Friday, April 26, 2013

Just a few stories...

It's the end of the semester, the time when students suddenly realize that that they need to do something, or fail.

One student failed my first two tests, and missed the third. I really don't like giving a make-up, but I write a test up just for her. She takes it. Then she comes to my office 2 minutes before class wanting to know how she did.

I give 28 points for free (out of 100). She scored a 29...and had no idea that she has no clue whatsoever what's going on. Even the "gimme" question, just pressing buttons on a calculator, she had no clue.

The question, by the way, was like "If you invest $10,000 at 15% for two years, how much do you end up with?"

Her answer:  $17.45.  I mean, seriously, no clue at all, every answer was totally off the wall like that. She's hardly alone, several students decided to wait until the day of the test to figure how to use a calculator to calculate interest...we've been on that topic for weeks.

Another student really was angry with me that she's failing the course. "I want my $400 back!" she says. I tried to explain that this is just the same course most folks take in high school, and that she could just read along in the book, and study, and she would have been fine. "I don't have the book." The semester is almost over, and she still hasn't gotten around to getting the book (and yes, she was handed more than enough loan money to buy a book)...and it's my fault she's failing. The worst of it is she gets to evaluate me (and teacher evaluations are 22%, yes, that exact percentage, of what determines job performance), evaluating the quality of my teaching and materials (i.e., the book).

It's been over 15 years, incidently, since anyone that knows the subject matter has evaluated my teaching. Other than students, all I've had is an administrator come in, watch me teach, then tell me what topics I need to remove from the course, to improve retention. I could literally just spew random words and the administrator (and most students) wouldn't even know.

Another student wrote me a long hate-mail detailing how badly I sucked, and how it's my fault she's not learning, and that it's important that she pass the course, because it's one of her last courses for graduating. Every line of her letter (not text) had at least one grammatical error in it, but I responded. I told if she could learn 8 pages from the text one her own, I'd pass her, and gave her 3 weeks to do it. She couldn't, because, she, too, didn't think getting the book was worth it. What goes on in other courses that you don't need to be able to write a complete sentence, or be able to read a book?

I had one high point, however. All semester, this totally hopeless girl interrupts class time and again to ask, well, questions that anyone paying attention would know. The course is statistics, and the quesitons are like:

"How do you know which one is the mean?"

"What does the x with a little bar over it mean again?"

"How do you know that number is negative?"

"Which one is the standard deviation?"

"How can you tell .02 is less than .05? Is there a formula for that?"

She'd even ask the same question several times during class (much like the first two questions). I politely answer again, and again, and again.

Finally, another student blew her gasket, and told her: "Why don't you just study?!"

The whole class, sans me, laughed uproariously.  I'm sure she'll slam me on the evaluations, but damn...why not just study?

If I had thousands of students each semester, the above might be attributed to just being flukes, but they're not. I barely have 80 students total, and at least a dozen are "winners" like the above.

You might have noticed I used the feminine pronoun every time. That vast bulk of my students are female; the only time I get half or more of the class being male is when I start to teach what used to be first year math courses, like calculus. I'm hardly alone in noticing this.

I see there's a family with multiple children going to college before hitting puberty; I'm sure the kids are fairly bright, but I'm also sure college isn't what it used to be, either.

Next time around, I'll detail what exactly administration is planning to do to deal with the disaster of remediation.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

So, does Remediation do any good?

With most students coming to college, that means that much of the money spent on "higher education" is actually spent on 9th grade or lower material. It's only natural to ask if it's done any good. As before, note that over 90% of remedial students don't get even a 2 year degree within 3 years:

 (this is from a study called "Bridge to Nowhere"; presumably, if remediation helped them, they'd only take one more year to get such a degree).

 Remediation doesn't do students much good, obviously, although their debts are just as real as for students that actually have demonstrated interested in learning.

     “Many of our developmental classes have a 100% passing rate. Let’s show the Developmental Department we can do just as well!”

--administrative encouragement to improve passing rates in college courses. Education is not an issue.


     Remediation has greatly helped administration, as these easier courses are much easier to fill with students, especially students that don’t realize the risk of taking on loans, leading to explosive growth in “higher education,” if that phrase is taken to mean high school and lower level material. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say explosive growth in the student base, which certainly helps administrators that get to show off how successful the institution is. Similarly, as non-college courses, it’s easier to hire less qualified (and lower paid) instructors, with less accreditation oversight. Widespread remediation gives all the bonuses from being an administrator with many underlings, without the responsibilities, certainly a very attractive situation.

     Does remediation help faculty? Not as much as was promised, even though initially faculty and administrators were on the same side in providing remedial courses. The point of remediation was supposed to be that a student graduating from it would come to a college course prepared. Unfortunately, most remediation is done without oversight, with the only goal of “pass as many students as possible.” So faculty gains little from having remediated students, with the added burden of being told by a feckless administration, “If the remedial classes have a 100% passing rate, why can’t you?”

     Even without the pressure, faculty have little choice but to cover less material, at a slower pace, out of a sense of fairness to the unprepared students that are honestly struggling with the work; this ripple effect goes all the way up the chain of courses on campus. I get some small benefit from all the remediation, but it’s primarily from keeping the disciplinary problems out of the real college courses. I still get wildly unprepared students in advanced classes, but the ones that care about the material almost always are able to pick up (or remember) the things they should have known coming into the course, within the first few weeks of the semester. To help these students, I can justify slowing down a bit, even as I know doing so harms the other students that intend to take additional courses.

