Thursday, August 28, 2014

Remediating remediation (Part V): D-d-d-data

Remediation needs to be fixed. Yes, we know that. Remediation is necessary; we know that, too. And we know that remediation is best when it's relevant.

But what do we really know about the students who are taking remedial courses? How can we really measure if and how remedial programs are successful? That is, if they are helping students gain the knowledge, skills, and practice they need and enabling those students to continue in college. This no guarantee of graduation or a job, mind you, but remediation should be a confidence-building step up in full-time college student status.

An Education Commission of the States report indicates that most states do not collect data on the entire picture of remediation: participation, success, and cost. The report, A Cure For Remedial Reporting Chaos, does focus mostly on the data, but that data is important because organizations can't make reasonable decisions, especially about change, without good data.

A subsequent report published in June 2014, A Common Framework for Remedial Reporting: Response to Remedial Reporting Task Force Recommendations, outlines a framework for gathering data.

Recognizing that it's not just high school graduates who often have to enroll in remedial courses, the framework suggests the data include:
  • How many first-time college students enroll in remedial courses
  • How many students complete their remedial courses
  • How many students in remediation complete their other courses
  • How many students who start in remediation persist year to year
  • How many students who start in remediation graduate from college
  • How long does it take students who start in remediation to graduate from college
Tracking their grades and GPAs is useful data, but not always good data, in my opinion. Some professors are harder than others; some professors reward effort as well as performance. We know, however, that grades and GPAs are indicators of likelihood of retention and graduation and often inform how hireable that graduate might be.

In addition to the quantitative data, I think the qualitative data may also be useful. Having professors (or adjuncts, more likely) who are teaching those remedial courses meet periodically to talk about what is working in their classes; where most students seem to be struggling; if there are any differences in content or skills trends (e.g, fewer students confused about area and perimeter this year or more students struggling with text-influenced spelling); if students from particular schools, districts, or states are doing better or worse than prior years; etc. That professional learning network (PLN) of remediation instructors could help make sense of the quantitative data, but they could also make use of that quantitative data.

There MUST be conversations between those who are instructing and facilitating the remedial courses and those who are teaching the next level of courses. Just because the remediation faculty think something is a great idea because it is "relevant" or "innovative" doesn't mean it's going to help students pass the freshman English or math courses, or do well in their other courses. That kind of feedback loop is imperative.

In a perfect world, the remediation faculty would also get to talk with some high school teachers, especially from those schools from which some (even many) of the incoming freshman class graduated. Not to speak (necessarily) of specific students, but to talk about the general challenges for the majority of students, especially those likely to have to take remedial courses.

And if the freshman English and math faculty can share where the academic challenges remain for
the remedial students once they move into those full credit-bearing courses, remediation faculty can continue to tinker with their courses. The more information they have about incoming students and the more they know about what's working as students work through their remedial courses and move on to a full credit-bearing course load, the more likely remediation faculty are to provide the skills, knowledge, and practice students require. Those remedial courses and those educators are, after all, the bridge for that gap between high school and college.

There should be no shame in having to take remedial courses. Most of us have been remediated in one thing or another in our lives; we probably didn't call it "remediation" or "developmental."

The better and yes, more relevant, we can make those remedial experiences for students, the better prepared they will be for more than just college.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Remediating remediation (Part IV): Innovation

We know that the requirement of remediation is a common occurrence for far too many students. As I noted in the first of this series:
It's important to recognize that remediation is a real problem. Nearly 60% of all high school graduates need some remediation. According to some data, as many as 80% of high school graduates are not ready for college in one or more content area.

The National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL) met August 19-21 and, apparently, one of the topics of that conference was supposed to be remedial education. The NCSL has some recommendations for what legislators can do and I responded to that in the second of this series. There seems to be nothing new on the NCSL web site concerning this topic, so maybe those conversations didn't occur or nothing came of them. In my opinion, that's fine. I don't think legislators should be involved in determining how remedial education can or should work.

In the third of this series I addressed one of the other suggestions of the NCSL: innovating remediation. When we need to find a way to improve or jump start or somehow figure out a different way to do something, we fall back to "innovate." On the other hand, as I learned from Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT), sometimes innovation is a simple matter of adding or subtracting something that is small but functionally different.

