The New York Times:  Ending the Curse of Remedial Math  

In an op-ed published yesterday in The New York Times, David L. Kirp, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote that “CUNY Start holds some clues on how to solve an education crisis,” noting that the innovative remedial program is getting more than half of the students who complete the program ready for college in just one semester, “something that’s almost impossible with regular remedial courses.”

The success has prompted a pilot program to train New York City high school teachers in the CUNY Start model of teaching.  “It’s the classic ounce-of-prevention approach — improve teaching in high school, so students won’t have to take remedial math in college.”

The column also highlights the success of CUNY’s nationally acclaimed ASAP initiative that helps students receive associate degrees faster.

Kirp concludes by pointing out that “CUNY Start and ASAP aren’t City University’s only success stories.  Researchers at Stanford, Berkeley and Brown universities have shown that CUNY is a more powerful engine of mobility than almost any university in the nation.”

The text of the article can be viewed below and is available online here.

Ending the Curse of Remedial Math

BY DAVID L. KIRP
Can you simplify this square root?” Erica Fells asks her class, and hands wave in the air. All but one of the students believe that it’s impossible to do so. The dissenter, Leslie Alcantara, lays out her argument. “What do the rest of you think of Leslie’s reasoning?” Ms. Fells asks, and after some back-and-forth, they agree — she’s correct.

These students have been admitted to one of the City University of New York’s community colleges. They didn’t score high enough on CUNY’s math, reading and writing tests to take the college-credit courses they must pass to earn an associate degree, so they were steered into a catch-up program called CUNY Start. Its track record shows that, with good teaching and I-have-your-back counseling, youths who otherwise would likely drop out have a solid shot at making it.

The strategy is working: More than half the students who complete the program are ready for college in just one semester, something that’s almost impossible with regular remedial courses.

At the start of the term last fall, Ms. Fells told me, many of the students couldn’t handle negative numbers and decimal points. Ten weeks later, they have powered through arithmetic to algebra and are ready for college math.

CUNY Start holds some clues on how to solve an education crisis. Nationwide, only 35 percent of those who start community college receive any form of credential within six years. At urban community colleges, the six-year graduation rate is only 16 percent.

The biggest academic stumbling blocks are remedial math and English courses. More than two-thirds of community college students must take at least one such class, and there they languish. Only a third of those referred to remedial math, and less than half those who take remedial reading, pass. Just 15 percent of students who take remedial classes at two-year colleges earn a certificate or degree on time.

Typically, those students fell behind in elementary school, and as new concepts were piled on every year, they never caught up. The “Strasbourg goose” school of teaching, in which students’ heads are stuffed with formulas that bear no relation to the real world, left them convinced of their own incompetence. Old- school remedial education in college — skill and drill, lecture-style classes, taken at the same time as college-level courses — offered more of the same.

The CUNY Start model is different. Full-time students are exclusively in Start classes for 25 hours a week — substantially more than the usual course load — for one semester. The focus is on thinking, not memorization.

“Math isn’t just memorization,” Ms. Fells told me. “I teach them how to investigate problems — how to think. The first sentence on the first day is a question. We start by making a connection to real life and slowly build a foundation of knowledge for more abstract algebraic problems. I never say you are right or wrong. The answers come from them.”

Ms. Fells knows, firsthand, what the students are going through. “I grew up in the same neighborhood, attended the same mediocre schools,” she said. “They’re as smart as students anyplace — they just haven’t been given the opportunity.”

Typically, these students are juggling school, jobs and family obligations. One student told me that at lunch she pumps breast milk while studying. “I work full time, and my husband requires kidney dialysis,” she said.

Jessica Mingus, the director of CUNY Start at Hostos Community College, told me that many have gotten the message that they are no-hopers. When she was a high school freshman, one student was informed by her high school counselor that she should drop out. “You’re going to get pregnant by the time you’re 16 — why waste everyone’s time by staying in school?”

Counseling is vital to the success of the program, because it gives students someone to talk with about their lives. “They aren’t comfortable telling their teachers about the court date, the pending eviction, the abusive foster parent,” Ms. Mingus said.

During orientation, students are asked to list the ups and downs in their lives. “Sex experience with a family member,” “Guns fired all the time,” one student wrote matter-of-factly. All that took place while she was still in elementary school. In middle school, she added, she had a miscarriage, tried to join a gang and wound up in jail.

Abandonment, homelessness, fickle boyfriends and thoughts of suicide were among the “downs” other students mentioned.

“They say they’re not cut out for this,” Ms. Mingus said. “We remind them that they passed their New York State Regents exams, after as many as five tries. We tell them that’s a great accomplishment, and you can do the same here.”

Once they start taking college-credit classes, nearly three-quarters of the eligible students will enroll in another CUNY initiative, called Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, which I’ve written about in the past. The package includes financial help, carefully constructed class schedules and one-on-one advising. Sixty-four percent of ASAP students earned a degree within six years.

Educators elsewhere are paying attention; colleges in upstate New York, Ohio and California are starting their own ASAP initiatives. And a group of New York City high school teachers are, in a pilot program, being trained in CUNY Start’s model of teaching. It’s the classic ounce-of-prevention approach — improve teaching in high school, so students won’t have to take remedial math in college.

CUNY Start and ASAP aren’t City University’s only success stories. Researchers at Stanford, Berkeley and Brown universities have shown that CUNY is a more powerful engine of mobility than almost any university in the nation. Places like CUNY, Stony Brook University and California State University, Los Angeles, are the workhorses of higher education, and they’re doing a fine job.

 

David L. Kirp (@DavidKirp), a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author, most recently, of “Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools.”

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