    Does remediation help students? The answer is an almost perfect “no.” It’s helped a few students, although I suspect these students would have been helped just as well before the “everyone goes to college” craze. Recall that less than 10% of remedial students get a degree in only a year more than “normal” students. Remedial students, even ones that complete a program, very disproportionately have no measureable improvement in their cognitive thinking skills from when they first entered college. One could easily conjecture that these completed programs have merely been watered down to the point that cognitive skills are not necessary for completion, or never required such skills in the first place.

     Every study on the subject has verified the obvious: remedial students are less likely to complete a program, and are more likely to spend more time than other students on any program completed or even attempted. They naturally also get further into debt, but as that translates into “make more money for the college,” administration sees nothing wrong here.


Saturday, April 20, 2013

Just  a little post before going back to look at remedial courses in "high education".

A student in my 2nd year statistics course scored a 100 on the third test of the semester; this was a bit of a surprise, since he failed the first two tests. I give a test about once a month during the semester.

I asked him what changed, and he gave an answer I've heard many times before: "I studied today". One day. I've had students literally rip me a new one because they studied for two hours, and still didn't do well on a test. I've been "nudged" by admin to lower my standards to the point that a student need only pass one test to probably pass the course, so he's golden now.

This is what college rigor is now: study for a day, and you can master a full month of what is now college material (far less than what I covered in the 90s).

Hmm, a semester of material for a course can be mastered by a student that simply tries for a single day. A student takes maybe 4 courses a semester. 32 days of study for a "year of college".

So, a 4 year degree now safely represents about 4 months of effort. It's probably better than that, since a student has less opportunity to forget than in the 4 year degree (which takes 6 years for most students, anyway).

I've often heard it said public school takes so long to cover so little, in order to delay entry into the workforce. Is it the same for higher eduation? It sure looks like it.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Why so many remedial students?


“Hey. We’re selling a plot of land, and thought we could ask our math professor friend for help. The land is a rectangle, 120’ on one side, and 300’ on the other. I know you need that much. What’s the square footage and how do you get it?”

--question from the wife of a longtime friend, valedictorian at her school, and a bright person. She and her husband just didn’t take math in high school.


     Now, it’s easy to blame the high schools for the unprepared students entering college, but that’s not fair. High schools offer College Algebra-level material, and often more advanced math, and also simpler courses, as well as other options. They tell students “this is what you need for college, this what you need to get by, and this is what you need to pump gas” giving their students the option to take the challenging material, something simpler, or no math at all. Students choose (or are advised by counselors or parents) not to take the challenging coursework, improving their GPA and chances of graduating high school. I don’t blame students for taking the easy way out when asked to do so; I would have myself if my parents had let me. A student who puts effort into it can avoid having a math class for his last few years of high school, if he wishes; I commonly get students that tell me they haven’t taken math since the 8th or 9th grade, and looking at their tests, I am in no position to disagree.


     “Find the exact area under the curve of the graph of y = 3x2 + 2 between x = 2 and x = 4, using the limit of sums method.”

-- High school calculus problem. Using sums in this way is way beyond what I would attempt in an elementary college calculus course, where I often spend considerable time going over how to add fractions.


     I’ve certainly heard tales of bad teachers, teachers not doing their jobs, teachers that don’t care about students, and, of course, teachers that succumb to the immense pressure to pass unprepared students. While I believe such teachers exist, I’ve met quite a few public school teachers, and through tutoring many high school students, I can only conclude that the vast majority of teachers are dedicated, hardworking, knowledgeable, and do a legitimate job in offering real mathematics courses to their students. In short, the vast majority of students that want to learn have a fair opportunity to do so.

     Perhaps public schools shouldn’t give students the opportunity not to learn, but I suspect they’ve long since figured out that forcing students into classes they have no interest in taking doesn’t really help the students. If only that knowledge could be passed up to postsecondary institutions.

     If a student chooses not to be prepared for college, it’s no great surprise that such a student, when tricked into going to college, is not prepared for it. A student shouldn’t be made to suffer forever for a poor choice made in high school, but…recall how years ago getting into college was not a certain thing. It was reserved for those who worked hard and studied, demonstrating they were willing to do what it takes to achieve higher learning. The great slobbering greed of colleges with open admission policies, and the “increase the student base at all costs” major goal of administration, has led to a massive influx of unprepared, often wildly unprepared, students onto college campuses.

     These students, being unprepared for college, naturally do very poorly in college courses, and administration (with “graduation rate” being a goal of what makes a college good) clamps the pressure down on faculty to increase passing rates, as well as opening up an array of less regulated remedial courses, with no restraints on what goes into such courses. Unfortunately, the remedial faculty (often with less qualifications and job security than other college faculty) are bullied into having high pass rates, and the only surefire method of doing so is to lower the difficulty as much as possible.


(Two students at my door): “Hi. We’re in your statistics class, and we have a question about lines of regression.”

(Me, welcoming them in): “Certainly, those are some rough formulas, the key is to be very careful and not try to skip steps.”

(I take out some paper and start setting up a typical problem)

Student: “No. We’re not even going to try that. Our question is for when you already have the line, like for y = 2x + 1, because we can get that on our calculator. How did you get the points, and how do you graph the line? We’ve both had 6 hours of developmental and got A’s in College Algebra, and neither of us had to do anything like that.”

--Students at an accredited institution where developmental math wasn’t handled at all by the math department, and College Algebra wasn’t either, to some extent.


