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Can we axe remedial classes?

Remedial math and English classes were designed to help students prepare for college-level courses, but research has shown that they actually made it harder for students to finish college. Students would get stuck in these remedial courses, that they often didn’t actually need, get frustrated and drop out.

Despite efforts to limit remedial classes in California, many colleges are still offering them. A new bill would go further to almost completely eliminate these classes. What would it take to get rid of remedial courses and why does it matter?

Education Beat is a weekly podcast hosted by EdSource’s Zaidee Stavely and produced by Coby McDonald.

Transcript:

Anne:

Welcome to Education Beat. I’m Anne Vasquez, CEO of EdSource. There’s a bill now on Governor Gavin Newsom’s desk that would essentially ban remedial math and english classes for community college students. Remedial classes were designed to help students who aren’t ready for college level courses get up to speed, but research has shown that they actually have made it harder for students to finish college. Many get stuck in these remedial courses that they don’t actually need. And then get frustrated.

Anne Gloag:

Having this long, long path for students. We lost a lot of students, basically. I think only like 5% of students actually made it through the college level, their first college level math class.

Anne:

What are colleges doing to limit remedial courses? How would this bill help? Here is this week’s Education Beat with host Zaidee Stavely.

Zaidee:

Anne Gloag has always loved math.

Anne Gloag:

I grew up in Romania and there wasn’t this like fear of math that I found when I came to America. So just me liking math was not an unusual thing.

Zaidee:

Anne moved to the US and high school and went to college here. She’s now the chair of the math department at San Diego Miramar College. She’s found she also loves teaching math.

Anne Gloag:

Students all come with their own stories. And I just like to get to know them and figure out how their brain works. Basically. I really love problem solving. It’s like, how do you figure out this puzzle and different people approach it in different ways. So just that curiosity, my curiosity of figuring out how other people solve problems is probably my biggest motivation.

Zaidee:

But for a long time, Anne had a problem with some of her math courses. She taught several remedial classes. These are courses that are designed to help catch students up if they didn’t have enough math knowledge to take a college level math course. Students would be directed to enroll in those courses based on a placement test. But Anne thought many of her students in those classes really didn’t need to be there.

Anne Gloag:

A lot of students found it too easy. A lot of students would come out of high school with having taken a full sequence of math classes. Like they would’ve been taking pre-calculus or calculus even. And they would be placed in these courses, which they absolutely didn’t need. They knew the material, but then they would kind of check out because it was not challenging for them. It was very demotivating. And they would just check out and stop showing up.

Zaidee:

Worse, the remedial courses made students path through college a lot longer.

Anne Gloag:

If they had to start at the, sort of the lowest level math class, which was like pre algebra, they would have to take three remedial level math classes before they got into the college level. So I think only like 5% of students actually made it to the college level or through the college level at their first college level math class. So basically we lost a lot of students through the cracks. And probably I suspect by not passing their math classes, they probably dropped out. So they didn’t actually get the college experience that they wanted.

Zaidee:

So when California passed AB 705 in 2017, Anne was excited.

Anne Gloag:

Yeah, I think I was celebrating.

Zaidee:

AB 705 said colleges can’t place students in remedial classes unless they’re highly unlikely to succeed in college level coursework. The whole math team at Anne’s college got together and figured out how to eliminate most of their remedial courses. For one, students no longer take a placement test for math. Instead they show their high school transcripts. Second, if they do need extra help, they can take a companion class that helps cover some of the basics they need, but they take it at the same time as their college level class. They call these classes co-requisites instead of prerequisites because you’re getting the required information at the same time, rather than before. And at Miramar they’ve eliminated most of the remedial classes, but they still have a few they’re still offering.

Anne Gloag:

So we went from like, you know, 30 or 40 courses to down to two. So it it’s been a huge transition, but so we’re basically down to our last couple of sections of pre courses.

Zaidee:

This is Education Beat, getting to the heart of California schools. I’m Zaidee Stavely. This week, cutting remedial classes in community college.