And, as we learned from Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point (2000), there is a moment that makes a difference. Whether that moment is from stickiness, context, or those who can make that moment-in-time difference--the connectors, mavens, or persuaders--sometimes that coupled with that small but functional difference is all the innovation we need. But that's a different blog post.

We've heard a lot, too, about remediation through job training. In July 2014, The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article titled Job-Training Programs Make Remediation Relevant. Relevance is another important word in education, but for kids who are taking Basic Math, or whatever the remedial math course is called, the challenge of understanding fractions, percentages, and decimals in the context of real world situations does matter.

Let's assume for the sake of argument that most of the students in community college are also working. In 2013, that number was 80%. We can reasonably assume that most of the traditionally-aged students are in entry-level jobs, but jobs that nonetheless require them to understand basic math. So why not gear the content of the course and its activities around the realities of the students? Why not have students bring some of the challenging math problems they face in the work lives to be part of their learning?

Why not connect to media? The now-classic scene in Big (1988) when Tom Hanks' character explains algebra in the context of basketball. Stand and Deliver (1987) with some calculus learning. Even the TV show Numb3rs, which showed a math wizard explaining complex mathematics in the most amazingly simple ways. I actually watched that show for the math. Me, an English major! But I digress.

That relevancy is applicable for English courses, too, even a course in reading and study skills. Having students bring examples of writing and reading they have to do, no matter how simple it might seem. The OSHA regulations and the HR information on the bulletin board most people ignore. Memos from the corporate office. The way they are expected to interact with customers and the binders of information they get. In any shop or store anywhere, there are materials people write and materials people have to read.

So much of this kind of relevancy is likely to work best with face-to-face learning. Students bring their examples and the instructor facilitates the learning through discussion and practice. At this point I can't even speak to the bonus learning that is likely to occur, but I can imagine it and it's impressive. Having a student come from that kind of remedial learning might force me to step up my game in an ENG 101 or 102 course.

Even so, I believe that remedial learning can be reinforced and supplemented with online options. Students who are struggling with some fundamentals might benefit from online resources such as Learning Bird (tell Michael or Roxanne I sent you) or Odysseyware as they continue to refine their digital content and their academy concept (tell Patty I sent you). [By the way, I might get a commission for any sale of Learning Bird or Odysseyware, but I'm acting on my own to recommend them.]

Remediation might also be supported through Skype in the Classroom. Yes, most of the products are geared towards students who are not in college, but the students who are in remediation are struggling because they are not yet college-ready in some content areas.

In my mind, one of the best things remediation can do is meet students where they are and provide them a path towards improvement and success.

PBL is another avenue for remediation. What's cool about the Life Practice cards innovated by my friend Ginger Lewman (tell her I said "Hey!" and to save me a place at Podstock next year) is that they touch more than one content area. If I were teaching a remedial course for reading and study skills and/or for English, I'd use the Life Practice cards. I'd have to adapt them some, but I think the options they provide help students learn to differentiate for themselves, get a better grasp on how they learn best, and might even uncover some otherwise unknown interest, which would be more than awesomely amazing.

I believe there are plenty of ways to be systematically inventive with remediation. The gap between high school and college is going to exist for a while, but remediation doesn't have to be a shameful experience and doesn't have to be one that seems pointlessly expensive.

In fact, I think a GREAT innovation is for universities to be willing to offer at least 1 hour of credit, maybe even 2 (I have to think about this some more), for outstanding work in those remedial courses. It would give the academic systems people and records offices such agita to accommodate this, but students could sign up for the 1-hr or 2-hr version of the remedial course based on the syllabus on the projects. Within the university add/drop period, they could make the decision to change the version of the course--this would be a version of a cross-referenced course--if they thought the work might be more than they could manage. For the instructor, it would be akin to having a contract project for students or a different rubric of expectations. The 0-credit students do x; the 1-credit students do x + y, and the 2-credit students do x + y + z or (x + y) * z, whatever math formula you want to use there.