     With no restraints, “reduce difficulty as much as possible” is results in very low difficulty indeed, which is why at one campus, it was quite common to have students with 4.0 GPAS, 9 hours of passed math courses…and still completely overmatched by what should have been basic concepts.

     Since the flood of unprepared students doesn’t stop at remediation, faculty in the higher level courses have no choice but to likewise reduce course requirements, or lose their position. So, in my case, it isn’t just statistics students that can’t handle graphing a line, nearly half of the students I have in calculus, for years now, are unable to add fractions, despite the high GPA and multiple prerequisites.

     As long as administrators view everyone with a pulse as a source of a government check, with no concerns about how such a person can end up trapped in a lifetime of debt, remedial students will be a common feature on “higher education” campuses.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Remedial, 3 steps down...then four?!


Basic Mathematics


It’s dummy-dummy math.

--this course as described by a student.


This course covers perhaps 3rd to 5th grade material, from how to add and subtract whole numbers, to plotting points on the number line. While many of these students may well have serious learning disabilities, I’ve often observed a learned helplessness to these students, as though they’ve been trained to stop all activity as soon as a question is asked. No exercise is too simple, no question anything but insurmountable, and every homework problem I assign must be done in class because, well, no understanding of the material can be taken for granted.


Even as I acknowledge that, perhaps, the college is justified in offering this course, I again don’t understand why there are no moral reservations about loaning people money to take it, or interest in directing them to cheaper methods of gaining these rudimentary skills. What’s interesting is disciplinary problems actually drop off here relative to the other remedial courses; while there is some unruliness, it’s not as severe as in the other remedial courses, nor is cell phone use during class nearly as prevalent.


I’ve never seen or heard of a student going from this course to anything like a successful college career. With over 90% of “normal” remedial students failing to have a college career, this isn’t surprising.


My college is currently in the process of reworking the entire remedial math system, again, based on yet another theory of presentation that, if followed, will supposedly increase retention, so these remedial courses may not even exist at the publishing of this post; they were part of my college for 10 years, however, and many institutions have similar courses.


There’s nothing wrong with trying to improve education and learning, but at some point, someone should think that “Gee, this student didn’t learn this in 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th grade. Maybe he doesn’t want to learn this and we shouldn’t loan him money to learn it.” Failing that, admissions should think “Maybe loaning this person money that goes right to us would be taking advantage of someone with a mental disability and it would be not be acting with integrity to do that.” So far, these possibilities have never been raised at any meeting concerning remediation, and administration continues to sell these courses to anyone willing to go into debt to take them.


Let’s go over that last issue again: an adult coming to college campus with skills comparable to a 2nd grader should still be treated with integrity, and not exploited. Putting such an adult into a contract of lifelong indebtedness is borderline criminal…and yet many college campuses have this level of remedial course for sale to incoming students, and don’t even blush when asking the student to check a box initiating the loans that lead to a lifetime of debt.
As a matter of principle, a college helping students to get financial aid for this course should have their accreditation reconsidered; taking advantage of people like this cannot possibly be acting with integrity. To satisfy the people that really need the help of this course, a college could just simply offer it, for free, as part of their obligation to the local community; I know I’d be more motivated to donate my time to such students if I knew they were there out of a legitimate interest in learning, instead of just for the check.


For one semester, we offered an even more basic math (a sub-pre-sub-remedial course, if you will). This course was promoted by admimnistration as “taking out the math they don’t need, like squares and rectangles,” Am I really alone in thinking it odd that administrators with no knowledge or training in a subject nonetheless get to decide what is needed in a subject?
Never forget the lesson of all these remedial courses: most colleges have redefined high school as "college courses", and sell to the community the need for the "higher education" even as all they offer is the same stuff the community already exorbitantly paid for in the high schools. This alone is bad, but consider these last few courses. The institution documents that these people have the cognitive skills of an 8 year old...and then signs them up for loans to take courses that administration knows will not lead to any job that would allow the poor suckers to pay off the loan. this really that much less abhorrent than endorsing pedophilia?

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Remedial, 2 steps down


One might thing administration would be happy enough re-defining remedial math into a "College Course" by calling it "College" Algebra.
One might think going one step down from that would sate administrative greed, but now, it can go even lower.


Me, addressing class: “Ok, so last class we learned about complementary angles, worked some problems with complementary angles, and I assigned homework problems on it. Any questions on the homework?”

Student: “Yeah, problem #1.”

Me, reading the problem: “Angles A and B are complementary...before going to the rest of the problem, what does complementary mean for angles?”

(I go to the whiteboard to write down the definition, and wait. Several moments of silence, then a student responds)

Student A: “They’re equal?”

(Three other students, echoing): “Equal?”  “Equal?”  “Equal?”

Me: “No. The mathematical word for ‘equal’ is ‘equal’. This is a different word, and it means something different. Take out your books, and look in the index or the section the homework is in, and find the definition of complementary.”

(I sit down and wait. Sixty seconds of page flipping passes, and a student responds)

Student B: “They’re the same?”

(Three other students, echoing): “Same?” “Same?” “Same?”


--I believe the most frightening thing about this incident is that nobody even laughed, no student in the course understood how this answer could not be right, or had the initiative/capability to look up a word in a book even when directed to do so.


College Preparatory Algebra I basically covers material from the 6th to most of the 9th grade. If that seems to overlap with College Preparatory Algebra II of the previous pose, that’s because it does; years of my explaining this to administration accomplished nothing, because the course as-is had a higher retention rate. Recent initiatives in higher education may make this course obsolete (but will come back again in a few years, as addressed later). The only thing missing from this course relative to the more advanced developmental course is a discussion of the quadratic formula.