Zaidee:

San Diego Miramar College isn’t the only college that’s still offering remedial classes. In fact, more than a third of the system’s colleges, 46 in total, are still offering remedial courses this fall. Some of them are offering quite a few more than Miramar. So now there’s a new bill to try to get them to eliminate more remedial classes. My colleague Michael Burke has been writing for EdSource about the push to remove remedial courses from community colleges. So Michael, will you go back a little bit and, and tell me what was the reasoning behind AB 705?

Michael:

Back in 2017, leading up to that legislative session, there was quite a bit of research including from PPIC that basically showed that students who took those remedial pre transfer level classes were not successful in completing degrees or certificates or whatever their goal was. I think there was a couple figures in the story this week that basically showed that that was the case. I think 16% of students who took those classes actually earned their certificate or degree within four years and less than a quarter of them ended up transferring to a four year university. So that, I think that was kind of that research was the main impetus behind the bill and it especially impacted black and Latino students as well.

Zaidee:

Have you spoken with students about, you know, their experiences with remedial courses?

Michael:

Yeah, I have. And I think it definitely reflects at least the students I’ve talked to, you know, some of that research. Students who were in remedial classes, I talked to one last year who she ended up dropping out of school completely. And she was out of school for, you know, 10 years. This was in the mid two thousands. Came back to community college at City College of San Francisco, right around the time when 705 was passed and was able to kind of use that to convince her counselors to let her go into transfer level. And so she, because of that, was ended up transferring. I think she’s now at San Francisco State University. And I’ve talked to other students who feel like the law is important, because a lot of times counselors, for example, might recommend remedial classes. And even when it’s not in the student’s view is not necessary or students might not necessarily have the the knowledge might not know exactly, you know, that 705 exists and that there are these laws that give them the right to go into transfer level classes. Like I talked to one student who she was aware of 705, but she had a counselor who was pretty strongly recommended that she take remedial classes. And this student, because she was aware of the law was kind of able to still convince the counselor to let her go into the transferable classes. But she had sort of expressed concerns to me that maybe other students don’t necessarily know about the law and are still being, you know, funneled into those remedial classes.

Zaidee:

So AB 705 was viewed by many as a partial success. 93% of introductory math courses across the state are now college level. Up from 36% in 2017. Students have also been more successful. Back in 2018, only 24% of first time math students completed college level math within one term. In fall 2020 46% of them did. But so many colleges are still offering the remedial courses that California lawmakers went a step further recently passing a new law, AB 1705. Michael, can you explain that new law?

Michael:

Yeah. So 1705 I think the, one of the main differences is 705, still left some discretion to colleges. It still left room for colleges to place students or enroll students in those remedial classes. The new law, basically, it makes it way stricter, there’s way more specific rules. You know, colleges, basically there’s a few subgroups of students, you know, students who are in adult education classes or career and technical education classes. Some students who, you know, never graduated high school. There’s very specific groups of students that colleges are allowed to enroll in remedial classes under this law were not enrolled in transfer classes. And beyond that it’s really difficult for colleges to enroll any students in remedial classes. And I think that’s the big difference. It really outlines sort of the specific scenarios where it’s acceptable, whereas in the past it just said you have to enroll students in transfer level unless they’re highly unlikely to succeed. And that kind of left some discretion to colleges to sort of determine and the counselors to determine what fits that highly unlikely to succeed definition.

Zaidee:

Is anyone opposed to the bill?

Michael:

Yes, there’s definitely some opposition. I think the most notable example of that would be the Faculty Association for the Community Colleges, which is a statewide advocacy group. And their opposition basically boils down to, they agree actually that 705 was a good thing that for most students. It makes sense to skip past those remedial classes. But they’re basically worried that this new bill is gonna be too prohibitive. It’s gonna basically make it so that no students can take remedial classes. And in their view there are maybe 10% of students where remedial classes maybe make sense. And they’re worried that those students, you know, are gonna have to go right into transfer level and maybe they’re not ready for those classes. Maybe it will discourage them. So they just basically feel that the new bill goes a little too far, is a little too strict, and that 705 was enough. The other argument to that is that these transfer level classes students at most colleges have the option to simultaneously enroll in what’s called a co-requisite class where basically they can get extra help, extra tutoring with the transfer level coursework. And so that’s sort of something that, you know, if you’re not completely ready for the transfer level class, it could help sort of with the course material.

