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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

In defense of remedial math classes

Students who are almost ready for college math do best by taking college-level classes with support in basic skills, researchers agree. It's known as the "corequisite" model. But what about those who aren't ready at all? They have trouble with multiplication and division. They don't have a clue what to do with a fraction. Eliminating remedial math is a mistake, argues Gerald Arnell Williams, who teaches math at San Juan College in New Mexico.

Remedial math is derided as a “bridge to nowhere,” he writes. Many students get discouraged by classes that look like the ones they hated in high school and give up. Others try, but fail once again. They never make it to an entry-level, for-credit math class.

Under the corequisite model, students enroll in a college-level math class, such as statistics or intermediate algebra, and work on missing skills in a math lab or support class. Studies show it works better than taking a remedial prerequisite for those near the readiness borderline. But the research doesn't include low-scoring students with weak arithmetic skills.

It's like "trying to learn how to swim and play water polo simultaneously," writes Williams. Those who really, truly can't swim are likely to drown. Open-enrollment schools, such as community colleges, enroll a lot of non-swimmers.

Remedial math is "a successful model for a great many students," he argues. It should remain an option.

Trends in National Assessment of Educational Progress scores Credit: Nat Malkus/American Enterprise Institute

I wrote a community college blog for the Hechinger Report, so I'm familiar with the research. I'll add that the success rates for coreq students are quite low. It's just that the success rates for remedial-first students are even lower.

As Williams writes, coreq students are more likely to pass an entry-level college math class. However, there's little evidence they persist in college and complete a degree, studies have found. Students with marginal math skills have a lot of other challenges as well.

The bottom line is that students who've gone through 13 years of schooling without mastering foundational skills rarely will be transformed by stepping on a college campus. If young people don't learn math in elementary and middle school, they probably won't learn it in high school and they have very little chance of learning it in community college. Second chances are great, but what about trying to teach math effectively the first time?

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