Despite this being nearly the same course as College Preparatory Algebra II, the students that place into this course are clearly weaker than in the “advanced” remedial course—those placement tests are pretty good, all things considered. The students in this course, whether I pass or fail them, spend years on campus, going nowhere but deeper in debt. I did have one student, her grasp of English shaky at best (Spanish being her first language, and non-traditional as well), take this course, and she earned an A. I offered her the chance to just read the few pages that differentiates this course from College Preparatory Algebra II, and she did so, passing the final exam for the latter course without actually taking it, and moving directly to College Algebra (saving her four months of time), which she also passed in her first attempt.


For a small minority of students, these courses can be the start of a successful college career, but for the rest, being told to take one of these courses is a warning. Usually if a student comes to enroll, and needs a year of remedial courses before he can take what used to be a remedial course, maybe administration should ask  “Are you serious about learning?” rather than telling him “Check this box stating you’re looking for a degree, so you can start getting student loan money.” It’s a long hard road to higher learning from the 6th grade, and I just don’t see the economic sense in loaning everyone money to spend so much time learning material that is available for free in the public library, and that most people already had years of opportunity to learn in public school. While I don’t see the sense in it, administration sure does, for some reason. Oh yeah, the checks.
You think 6th grade would be the theoretical minimum to start studying higher education? Hah.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Remedial, one step down

        The big money in college comes not from college students, but from those that aren't really ready for college. Remedial courses are big business, and administration, after realizing how profitable it was to define down college math to be "College Algebra", realized they could define things down even further.

College Preparatory Algebra II:

              The Civil War was inevitable, but it didn’t have to be that way.”

---quote from a student history paper. A month before the paper was written, the history professor ranted extensively to the rest of the faculty how annoying it was that he had to stop his lecture, and spend time defining the word ‘inevitable’ to his class. This is common to remedial students: they can look you dead in the eye, nod in agreement that they understand, and still not comprehend a word you’re saying. Remedial students generally can take other college classes, even if they have yet to take, much less pass, the remedial courses. Many of these are dubious, but admin doesn't question how non-college students can pass these "college" courses.

This is the most common developmental math course for a student to take. It covers basically the material that public schools address in 7th-9th grade, from graphing lines to the basics of the quadratic formula. A great number of students are in this course because they failed this material (or failed to take it) in the 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th grade. Again, I pass around 50% of the students, which should be considered amazing considering the student’s history of failure, but the pressure from administration to pass, pass, pass, pass the students is very strong, and the majority of meetings regarding math instruction are about how to increase retention (i.e., passing) in this class.

What’s particularly funny about this is how much time faculty spends in state meetings, presenting information and material that the high school teachers need to give their students, so their students will be prepared for college. Somehow, we think the pressure college faculty face to pass as many students as possible isn’t nearly as bad as the pressure high school teachers face.

A large minority of students in College Preparatory Algebra II are non-traditional. They took and passed the material years ago, but have simply forgotten it, or at least are extremely rusty. While spending four months reviewing in college is a painfully slow and expensive way to go about regaining these skills, I can appreciate not everyone has the initiative to go down to the library, check out a book, read and re-read and practice for a few hours until the skills come back. I’m sure administration would never suggest such a course of action to a student, not with a sweet student loan check on the line.

Me: “A quarter of my remedial class was high school students….”

(other faculty chuckle)

Faculty: “Doesn’t administration know you can’t remediate when they haven’t had a chance to learn it the first time around?”

I also have non-traditional students that are young, not even old enough to have graduated high school. My college successfully recruits high school students into taking this course, oblivious to the fact that the material here has to be offered at the high school already, for less money. As the high school schedule is different from the college schedule, I have to change my course presentation just for these students.  Year after year I do what I can to offer an abbreviated course (almost 2 weeks less material because of the schedule conflict), simultaneously with the other students, who so far don’t seem to notice when a handful of very young students disappears towards the end of the semester. Putting high school students in remedial courses isn’t restricted to my campus, my associates at other schools report administration is doing the same elsewhere.

“I co ming offise to day AAAAaaaa?”

--E-mail from a Vietnamese student. She got an A in my trigonometry class, dominating the other students despite not knowing much English at all. Yes, she did work in a nail salon when she wasn’t in class, and no, she didn’t graduate the equivalent of high school in her native country. She asked one question the whole semester, coming to my office to do so: “How come students that know nothing are in this class?”

Another small percentage of students are in College Preparatory Algebra II because their English is very weak; I often get a few Spanish-speaking students, and on rare occasions someone with a different native language. These students, like the non-traditional students, tend to do better than the other students because their reasons for doing poorly on the placement test, for example, have little to do with a fundamental lack of interest in learning. These students care, but through not being born to the English language just don’t happen to be prepared for advanced material presented in that language. Even if this course is less than ideal, it does serve students that care.

Disciplinary problems, almost completely absent in college courses (I’ve had perhaps two significant incidents in twenty years), are strikingly common at the remedial level. Loud talking to the point of interrupting class (and ignoring the instructor’s requests for quiet) are everyday events, and students becoming hostile and engaging in shouting matches with the instructor during class are not unheard of.

Student: “Is Mr. McTurkey in?”

Faculty Member, looking at list of names on the door: “Who?”

Student: “Mr. McTurkey.”