Zaidee:

The reasons why colleges are still offering remedial classes vary. Anne Gloag says the main reason San Diego Miramar still has two remedial classes is because other departments require them as prerequisites. For example, the chemistry department requires intermediate algebra and the career and technical education department also requires intermediate algebra before studying fire and diesel technology.

Anne Gloag:

Our goal for over the next few years is to create a transfer level math course with those departments that will get the math skills that the students need. But we need to build a curriculum, get it approved, and so on. So that’s a that’s a fairly long process and it needs to also be aligned with the CSUs and the UCs. So it might be a 2, 3, 4 year process to get a new course written and approved.

Zaidee:

Spokespeople at other colleges told Michael other reasons for offering remedial courses.

Michael:

I think it definitely varies from college to college. I talked to one college Questa College on the Central Coast, and I talked to their VP of instruction. And according to him, their reasoning for offering those classes, it’s very specifically for STEM students who have been out of college specifically for a long time. And for those students to kind of get caught up on, you know, math and sort of those remedial classes and the coursework. And those courses are definitely optional, but he was telling me that in all, I think they have four sections and each of them have are basically almost completely full more than 90% full. So in their view, that’s sort of indicative that there still is demand from some students. So that college kind of feels that it’s important for students in that specific population to have the option, to take those classes.

Zaidee:

And it’s interesting to me because, you know, some of the colleges are saying, well, we still have a lot of demand. The students are in these classes. But one of the things that Anne Gloag told us is that, you know, if the classes exist, students are gonna take them.

Anne Gloag:

Students will choose to go into them because they’re there, even though they probably will be successful in those classes with support. I have like a particular student. Right now, I’m teaching trigonometry with support. And I had a student in first two weeks of class and he was doing really well. He would’ve probably be absolutely successful in that class, but he was anxious because he’s been outta school for a while. And he talked to me, I said, I encouraged him. Yeah, you should stay. Definitely. You’re doing well. You know, you’re missing some skills. It’s okay. We’ll practice them. But he dropped my class and he decided to take the lower level. So because it was there right. So I think if we keep those classes around, the students will self-select to take the lower level class. I mean, some might need it. It might be beneficial for some, but I think we can accommodate them in the correct support and they can be a large portion of them could be successful.

Zaidee:

So, Michael, it seems like it’s not just about expecting the students to self-advocate or decide to go into the higher level course. It’s also about, you know, helping them realize that they can actually do that higher level course.

Michael:

That’s definitely true. And actually one of the colleges that’s still offering remedial classes I talked to in Contra Costa Community College District, they’re still offering several sections of remedial classes this fall. And one of their administrators that I interviewed he actually reached out to all the students directly that are in those classes. He just make sure they know, Hey, there are these new laws 705 that say you don’t need to be in these classes. You can go straight to the transfer level, especially if your goal is to transfer. And he heard, you know, anecdotally from a lot of those students that they weren’t aware of that, that they really shouldn’t have been in those remedial classes. So I think there is something to that. That if these classes exist, students will take them. Even if maybe it’s not in their best interest, maybe even if you know that they maybe they wouldn’t take the classes if they are more aware of their options.

Zaidee:

Thank you for listening to this week’s episode of Education Beat, getting to the heart of California schools, a production of EdSource. You can find Michael’s story at edsource.org. Our producer is Coby McDonald. Special thanks to our guests, Anne Gloag and Michael Burke. Our CEO is Anne Vasquez. Our theme music is from Blue Dot Sessions. This episode was brought to you by the College Futures Foundation. I’m Zaidee Stavely. Join me next week and subscribe. So you won’t miss an episode.

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