As I said, one of the best things remediation can do is meet students where they are and provide them a path towards improvement and success. Finding ways to make remedial courses relevant isn't all that complicated and the possibilities for student discovery could be exhilarating for the students; not only that, but retention rates might increase. Students who are able to graduate from college are more likely to be able to pay off their students loans and contribute to society and the economy in positive ways. 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Remediating remediation, Part III

Another recommendation of the NCSL is to encourage colleges to innovate remediation. Pffft. And then suggests that "legislators can be key actors in the reform and improvement of remedial education." Wrong again unless the legislators have any role in funding (more) and/or policy making.

Let's keep in mind that remedial courses are not credit-bearing. Some may be three-hour courses and others may be only 1-hour courses, but none of that time in class counts towards graduation. What students in remedial courses need to understand is that the work they do for remediation counts towards graduation in ways they cannot yet see. But that's only if the remediation course is any good.

Now most remedial courses have a syllabus like any other course and students are expected to progress through the 15 weeks of the course just as they do with any other course. They will be forced to do work or activities in which they don't really need remediation, which means they might be bored or resentful or both. Rarely will most of us get excited about that experience as review to reinforce what we think we already know.

Again, it's not just the courses that need change, but the processes. Franky, Elisa, and Maria plus, apparently, most of the others in their freshman class need some sort of remediation. Policy wisely requires they not take on too many courses, but advisers tend to focus mostly on the general education requirements without necessarily giving a lot of thought to reading and writing loads, an important consideration for students who need to take a remedial reading/study course and/or English (aka grammar and writing) course(s).

One of the NCSL ideas is actually a pretty good one and that is to form learning communities. Rather than have a separate reading/study course and a separate English course, students would sign up for a block of learning community time. After all, writing and reading are inextricably linked so there are ways to reinforce reading strategies that can also reinforce writing strategies. In addition, the community becomes a safe space for learning critiques which can spill over into other content areas given that varying degrees of reading and writing are required in all college classes.

Universities would have to offer more than one block of learning community time: 8-9:50 Tue/Thu, 10-11:50 Tue/Thu, 8-8:50 Mon/Wed/Thu, etc. Block options that will allow for students who have to work as well as for students on athletic, arts, or other scholarships. I'd build in some specific policies about missing meetings, but I'd also spend some time with coaches and other professors to talk about implications of learning community penalties. That will certainly vary from school to school.

The content of the learning community requires a bit more work, I think, on the part of the professor. I would treat it like a reading and writing workshop so assignments from other classes are part of the learning community activities. Some activities for the learning community alone to help students focus on specific skills and needs. In fact, I'd even make sure students had choices for the activities because some will advance more quickly for some skills and need greater attention to others. I also think that students who progress quickly should be given the option of staying with the community or, in effect, passing out of the community. I'd prefer they stay in the community even if they've met the learning objectives because that experience is more likely to reinforce any of those new learning skills.

I don't like the idea of accelerated courses because it suggests the remediation is just a hoop and might lead the student to see the course(s) as a nuisance exercise.

Another reason I like the learning community idea is that it can reinforce that learning can be a collaborative process. While students are expected to do their own thinking, their own problem-solving, etc., they are also expected to participate in the community activities of discussion, brainstorming, and even debate. With that kind of experience, kids may even want to sign up for remediation.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Remediating remediation, Part II

So we know that remediation for high school graduates is an issue. The National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL) is meeting August 19-21 and, apparently, one of the topics of that conference is remedial education. The NCSL has some recommendations for what legislators can do.

The first recommendation is to Implement preventative (or preventive) strategies. By that I think they mean they should implement more or other standardized tests. Buried in the text is this: "[t]he WestEd study recommends that policymakers and higher education leaders work together to promote awareness among students about what it means to be college ready and how the assessment and placement process works."

Wrong. I believe K-12 classroom teachers and administrators in conjunction with higher education leaders need to understand how the placement process works. Then high school counselors and university admissions counselors could be using the same language. It would be amazing (and improbable) if placement processes were somewhat universal so that parents and students didn't have to navigate multiple placement processes if the student applies to more than one school. If processes were somewhat universal, high school counselors could provide useful insight. Okay, so the universal process isn't going to happen, so K-12 classroom teacher and administrators have to help parents and students learn what questions to ask when they start their campus visits. And that means that K-12 teachers and administrators have to have stronger, better, or existing partnerships with the universities to which most of their students apply to get that information.