--Students often have trouble with my last name, which is why I introduce myself by my first name. This particular student had taken me for the previous remedial course, but was having trouble and came to my office for help. I wasn’t in, but the faculty member who shared my group office was happy to let me know the student was looking for me, albeit a little confused on my name. I firmly believe reading is more important than mathematics, although educated people should have proficiency in both.

Remedial students will even initiate calls or answer their phone during class. In College Algebra, upwards of 20% of the class at any given moment will be texting/playing on their cell phones, but the percentage of students engaging in this activity in this level of remedial class is usually around 50%, at least in my classes (it’s rather amusing how many students think they are fooling me by keeping their hands in their crotches for 50 straight minutes, or digging in a purse every five minutes of class). Various rules make it difficult for faculty to do much about this, and faculty, for many reasons, are loathe to try anything that might lead to a student complaint.
The majority of students coming to college nowadays require remediation. In the past, that used to mean learning high school material, but now, it's 7th-9th grade.
Are we sure this is what higher education should be? If not, there are three more remedial below this one...

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Our first remedial course


College Algebra


“It’s called College Algebra because nobody would pay for a course called The Algebra You Should Have Learned in High School.”

--Faculty member (not me, though I wish it were).


Algebra is the basic language of mathematics, it’s all but impossible in the modern world to accomplish much in math without some familiarity with the syntax of algebra. I was a bit slow in math, and a year behind the “top” students. Thus, I took algebra in the 11th grade, instead of the 10th grade like the better students, but the point is college material today used to be early high school material.


“[That professor]’s math class is hard. You’ll have to come to class for it.”

--overheard student comment, defining what makes a course hard, relative to other courses, no doubt.


     College Algebra is a necessary course, the language, notation, and attention to detail learned there is critical to almost every other field. It is the prerequisite to over a 100 courses, and yet administration is perpetually trying to get rid of it, unable to understand that doing so shuts students out of many of the most profitable fields of study.

     The “College Algebra” course offered at my college (and elsewhere) is little different than the remedial algebra course that I taught at University of South Florida in the 80s…it’s also little different than the algebra course I took in high school. The primary differences are that College Algebra has less information than my high school course, lacking discussion of several topics, like matrices, circles, hyperbolas, inequalities, and a few other things. This is actually representative of many low level college courses: they have less than what used to be taught in high school courses of the same name. I also teach a college trigonometry course for example, and it similarly covers far less material than the trigonometry I took in high school. In any event, I include a discussion of College Algebra in the chapter on remedial courses because, at one point, it was a remedial course.


Passing rates in College Algebra courses usually run a bit more than 50%, although not much more (at one university I taught, the rate went from 50% to above 85% from one semester to the next, due to extensive pressure and threats from administration to pass more students). This is certainly lower than many other classes, especially the classes where, like my student quoted above, attendance (or, likely, any learning of the material) isn’t needed for passing.


Pitchman: “What we know for sure is, the students who score high enough for College Algebra usually took courses past College Algebra in high school. The students who don’t quite make it into College Algebra took it in high school, and so on down the line.”


Faculty: “Wait a minute. You mean there’s hard evidence for what we know to be true: that to achieve a goal in learning, you must push past that goal to succeed? Why haven’t these results been published?”


Pitchman: “That was off the record.”


--Exchange between faculty and pitchman, discussing results learned from a very popular standardized test very often used to place students.


Because the passing rate of College Algebra is so unsatisfactory in administration eyes, many campuses offer an “Explorations in Algebra” type course, a fake course with “Algebra” in the title so it at least sounds like it might be a real course. These courses are rationalized by “removing material the students don’t need,” and it’s no small amount of material. There are variations, but the course seldom has significantly more in it than a remedial course, but it’s for college credit all the same. Well, sort of college credit: the course is seldom transferrable and doesn’t prepare the student for anything (remember, College Algebra is a prerequisite for over 100 courses). That said, the fake Algebra course generally has a much higher passing rate, which makes administration very happy…and is worthless when the student tries to apply it towards most any degree anyone would be willing to pay for.

     The quote above hints at a truth, at least in mathematics and probably in other fields: the most advanced skill a person has mastered cannot be the most recent skill that was learned. In order to be comfortable with high school algebra, a student must push past the concepts in high school algebra. After years of diligently working to make a college degree represent no more than a high school diploma of years ago, college administrators, by promoting “Explorations” type courses, are now working to make a college degree as meaningful as graduating from the 8th grade.


“Dammit. I studied for two hours and STILL failed that test.”


--student angrily telling me my test was too hard. The two hours represented all the time he’d put into the course over the last month. How did he get the idea that two hours of study would be sufficient to understand a month of material? Hint: other courses he was taking.


Although the passing rate is relatively low, College Algebra really isn’t that tough a course. Every semester, I’ve had multiple students that failed the course before take it again, come back and pass the course, often with a B or better. They’re only too willing to tell me the difference is they actually studied the second time around. For most students, passing this course is simply a matter of study and effort, which can be quite the confusing barrier when compared to other courses.


On the other hand, there are absolutely people (perhaps 10% of the population) that have a real problem with math. They’ve come to my office literally unable to tell me the slope-intercept equation for a line (“y = mx + b”), and then shown me a page where they’ve copied “y = mx + b” hundreds of times the day before. It doesn’t matter how hard they study, they just won’t get it.


