Vast numbers of students enter community college remedial classes every year. Few are ever heard from again.
Faced with all this, even well-meaning community college personnel often evince a fatalism about their work, focusing more on students’ deficiencies and who’s to blame—the K–12 system, poverty, bad parents—than on what the college can do about them. “Community colleges are open access,” one Sacramento City College administrator told me. “Students can come here whether or not we have courses that are appropriate for them. We get students who can’t read. That blows me away! My curriculum is not designed to teach someone how to read.”
But despite the seemingly intractable nature of the remediation problem, some community colleges are managing to achieve a measure of success. A decade ago, a small group of faculty and administrators at Chaffey College, a large school serving primarily minority students in Rancho Cucamonga, California, grew alarmed at the rising remediation needs of incoming students, 70 percent of whom were placing below college level. Realizing that underprepared students were now the norm rather than the exception, the Chaffey team decided to revamp their entire approach to remediation, first by throwing out the word itself—opting for “foundational skills” instead—and by rethinking it as a schoolwide approach that extended beyond a particular subset of classes. They also framed the entire mission as a “moral imperative” for their college. “We decided not to talk about whose fault it is, because it doesn’t matter,” says Laura Hope, interim dean of instructional support at Chaffey. “That discussion is a waste of time.”
Armed with this notion of responsibility to, rather than simply tolerance of, underprepared students, the group shut down Chaffey’s old-style tutoring center, where students went for help only once they’d started to fail and which focused on helping students get past a particular essay or test, rather than learning skills that could be transferred to new situations. Instead, the college opened several centers that offered students supplementary lessons and learning activities that were linked to the students’ actual class work and were codeveloped by the classes’ instructors. The idea was to extend the reach of the classroom and offer extra instruction that faculty members simply didn’t have time to do themselves—a far more coordinated and intensive approach than the typical drop-in tutoring.
There was some resistance from the “recalcitrant tribal elders,” says Hope—another faculty member described them as “old dinosaurs who would rather bitch about their students”—but it didn’t take long for lots of faculty members to buy into the idea. For once, teachers could reach out to someone else on campus for help with specific problems they had in the classroom.
In the state’s official progress report, Chaffey does not stand out as a superstar. But one outside researcher found that Chaffey—which has the ninth largest remedial population in California’s community college system—was improving more than almost any other college in the state when it comes to getting students through remediation and into regular college-level courses. That rate has steadily improved by over 2 percent annually, meaning an additional 150 students make it through to college-level classes each year. The vast majority of colleges have been stagnant on this measure, or even slid back a bit, but Chaffey has made steady progress in the right direction—a real victory in what is sure to be a long war.
It’s unreasonable to hold community colleges responsible for moving every incoming student with fifth-grade skills toward graduation. What we can reasonably aim for, however, is a system in which more schools perform like Chaffey—in which the schools that currently do the best job of approaching those goals are the standard, rather than the exception. If all of California’s community colleges were improving at the same rate as Chaffey, 25,000 more students would pass into college-level classes over two years’ time. It’s not a sea change, but it’s nothing to sneeze at, either.
Community colleges don’t have an obligation to work miracles, but they do have an obligation to do better—to ensure quality teaching and academic counseling, to pay close attention to student outcomes, to try new approaches when the old ones obviously aren’t working. States and college systems have an obligation to push community colleges that are less enthusiastic than Chaffey to embrace this mindset, by adopting policies that reward innovation, penalize complacency, and require transparent measurement of student performance.
Increasingly, it seems, the federal government is taking this view. So far, Obama’s higher education initiatives are focused on the right things: more resources for community colleges, a focus on completion, strengthening data and research, and improving remedial education for underprepared students. His American Graduation Initiative proposal calls for an unprecedented federal investment in community colleges—$12 billion over the next decade—by way of grants to innovative states and colleges and support for much-needed infrastructure, including research and facilities. A related report from Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers went further, recommending that postsecondary programs and institutions “should have an incentive to continually improve and should be held accountable for their results.” Obama has also made a smart move by naming a well-respected former California community college chancellor, Martha J. Kanter, as his undersecretary of education.
Feed the Political AnimalDonate
Washington Monthly depends on donations from readers like you.