And let's get real about those standardized tests. Students need to know which colleges require a placement test regardless of ACT or SAT scores. Students need to which colleges offer a placement test regardless of ACT or SAT scores. If the placement test is optional, I suggest students take it anyway. If nothing else, it will give the student one more piece of information about his or her actual readiness to succeed at that school. Students need to know that the ACT and the SAT English scores don't mean they can write well and for college.

My recommendation is that 10th grade teachers build relationships with university professors, particularly writing professors. Invite those professors to do a presentation on writing, maybe even an activity or two with their students so high school students get a hint of what it means to write in college. Better yet, invite a panel of writing, math, social science, and science professors to talk to students about their expectations for student writing. I had a colleague who taught a freshman-level biology class. She would mark the first five errors on a student's paper and then hand it back. She expected students to do what was necessary to improve the writing of their work before resubmitting it and they had a specific window of opportunity.

High school guidance counselors need to have more information about placement processes for the universities to which most of their graduates apply. They need to have some of those admissions counselors on speed dial, too. High school teachers, staff, and administrators have to reinforce the means by which students can gauge their readiness, which is not by standardized tests or high school grades alone.

Students need to learn to talk to their admissions counselors and ask questions about standardized tests, placement exams, resources for academic support (tutoring, Writing Center, etc.). Better to have the information about those resources and not need it than scramble for it when it's almost too late.

Students need to learn to talk to their professors or other students who have had those professors, or both. Kids cannot be afraid to or ashamed of asking for help. Asking for help tells professors that those students take their education seriously and they are willing to do what it takes to do well.

My next blog post will focus on innovation of remediation.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Remediating remediation, Part I

GIVEN: There will always be a gap between what high school graduates know and can do and what college professors expect them to know and be able to do.

GIVEN: This will always be true.

GIVEN: College remediation is one of many possibilities to bridge the gap for high school graduates and college professors.

GIVEN: College remediation can be expensive in time and money for students; it can also be discouraging and psychologically debilitating for students and frustrating for professors.

GIVEN: Academics aren't the only concerns for incoming college freshmen.

Franky B takes the ACT and gets a low score in both math and English. That means he's going to have to take remedial courses in both subjects. Not only will he have to enroll in at least six non-credit-bearing hours (they won't count towards graduation), but he will not be able to take more than 12 hours that semester. If half of his hours are for remedial courses, he's automatically on track for the 5-year plan to graduate, unless he can make up time during the summer. When he arrives on campus for freshman orientation, his adviser reviews his application materials and see that he has a strong GPA and good grades in English and above average grades in math. Curious about the situation, the adviser has a conversation with Franky. At the end, they decide to drop him from the remedial courses and put him in credit-bearing courses with the understanding that Franky will get a tutor for both math and English, just in case. The adviser also talks with Franky about the value of going to the on-campus Writing Center for all writing assignments, not just for those in his English classes. Franky feels fairly confident but worries that his friends might be a distraction for him.

Elise G takes the SAT and gets borderline scores. Because of her borderline scores, she chooses to take the placement tests on campus. Her English placement test makes it clear she needs remediation while she is able to register for freshman-level math courses. Because she has to take at least one remedial English course, she can register for only 12 hours. One of the courses is History of Civilization, which requires a lot of reading. She learns her professor for that course is one who requires a lot of writing. She hopes she can keep up with the work because she has to have a part-time job to help pay for college. Elise feels anxiety gnawing at her when she goes to her first class.

Maria M takes both the ACT and the SAT. She does reasonably well on one and okay on the other. Maria isn't accepted by any of her preferred schools so she decides to go to her local community college to get her AA. That way, because Maria, like many undergraduates, has to work to help pay for college, she'll be able to work and go to school with a clear focus on doing well. She knows her local community college has a good reputation and that she'll be able to get tutors as she needs. Maria starts school with confidence.

And so it goes.

Carol Burris, an award-winning principal, writes compelling about the failure of the current college remediation model. As indicated in her writing and the studies to which she refers, remediation is no guarantee of success in college. Shouldn't be. But the mechanisms by which students are diverted to remediation or choose to take remedial courses are not consistent, and they are not foolproof.