The most common issue they claim to have is they “can’t remember anything” when it comes time to take the test. They are not lying about this lack of memory, but in speaking with them, asking for demonstrations of knowledge outside of test time, they can’t remember anything outside of test time, either. It’s a real problem, and I do think it’s cruel of administration to force such people to take this course, but in administration’s defense, for accreditation, they have no choice to force students to take it. Quite often, these students eventually pass by taking an “Independent Study” course, “fishing” for an easy instructor, or some less reputable means. I’m glad these students eventually find a way, but I do wonder what kind of education a person can have when he remembers none of it, and how administration can claim to be acting with integrity when they go out of their way to sell an education to such a person.


“How much is 2/5?”


--Student question, a high school graduate who passed a remedial course the previous semester. I tried to explain via a pie graph and other examples, but I’m not convinced I helped her even a little. A history professor jokingly offered the best answer: “3/5.”


Many students come into College Algebra unprepared, either by catching a break from a remedial teacher, getting lucky on the placement exam, or by simply not wishing to take a remedial course in the first place. I try to accommodate these students as much as possible (for example, for every single problem that has a fraction, I have no choice but to stop and review how to work with fractions), but the end result despite my efforts is most unprepared students fail the course. With no ability to work with fractions or distinguish between multiplication and addition in algebraic notation, there’s little chance they can pass. I’m hardly the first faculty to complain how hard it is to teach a class with such unprepared students, and complaints like mine led to the creation of remedial courses, to address the material that all students, theoretically, learned in public schools. This leads to our first official remedial (nowadays) course: to be addressed next time.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Remedial Education, an Introduction to the Reality of College Today

The Myth of Remediation


A student came to me for my developmental math class, and passed, with hard work. He took me again for College Algebra, and Trigonometry, passing both. He graduated, off to a local university. Two years later, he came to me for help in his latest math course, Differential Equations.

--A rare success story for me. At one institution, not one student in four years went from developmental math to successfully passing Calculus I, much less Differential Equations, which is taken after Calculus III.


     A great scam needs suckers, and the more suckers, the better. It didn’t take long before administrators realized that the big, big money was in broadening the market, dragging remedial students into the pool of victims.

     The easily acquired and plentiful student loan scheme means anyone can go to college, but what if the student has little in the way of academic skill or interest? A popular TV commercial hawking college education has the would-be student sing about not doing great in high school—enough to keep a student out of college, years ago, and evidence the myth is still alive. It’s not just late night TV commercials that target these potential students (or should I say victims?) for enrollment, although there has always been some option for remedial classes at college or university. Only a few such classes were offered, since “in the good old days,” only a few students lacking in basic skills could nonetheless gain admittance to an institution.

     No matter the era, no matter the subject, no matter the class, there are always going to be some students weaker than others. Both faculty and administration were against students being in classes beyond their capability, albeit for different reasons. Even a few weak students force the teacher to slow down, and reduce course content, and that harms the prepared and hardworking students, who need that content to succeed in later courses…and the weaker students still fail. This lowers passing rates, which administration cannot tolerate.

Answer: “The Rapist.”

Question: “How does a remedial psychology student pronounce the word ‘therapist’?”

--Campus joke.


     An aberration emerged from the unholy alliance between faculty and administration: institutional remediation. The weaker students, the ones more likely to fail, would be identified and shuffled off to special classes, so that faculty wouldn’t have to deal with them in the “regular” courses. Administration could still claim a large student base, and better course passing rates as well. This is a win-win situation, in theory, and absolutely there needs to be an option for students that legitimately have reasons for not knowing basic material, material they’ll need to know if they want to learn the concepts of higher education. As long as the numbers of students requiring remediation are small, the system was fairly effective at giving borderline students a chance to prove they really could excel in a college environment, despite a rough start.

     In today’s college environment, entrance restrictions are minimal, so most anyone can get accepted into an institution of higher learning. Student loans are not strictly acquired by people who “want to learn,” even if they don’t know all that much to begin with. Instead, student loans are granted to anyone who can “check a box saying you are a degree seeking student.” Administrations at many institutions have become very successful at talking people into checking that box, and remediation has come to dominate “higher education” now, with a great number of incoming students requiring one or more remedial courses before beginning a real college education. There would be many more remedial students, a clear majority even, but administration has “defined down” college material over the years to keep this from happening.

     Even institutions with admission standards still admit remedial students. To take a college math course the student might need to score 250 on a placement test, while the admission “standard” requires the student to score 200 to get admitted to the college. While one has to chuckle at a college “standard” that admits students not ready for college, such is quite common. Having a great number of students going into remedial courses looks bad for institutions of higher education, but administration tirelessly works to fix this problem, but not in a way that a person of integrity might think:


“We’re going to reduce the score necessary on the placement test to get into College Algebra so that even the weakest students will be told they can skip developmental courses if they want to. They’ll still be competitive.”


--Administrator, explaining a clever plan to reduce the number of students taking remedial courses. Until I heard this, I had no idea that getting an education was a competition. This change in policy led to several disastrous years in the entry level mathematics courses.


