state senator, is a board member of the Campaign for College Opportunity.