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...

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