     When a student tries to enroll for an entry level course, often he’ll take some sort of placement test to see where he fits as far as reading, writing, and mathematical skills. There are many sorts of tests, each with their own special scoring system, ultimately translated into either “good enough for a college level course” or “should take a remedial course.” Amongst the many choices, most institutions favor some form of standardized test, paying a dollar or two per student for the privilege of having an independent company quickly grade and administer the test online. These tests are far from perfect, but have been around for decades, with constant improvement by many private corporations legitimately interested in providing a better, more accurate product. They are quick, cheap, and about 95% accurate for determining which mathematics course a student should take next. Quick and cheap are important factors—the days of real “entrance examinations” for incoming college students are long over, students want to be admitted quickly, and administration complies. The advantage to online grading is there’s no need to wait for faculty to come in to grade the test; even if no faculty are around, the test can be administered and graded in a matter of minutes, an hour at most and often less. The 95% accuracy might sound very good, but it means that in every classroom of at least 20 students, you’ll expect one student was misdiagnosed by the test.   

     I admit that’s high, but institutions have no choice in the matter: they really need way to figure out where a student belongs. It’s not feasible to administer to every student a 3 hour comprehensive test and hand grade it (this would be around 99% accurate, and costly, assuming an incoming student would take such a test). A fast, cheap test that costs almost nothing to administer is a fine solution, and this as good a way as any to determine the extent of mathematical education a person received in 12 years of public school. To get around the “low” accuracy of the test, any student who complains bitterly enough can take any course he wants, going into remedial if the test says he should be in College Algebra, or vice versa. This event is rare, but happens, usually to the detriment of the student—at some point you have to let a person make his own mistakes.

    As hinted at above, administration hates losing control of students to placement tests, and is always looking into ways to take back control. The most likely way in the future will be through PARCC, a placement test that will allow students to place out of placement tests. It probably will be more accurate, as some parts will be hand-graded, making it harder for a student to look knowledgeable with just a few lucky guesses. A planned trial on 20 million tests will take place soon. It doesn’t take a calculator to see the amount of money being poured into re-inventing the placement tests is huge. Administration clearly wants this control, and a reasonable person might wonder how well they could be trusted with this power.

     A student that does poorly on a placement test, no matter how poorly, is never turned away. “No problem,” says college admissions, “you’ll just need to take a developmental course or two and then you’ll be fine!” Years ago, these types of courses were called “remedial,” and this is a more accurate word, since it indicates a correction of something deficient, in this case deficiency of skills and knowledge that should have been gained in public school. “Remedial” became something of a slur, so they started calling them “developmental,” which administration insists means the same thing, just not a slur. Whatever the name for these courses, administration certainly never tells students that fewer than 1 in 10 remedial students will get a 2 year degree within 3 years1 That’s above a 90% failure rate…these are not good odds for making a low-interest loan. That’s just getting the degree, even with a degree it’s not at all certain the graduate will get a job that pays sufficiently to address the loan.

     And those are the successful students! 40% of students that start in remedial never make it out of remedial courses. Of course, the college gets the loan money, while the student gets the debt, so the college has no reason to tell the student such depressing information…he might change his mind about going to college, and there goes that sweet check.


“Someone’s making a lot of money off this. Not us.”

--Mathematics department head, at another daylong meeting addressing ways to improve remediation.


     Another dirty little secret of remediation is the sheer size of it. College remediation is a 3 billion dollar industry, and over half of incoming community college students will require remedial coursework (around 20% of university students will require remediation, but this is a little misleading since most weaker students get directed towards community college). Keep this in mind when a community is being sold on opening up a community college for “higher education”: the majority of the students there will be learning high school level material—material the community already paid for their children to learn in high school. Universities even have tried to justify rising tuition costs due to all the additional remediation they do. If remediation were truly that expensive, the university could just, well, not admit the remedial students in the first place, although administration would never turn down a warm body.

      Actually, to call the material high school level is rather generous. It makes sense to look at remedial courses in some detail, to make it easier to see what’s going on in this critical stream of institutional revenue. I’ll focus on the math courses since I know them well, although the situation is only a little different in the English courses. We'll start with 'College Algebra' next time.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Just a little post today, with no readers at all, it's hard to stay motivated. But in a day or three I'll start addressing the mess that is remediation/developmental/special ed courses.

Monday, April 1, 2013

The last myth


The Final Myth: “You need a college degree to succeed in life.”


“I had stuff to do.”


--Excuse given by a bright student for why he missed a test. I learned later he had a court hearing. He did graduate eventually, and is now a successful purveyor of recreational chemicals. I don’t imagine his coursework is all that relevant to his occupation.


     “You need a college degree to succeed in life” is the core myth, the one most responsible for so many people ultimately destroying themselves by going to college. Children are told in certain terms that they need a college degree, and this imposed need is why so many sacrifice so much for a degree. They need it, you see. Without a degree they are doomed to failure, or so they’ve been led to believe.

     I don’t imagine my generation is particularly special in this regard, and I’ve certainly encountered many students who firmly believe that to fail at college is to fail at life.  I remember one day when I was a child, and my father, not a jovial man, was visibly happy. I asked him why, and he said it was because he was now certain that he would have the money to send me to college: his son would have a chance of success. I was perhaps 12 years old, and he was happy to have achieved that goal for me. That’s what going to college meant to people of a generation or more ago. The entire purpose of pre-college education is to learn enough to get into and succeed at college, to succeed at life, or so we’ve all been told repeatedly. A look around at the real world shows how this cannot be true.

     Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are household names. Bill Ellison of Oracle is worth over $30 billion. Karl Rove’s political career will be in history books for generations. These extraordinarily successful people never completed college. Dave Thomas (founder of Wendy’s restaurants) never even went to college. From a business or political point of view, it’s very clear lack of a college degree or even entire lack of college education is not an impenetrable barrier to success. Alternatively, there are tens of thousands of MBAs, people with at least two degrees, who have not achieved any comparable success in their business or political ventures.