As a freshman writing teacher, I had students whose test scores permitted them to sign up for ENG 101. With the very first writing assignment I knew which of those students needed to go to the Writing Center every single day and/or who would need lots of coaching from me. By the same token, I had an inkling of which students could have skipped ENG 101 and gone straight into ENG 102. Because of add/drop policies and in fairness to students and professors once the semester got underway, we had to act fast if we were going to move students anywhere.

It's important to recognize that remediation is a real problem. Nearly 60% of all high school graduates need some remediation. According to some data, as many as 80% of high school graduates are not ready for college in one or more content area.

It's also important to recognize that the slide towards remediation begins in elementary school. This is NOT to blame any level of K-12 teacher or administrator. It is to acknowledge that the gap between what kids know and are able to do when the graduate from high school is substantial.

It's also important to remember that community colleges were once the epicenter of remediation as well as other educational options that were typically not part of the university offerings. As community colleges have shifted their missions and their roles, remediation has proven to be of less interest to many institutions and for practical as well as other reasons.

Figuring out how to remediate remediation is no small task, but one I'm going to try to tackle in one (or more) of my next blog posts. Your suggestions and insights are welcome!

Monday, August 4, 2014

Kids (and Grown-ups) Who Code

I worry about a lot of things and just now I'm worrying about the pressure we're putting on teachers, parents, and students about coding. For teachers who don't really know what coding is and are feeling additional pressure to learn about coding and to figure out how to integrate coding in their classes. For parents who are in the same boat with teachers but don't know if they should be pressuring teachers to make sure their kids learn how to code because they don't know what they don't know. For kids who may be pressured to learn how to code right NOW as though it's the last opportunity to do so.

Let me say that I'm not against kids learning how to code. I think it's a great idea, but I also think kids should be exposed to it and then given the opportunity to explore it further. Kids coding seems to be on the verge of an expectation that somehow kids aren't cool or with it or smart enough or something enough if they're not on the coding bandwagon. Deep breaths, people.

I discovered coding after I graduated from college with a degree in English and American Studies. Of course, I'm old and I used card decks and had to write elegant code because memory resources were limited. No gigabytes in those days. I learned how to write overlays and how to manage cache. It was cool. It was a giant and spectacular puzzle to be solved.

I still think coding is cool and a spectacular puzzle to be solved. In my opinion, the way we present coding and the possibilities is what will entice kids. If it becomes a "learn how to code or you'll be destitute and unloved the rest of your life" kind of message, kids will be turned off and not just because they won't understand. It's the pressure to do something to be like everyone else that will make it less interesting.

Minecraft is a huge portal for kids to talk about math (and other stuff) and to learn about coding. It will be until the next new shiny thing attracts the attention of some who will flap their hands and insist with breathless anticipation that this new thing is the thing that will make a difference for kids and their futures.

Coding is couched in terms of "STEM" and "computer science." Kids who aren't included towards STEM or computer science may think that coding isn't for them. But coding is a skill; in fact, I'd say coding is a craft. An article in the Wall Street Journal echoes my thinking about coding and reminds us that majoring in computer science isn't necessary for a talented coder. There are plenty of options and opportunities for someone who enjoys coding and is good at it.

We've crossed some sort of border in human history where everything we touch now has software in it," says Mr. Carson, echoing the common Silicon Valley refrain that the future comprises two types of people—those who know how to program and those who must obey the machines created by those people.
As Christopher Mims of the Wall Street Journal also notes: "As technology becomes ever more widespread, it's creating programming jobs as diverse as the types of knowledge workers it has displaced."

There is, however, a caveat: coding is not for everyone. Folks in the MakerSpace movement and elsewhere want you to think learning to code is a snap. Fundamental "Hello World" coding is easy, but good coding requires good reasoning and logic skills. Good coding requires outstanding problem solving skills and, I think, the ability to imagine a result. Good coding requires patience and the ability to work through dozens of "what if" scenarios to make sure the worst worst-case scenarios have been tested just as well as the best best-case scenarios.

For more information on coding options and possibilities, check out: