Community colleges provide easy access — to failure and debt, argues a new book by remedial English instructors. Poorly prepared students have little hope of success, they write. Raising admissions requirements would strengthen academic classes for prepared students and redirect the unprepared to short-term job training that might help them improve their lives.
More than 70 percent of California’s entering community college students are unprepared for college work. Accelerating remediation is helping students pass college-level courses, but only a few students have access to accelerated courses.
A Los Angeles-area community college is trying the Carnegie Foundation’s alternative path to math success, an algebra-and-statistics mix called Statway. Success rates for remedial students — normally very low — are rising.
A Denver university is taking back remedial education from community colleges in hopes of boosting success rates.
Reformers are transforming — sometimes eliminating — remedial education at community colleges, but fixing remedial ed will be “vastly more complex” than they think, argues Hunter R. Boylan, who runs the National Center for Developmental Education.
Virginia’s community college system raised success rates for unprepared students by lowering math demands for non-STEM majors. Carnegie’s Pathways reforms focus on statistics and quantitative reasoning rather than advanced algebra.
More than two thirds of community college students take at least one remedial education course, usually math. Seventy percent of those placed into remedial math will not even attempt a college-level gateway course within two years.
Community colleges are reforming — or abolishing — remedial education, but some think remedial reforms have gone too far. They fear many students will be placed in college-level courses they can’t handle, while the least-prepared will be shut out of college programs and sent to adult ed.
A Pennsylvania community college has persuaded a local high school to teach the college’s remedial math and English courses to 12th graders. Ninety-two percent of the high school’s community college-bound graduates place into remedial reading and 100 percent place into remedial math, often at the lowest levels.
Connecticut’s ban on no-credit remedial courses at community colleges goes into effect this fall. Colleges and high schools are working to help students catch up so they can pass college-level classes. The alternative is a “transitional” readiness program that’s not likely to transition many people. (Low-level remedial classes rarely lead to success either.)
Community college leaders hope Common Core standards and testing will reduce the need for remediation. Core-aligned tests evaluate 11th graders’ college readiness, giving them a year to catch up before starting college. But some think students may pass the new tests but still be unprepared for college-level work.
The best way to teach grammar is to teach writing, argues Michelle Navarre Cleary in The Atlantic. Teaching the rules of grammar, parts of speech and diagramming sentences alienates students from elementary school through college, she writes.
For example, one well-regarded study followed three groups of students from 9th to 11th grade where one group had traditional rule-bound lessons, a second received an alternative approach to grammar instruction, and a third received no grammar lessons at all, just more literature and creative writing. The result: No significant differences among the three groups—except that both grammar groups emerged with a strong antipathy to English.
Cleary taught writing for eight years at an urban community college where 80 percent of students tested into remedial writing classes. Grammar came first. Students could spend a year in developmental writing “before being asked to write more than a paragraph.”
Just as we teach children how to ride bikes by putting them on a bicycle, we need to teach students how to write grammatically by letting them write. Once students get ideas they care about onto the page, they are ready for instruction—including grammar instruction—that will help communicate those ideas. We know that grammar instruction that works includes teaching students strategies for revising and editing, providing targeted lessons on problems that students immediately apply to their own writing, and having students play with sentences like Legos, combining basic sentences into more complex ones. Often, surprisingly little formal grammar instruction is needed. Researcher Marcia Hurlow has shown that many errors “disappear” from student writing when students focus on their ideas and stop “trying to ‘sound correct.’”
Colleges such as Arizona State and Community College of Baltimore are raising pass rates in freshman composition by having remedial students tackle writing college essays immediately, Cleary writes.
English teachers, does just-in-time grammar instruction work?
Robert Pondiscio isn’t impressed, pointing out that “kids haven’t diagrammed sentences since the Johnson Administration.” I diagrammed sentences in seventh grade! Which was . . . the Johnson administration.
Here are the opening sentence of classic novels diagrammed.
“Traditional grammar” is superficial, writes linguist Katharine Beals on Out in Left Field. What works are “exercises in sentence construction” requiring “a much deeper and more interactive engagement with grammar and syntax.”
Ready or not, most Florida college students are skipping remedial classes under a new state law that lets unprepared students start at the college level, if they wish.