Colleges tackle remedial education problem

Manchester Community College student Tina Gilbert plans to get a degree someday, possibly as early as next year, but she still faces one obstacle that stops many college students in their tracks: remedial math.

“I struggle with math–the fractions,” said Gilbert, who graduated from Windsor High School more than two decades ago and is one of thousands of students enrolled in remedial math or English courses in colleges across the state.

Ward, Kim, remedial ed, ecsu

Professor Kim Ward helps a student in a remedial math class at Eastern Connecticut State University.

If Gilbert succeeds, she will defy the odds for students in remedial classes, who are far more likely than other students to struggle in college, become discouraged and quit, educators say.

Now, schools such as Manchester Community College are redesigning remedial courses and taking a new look at an issue that is raising concern at colleges and universities in Connecticut and elsewhere.

The numbers are alarming. More than 70 percent of students in Connecticut’s community college degree programs are in need of remedial math or English, as are nearly two-thirds of students in the Connecticut State University System, according to a recent report by the state’s P-20 Council, a group of business and education leaders studying education and workforce issues.

“In a perfect world, it would be great if every 18-year-old graduated from high school college-ready. We’re clearly a long way away from that,” said state Higher Education Commissioner Michael Meotti, who co-chairs the P-20 Council with Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan.

The problem is particularly acute at the two-year community colleges, where open enrollment policies allow students to sign up even if they are severely lacking in college-level skills. In some cases, the skill level “is very, very poor, to be honest,” said Milaim Tahiri, a professor who teaches developmental math courses at Manchester Community College. “Multiplication, addition, subtraction–even those simple operations–they cannot do it.”

At many schools, students sometimes spend a year, two years or more just getting ready to take their first college-level course.

Gilbert has taken courses at Manchester intermittently for the past six years but has not fulfilled her math requirement. She must complete her pre-algebra course, take another remedial course in algebra, and then pass a college-level math course in order to qualify for her degree–a daunting task, said Paul Edelen, a math professor.

“It’s a horrible situation when you think of how much time she’s been here at the college,” said Edelen, who cited figures showing that the odds are stacked against remedial students.

Of those required to take the college’s lowest-level remedial pre-algebra course, less than one in 10 ended up passing a college-level math course, according to a review of college records, Edelen said. Of those who took remedial algebra, only about one in three later enrolled in and passed a college-level course, he said.

“Students are really not successful the way we’re doing it now,” said Edelen, a member of a team redesigning Manchester’s remedial math courses.

Next spring, the school will pilot test a computer-based instructional math program developed at New York University and the University of California, Irvine. The program diagnoses each student’s skills and monitors progress, allowing the student to zero in on weaknesses and correct them in the proper sequence. Officials hope the program will help students move more rapidly through the remedial courses and into college-level work.

A recent national study by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College found that the more remedial courses required of students, the less likelihood of success. Among those students referred to a course one level below college-level math, 45 percent completed the course successfully, but of those who were placed in a remedial sequence two levels below, the success rate dropped to 32 percent. For those required to take three or more remedial math classes, only 17 percent finished the sequence.

The study also found that many students who were referred to remedial classes never enrolled.

In Connecticut, the odds of passing a remedial math course in the community college system are about 50-50, according to figures reported to the legislature by the Department of Higher Education.

Among the state’s 12 community colleges, Manchester is one of several schools that have taken steps to improve the odds. In Hartford, Bridgeport and Norwalk, for example, the two-year colleges are part of “Achieving the Dream,” a national program that includes efforts to provide counseling, monitor progress and ease the transition for first-year students who are not college-ready.

Similar efforts are under way at the four-year universities in the Connecticut State University System.

At Eastern Connecticut University, for example, the effort is being led by educators such as math Professor Kim Ward, coordinator of the university’s developmental mathematics program.

The university has added courses such as Math 101P, an intensive pilot course in intermediate algebra that Ward is teaching this semester for math students with marginal skills. In addition to attending lecture classes three times a week, students also are required to do lab work and to solve daily online math problems.

Two years ago, Ward also helped start the university’s Mathematics Achievement Center, a tutoring service that not only helps students sharpen their math skills but teaches them better time management and study habits.

For many students, the problem is poor study skills, she said.

During one recent class, she prodded students to take careful notes and reminded them not to wait until the last moment to finish assignments.

“They don’t study, and they don’t know how to study,” Ward said later. “I’ve had a lot of students… when they get to college, they say, ‘I didn’t study in high school.'”

Jennifer Catone, a freshman from Wolcott, said Ward’s class has changed her attitude toward math. “I’ve always hated math. This is like the first year I’m enjoying math class,” she said. In high school, “I think I took enough math, but they were all lower-level math classes.”

Getting students to take more rigorous courses in high school would be a crucial step, educators say. Earlier this year, the state legislature passed a sweeping school reform law that will bolster math and science requirements for high school students starting with the Class of 2018.

In some cases, colleges and high schools are forming partnerships to address the problem. Among the efforts in Connecticut is the Bridges Program, an alliance between Western Connecticut State University and two nearby high schools in Danbury and Bethel.

Under the program, high school juniors take placement tests to determine their readiness for college. Meanwhile, college and high school faculty members work together to adjust curriculum and assist students who need extra help.

When the program started in 2004, more than 60 percent of the high school juniors from the two schools tested at the remedial level, but graduates of the Bridges program have shown steady improvement, with remedial placements dropping to a low of 29 percent in math and just 6 percent in writing last year.

“It’s made a huge difference,” said Lynne Paris-Purtle, a writing professor who works in the Bridges program.

At Western, 79 percent of freshmen in 2008 who came through the Bridges program remained at the university for their sophomore year, compared with 69 percent of those who were not in the program.

The program has become a model for similar efforts at CSU’s other universities. In addition, Western now has started programs reaching middle school students in both Danbury and Bethel.

Such programs may be the best hope for eventually reducing the need for college-level remedial classes, but for now colleges continue to take in substantial numbers of students who are not ready – and sometimes years behind.

Across the nation, remedial education remains a topic of debate. What is its proper role in higher education? Should it be limited to community colleges? Should elementary and secondary schools play a larger role? What are the best strategies to help students catch up?

Some critics wonder whether colleges are the right place to help students catch up on skills that should have been learned years earlier.

For educators like Ward, the math professor at Eastern, the answer is simple.

“If you take them, and you know they need [remedial help], you should offer it,” she said.