    Those success stories are of people that worked for themselves, self-made men at the very least. On the other hand, a student intending to work his whole life for someone else might still be well served by learning particular skills, very expensively, at a college, so that someone will hire him. While being someone else’s employee does grant a level of security, the risks there are much higher than you’ve been told—just ask employees of Enron (or most any Detroit auto-worker) how safe it is devote your lives and livelihood to a boss at the top who cares nothing for you. If the myth were “Get a college degree to go work for someone else and hope you don’t get your pension ripped off at the end,” I imagine a college degree wouldn’t be held in quite the same esteem, even though it’s every bit as accurate as the current myth.

     Perhaps my examples are all geniuses, congenital masters at what they do. Do you need to be a genius to work for yourself? Not at all, not even close. My karate instructor, at 71 years old, can casually beat me in a fight even though I’m much larger and faster than he is. He has worked for others, but he’s also been his own boss often. He’s had a barber shop, gym, rental properties, and, of course, dojo…done it all. He can barely write outside what is necessary to fill out government forms. Despte that, by any measure, this is a successful man. And yet, he too, succumbed to the siren song of a college degree, spending nearly 20 years of his life struggling to get one despite the fact that he has no real talent for academics and it never did him any good. I feel grief when I consider all the time and money extracted from this man in pursuit of a worthless degree in Criminology. At least he started before the “easy loan” craze that has harmed so many of the more recent students.

     My mother also has no college degree, and yet managed to run a very successful antique mall, sell real estate, and raise a family with my father (whose college degree helped him only marginally, as he quit working for others, retiring before he was 40 to run his own business). My mother never took a single college course. She also never did require an accountant at her antique business, which had millions in sales and many thousands of customers (my college, incidentally, even when it had less than a thousand students, still required multiple accounting professionals, many with advanced degrees, just to get by).

    The average person doesn’t need college to succeed. Yes, it can help, but the vast majority of degree fields will not financially help in the slightest, and a person absolutely doesn’t need to start adult life four years older and much deeper in (inescapable) debt than he would be without college. Only a sucker could be talked into disadvantaging himself so, a sucker raised from childhood being told he needs it.


“It’s not that I’m the oldest student that bugs me. It’s that all the professors are younger than me, too.”

--comment from a non-traditional student, nonetheless receiving financial aid. If all goes perfectly well, she’ll get her teaching certificate just as she hits 65. For the vast majority of students, all does NOT go perfectly well.


     Institutions now aggressively pursue “non-traditional” students. This is not an officially defined term, but usually applies to students over the age of 24. Certainly, 24 is young enough to re-tool for a new career, but I find it troubling how often I see students 50 years and older in my remedial courses,  “FA” (“Financial Aid”) marked by their name, showing that they’re being loaned money to learn material they haven’t seen since they were in the 8th grade, thirty or more years ago.

     I see no reason to restrict older people from learning whatever they want but…if they’re truly seeking a degree for a financial purpose, why hasn’t someone done the math for them? It’ll take at least five years for them to complete the degree (assuming the very unlikely event that they pass every course on the first try), and they’ll only have a few more years after that to get any use out of the degree in the workforce. Going into debt just makes no financial sense, particularly when these older students, the few that have actually thought about picking an actual field of study, say they’re going for degrees in fields (for example, psychology) that have few job prospects, much less prospects where paying back the money is even slightly possible. Many of them quit their jobs or reduce their income for the privilege of going into debt—so now the lost wages should also factor into the cost of education at this age. It’s painful to watch these nontraditional students bury themselves in years of debt and college, because they were told as children that “good jobs” only went to those with degrees, so they believe they need the degree to be a success in life, and are willing to sacrifice everything to satisfy that need.

     Even more frightening for these older students is the little known detail that the Federal government can recover its loan money through social security payments. There were a mere 54 cases of social security being withheld due to student loans in 2000, but that’s shot up quite a bit in the last decade. In the first eight months of 2012, there were 115,000 retirees that saw their benefits reduced due to student loans8 People aren’t just mortgaging their homes to pay for a college education, they’re risking their retirement as well. While most of these people are at least paying for their own student loans, some of them are having social security payments reduced because of loans they took out for their grandchildren’s education.

     It’s difficult to comprehend the raw power of the myth of “You need a college degree to succeed” to overcome what should be obvious. Grandparents are destroying themselves to give a college education so their grandchildren can “succeed in life,” even as the grandparents in many cases have already demonstrated you don’t need a college degree to succeed in life. Even social security isn’t safe from the destruction of student loan debt. As the younger generation holds more student debt than ever in the history of the world, this probably will only get worse as the years go by.

      Anyone past the age of 50 and employable in any capacity, should think long and hard about going back to school and taking on debt for it, as it is seldom a wise career move. They should also be made aware of the risks they take when they support student loans for their children and grandchildren. Loan money changes college from a life fulfillment issue to a financial issue. Institutions won’t, of course, warn older people against the trap they’re entering, instead encouraging them to “just click the box saying you’re a degree seeking student.”

     Should people get a college education for personal growth? Sure, if that’s what they want. But putting loan money on the table makes education a different matter entirely.

     The pervasiveness of these myths in American culture created a whole population believing that college is ultimately desirable for everyone. These myths might have been true at some point, but college administration introduced policy after policy, snuffing each myth out while creating ever more suckers for the system.

      Of course, many people pulled into the system really aren't ready for college. For them, there's "remediation", which merits a look next.