Colleges Remake Remedial Education by Going Back to High School

Digital Learning

Colleges Remake Remedial Education by Going Back to High School

By Joseph Williams     Feb 20, 2017

Colleges Remake Remedial Education by Going Back to High School

This article is part of the guide: Community Colleges Point Toward New Directions in Digital Innovation.

It’s a statistic no educator—or student—would boast about: Half a million high school graduates, or about one in four, can’t perform math or write English well enough to avoid having to take remedial classes when they get to community college.

Those get-up-to-speed courses, however, typically add years to college completion time and thousands of dollars to tuition bills. And remediation can be a trap door; refresher classes don’t count towards degree credits, and about 40 percent of those students, frustrated and behind schedule, drop out before graduation day.

“If you come to college and are placed in developmental math, you’re doomed,” said Robert Denn, dean of honors and academic support at Tennessee’s Chattanooga State Community College, in a 2015 Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation case study. He continued, “You’re just not going to finish.”

Tennessee may have found the solution, however, by overhauling remediation math programs and installing corequisite education—using self-paced learning programs and enhanced classroom support systems, sometimes augmented by technology, to help struggling students transition to college-level work.

The chalk-and-talk classroom model—a teacher lectures, students take notes, then practice the lesson—“has not been successful for these students,” says Victoria Harpool, assistant executive director for academic affairs for the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. “The chances of them actually graduating [from community college] with a credential are slim to none. That’s really how the program came about.”

Harpool explains, “We created a course so that students would get credit for bridge math [while] at the same time addressing the remedial needs of students who just do not progress. It really shakes up how a student experiences math.”

The results have been eye-opening: authorities in Tennessee, Colorado, Indiana and West Virginia credit the corequisite approach with doubling the student success rate in English and up to six times the rate in math.

In Tennessee, the seeds for success were planted in 2011, when a study showed 77 percent of the state’s incoming community-college freshmen needed a remedial math class because they weren’t academically prepared for more difficult work.

Harpool says the program started organically with a partnership between Red Bank High School and nearby Chattanooga State Community College. Red Bank teachers noticed 11th graders were falling short of math benchmarks for college-bound students, while Chattanooga State instructors worried about the number of students stuck in remediation. “The faculty between those two institutions came together and said, ‘There has got to be a way we can address this,’” Harpool says.

Chattanooga State instructors and Red Bank teachers jointly studied the profiles of the most successful community-college students and found a common denominator: Most of them had taken college-level classes while they were still in high school, a move that simultaneously helped them get them ready for higher education and earn credits towards a degree. Armed with that data, a task force of high school and college educators jointly designed Tennessee’s Seamless Alignment and Integrated Learning Support ( SAILS) program, which was rolled out in pilot programs in 2012 and has been gradually expanded since then.

In the program, students who fall below college-level standards on math assessment tests in 11th grade are guided to remedial courses during their senior year in high school, which allows them to start their higher ed career ready for credit bearing coursework. Combining online and face-to-face instruction, students learn advanced math at their own pace, a measure of control vital to students who aren’t traditional learners or who have jobs or families. Teachers and tutors also work one-on-one with students who are struggling, offering extra help when it’s needed.

The first year, of the 200 students connected to Chattanooga State, 83 percent of them met all five math competencies in high school; Harpool says the success rate is now approaching 90 percent. During the 2013-14 academic year, the most recent statistics available, SAILS served 8,175 students at 118 high schools statewide and all 13 of Tennessee’s community colleges. Of them, 69 percent passed all five competencies and avoided remediation when they enrolled in college—and 239 SAILS students were able to complete their community-college math requirement while they were still in high school. Another four-fifths passed three or more competencies. According to the Gates Foundation report, during fall 2013, students saved 6,350 semesters of remedial math and $3.5 million in tuition and books.

“While we were rolling out math, we had high school principals, saying, ‘OK, where’s the English?’” Harpool says. While a detailed English bridge course has been rolled out in a small-scale pilot program, she says that language “is a little bit trickier” because literature is subjective, expansive and open to interpretation, while math is more absolute—the answer is right or wrong. And given the online component of the program, she jokes, “you’re not going to discuss Beowulf with a computer.”

Authorities did unveil a small-scale SAILS English pilot program during the 2015-16 school year; while there’s not enough data to judge success, the early statistics are promising. Last year, 104 students at five high schools took the SAILS English program and 98 percent of them finished; the pilot has expanded to 424 students at 19 high schools.

Tennessee educators don’t have conclusive answers about SAILS long-term results—how many former students obtain two-year degrees or transfer to college, and how well they do when they get there. But according to the Higher Education Commission’s Emily House, there's clearly a correlation between SAILS coursework and and a reduced need for remediation. As she said in an interview with the Tennessean, "It's not a coincidence those two things are happening at the same time," she said.

The results in other states that have adopted corequisite education, like West Virginia and Georgia, have been similarly encouraging, says Bruce Vandal, vice president of Complete College America, a nonprofit focused on increasing the college graduation rate and closing the higher-education gap between whites and minorities. “They’ve all implemented these reforms for the majority of their students, and, remarkably, are seeing the same kinds of success,” he adds.

Vandal says he’s spent more than a decade on the issue; the key, he says, is trading standard, sink-or-swim remediation for “more time on task” and on-the-spot tutoring. Under the old model, a student might have to complete three semesters of remedial math to meet school requirements, yet “will almost never pass a college-level math course” because he doesn’t get the support and drops out. With adequate support, however, “you eliminate those problems of attrition,” says Vandal. “You see dramatic levels of improvement” in student preparedness and outcomes.

Success, explains Vandal, comes from bypassing assessment tests—and traditional remediation classes—in favor of “putting virtually every one of those students in college-level courses and putting support in those college-level courses.” He adds, “That’s been the game-changer, when it comes to meeting the needs of students who are being assessed below-college ready.”

A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a political journalist, blogger, education writer and essayist in Washington, D.C.

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