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Law Hamstrings College Remedial Programs


May 18, 2012

Connecticut's General Assembly approved historic legislation this month that would essentially end remedial education as it currently exists in the state's community colleges.

Pending Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's signature, the bill would prohibit Connecticut community colleges from providing more than one semester of remedial instruction to students, except in the form of additional support embedded in college-level classes, and require them to use more comprehensive measures to determine whether students need remediation.

Overall, we applaud Connecticut's efforts to rethink its system of remedial education. Nationally, as many as 60 percent of community college students take at least one remedial class, and only around a quarter of these go on to complete a credential. It is essential that states focus on developing policies that will help colleges achieve better results. Given the paucity of knowledge about what works for remedial students, however, Connecticut's bill is too inflexible.

State legislators have cited as evidence recent findings from the Community College Research Center that as many as one-third of community college students placed into remedial classes could have passed introductory college classes with a B or better. Our studies do suggest that many community college students are unnecessarily detained in remedial classes, and that using indicators such as high school grade-point average, along with standardized test scores, could result in more accurate placement of entering students, and help them progress toward a degree.

There is also growing evidence that remedial classes in their present form particularly those in math do not clearly benefit and may actually hurt students. Some studies indicate that accelerated approaches to remediation, such as shortening sequences, or letting remedial students take college-level classes with additional supports, can improve student outcomes.

These findings suggest that remedial students with higher-level skills may benefit from the bill's requirement to let them enroll in college-level classes. It is far from clear, however, that one semester of instruction is adequate to prepare students with very weak skills for a college level course, even with additional supports. We suspect that resistance to the bill, expressed most vociferously by Connecticut's community college faculty, stems largely from concern about these students.

Indeed, little is known about how to help the most under-prepared students. It is only recently, as colleges experiment with and evaluate new models, that more effective approaches are emerging. For instance, embedding basic skills instruction in highly structured, career-technical certificate programs has had promising results for students in Washington state. Intensive full-time remediation that lasts more than one semester is another model that has shown some positive outcomes for students with very weak skills.

A more effective state policy would encourage further exploration of promising approaches by giving colleges and faculty the flexibility to try out new ways of delivering basic skills instruction. This would require accountability measures, designed by the faculty, to ensure students had the skills necessary for college-level classes.

Such a policy would give practitioners a central role in developing and implementing new models of remedial instruction, which is central to enacting meaningful change. In a recent study, the Community College Research Center identified several tensions that often stymie community college reform efforts. One of these tensions stems from the perception held by faculty that the push to improve college completion rates often driven by policies at the state and federal level is at odds with their desire to maintain academic standards in the classroom.

While faculty are generally passionate about student success, they have legitimate trepidation about their ability to handle the variety of skill levels that will inevitably result from students moving more rapidly into their college-level courses. To overcome these concerns, faculty need to be convinced that they can teach effectively in more heterogeneous classes and be given some help in learning how to do so.

A policy that gives community college practitioners flexibility and support to try out new models and that includes accountability measures to accelerate real change would make them far more likely to embrace reforms on an institutional and state level. Conversely, without support from these constituents, Connecticut legislators will be waging a battle without the soldiers to fight it.

Thomas Bailey is a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, and director of the Community College Research Center. Katherine Hughes is assistant director of the research center. Shanna Smith Jaggars is a senior research associate at the research center.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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