Dr. Paul Nolting's Academic Success Press Blog: A Publication Dedicated to Math Success
Dr. Paul Nolting's Academic Success Press Blog: A Publication Dedicated to Math Success
Hello readers! As promised, here is Part Two of our conversation with Dr. Barbara Illowsky. Topics discussed include: the history and efficacy of math redesigns, the general tenor of the current conversation regarding these redesigns, and the benefits and dangers of the math pathway system.
ASP Blog: Can you start by giving us a brief overview of the state of the redesign movement in California and its chief motivations?
Illowsky: California accounts for nearly 10% of all students nationwide and currently has over 2 million community college students. We take the top 100% of everyone who applies, so long as they are 18 years old or 16 years old with a high school degree. So students can come to us at 18. They do not have to have a high school degree or GED. They do not have to have ever even been in high school. They might have been a fourth-grade dropout; they can still enter the California community college system.
California has been very involved in the math redesign movement. This stems from low success rates and the need for students to be able to complete their associate degree and to complete their mathematics course for the bachelor’s degree. Many mathematics and statistics faculty decided that there are topics in traditional elementary and intermediate algebra courses that are not necessary to make a well-rounded and educated person, nor for students to succeed in non-STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) transfer-level mathematics courses, such as statistics. In the past, students who did not need any mathematics except to graduate typically had to take college algebra or pre-calculus. Much to my delight, because I’m a statistician, California has been one of the leaders in recognizing that ending [math curriculum] on pre-calculus or college algebra is not necessarily valuable. Ending it with statistics or a practical and useful mathematics course is much more helpful.
In addition, many majors require statistics. For example, at my college, we offer about 100 to 110 sections a year of elementary statistics. That and intermediate algebra are our highest offered mathematics courses. Students need statistics [in their fields]—social science majors, pre-med students, business majors, education majors. All these students need statistics but don’t necessarily need college algebra or pre-calculus unless they are moving on to calculus.
So that’s where the movement started. What put me personally in the hot seat, is that around 1999 I initiated a movement about changing Title 5 of the California Education Code. In the past, the minimum statewide graduation requirements to get an associate degree were elementary algebra competency and English at one-below transfer level. This meant that we had mathematics graduation requirements that were lower than most high school requirements. We were almost saying to students, “Can’t pass high school? Don’t worry, come to college and you can get your associate degree.” That did not seem right. So I initiated and eventually worked with many of the associations that were involved in changing Title 5 so that the graduation requirements for an associate degree would be the first level of freshman English, or courses at the same level and rigor, which had the similar prerequisites. On the math side of it, I really felt that [graduation requirements] should go up to a college-level math, but we couldn’t go up two levels—so we went with intermediate algebra or a mathematics course at that same level of rigor and with elementary algebra as its prerequisite.
But here is the part that is really important and led to the redesign movement, and I’m happy that it did. As I said, students could also complete a course at the same level as intermediate algebra with the same level of rigor, so long as it had elementary algebra as its main prerequisite. At the time, there were no alternate pathways. The intent behind all of this was to figure out a way to increase students’ understanding of and competency at quantitative methods, not necessarily that students would all now have to take intermediate algebra. So many schools said, “We are going to have intermediate algebra as a graduation requirement and that is fine.” Other schools said, “Well we are going to have geometry because that is a useful course.” Some schools said, “We are going to give students a choice between geometry or intermediate algebra.”
Pathways weren’t even a part of this discussion because there was no way to lead these innovations while maintaining that elementary algebra had to be one of the prerequisite courses. The truth was, the math courses that were being offered by other departments were really two levels below transfer mathematics. There was concern that other departments would develop a math course and want this to be the graduation requirement, but the math courses would be at such a low mathematical level that they wouldn’t suffice.
ASP Blog: With whom were you working on this at the time?
Illowsky: It was the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges that really took the lead on this. I initiated and brought it in, but it was really the Academic Senate that ran with it and had the votes and then worked with all of the statewide organizations. I certainly don’t want to take any credit for getting this through. Really what happened was that three other people came up with the Basic Skills Initiative (BSI) —I was the first project director, but I didn’t invent the BSI. I was asked to be the project director because the Academic Senate said, “OK, Barbara, you initiated the raising of the graduation requirements, so put your money where your mouth is.” The pre-BSI work included a strong review of the literature that said for the basic skill level courses, success requires strong administrative support, strong student services support, strong organizational practices, and strong pedagogy. This was really what Dr. Paul Nolting and Dr. Hunter Boylan had been saying for years.
I think the work that Dr. Nolting does is fabulous. The same goes for the National Center for Developmental Education. There is increased focus on staff development—which is now called professional development—which doesn’t merely require staff to go to a conference once a year but to keep working to improve teaching and student learning. This also involves increasing focus on instructional practices with collaborative learning, not strictly standing and lecturing nonstop. It is so important to integrate support services into whatever course you have. No matter what program you do (such as pathways or elementary and intermediate algebra), we all need to adopt good pedagogical techniques. What are the good practices? We know what they are. Dr. Boylan and the National Center for Developmental Education have documented these practices. Dr. Nolting knows what they are. Whatever we decide to do – pathways or the algebra route – we need to adopt effective practices.
ASP Blog: How well are the redesigns working? Are we seeing marked, noticeable benefits from these redesigns? How do people feel about them right now?
Illowsky: There is major enthusiasm and major concerns. Mathematics departments, as far as I can tell, are totally split on the types of redesigns. There are several types of redesigns. Some involve embedding student support into the curriculum--not changing the curriculum. I don’t think that anybody is against this. The redesign that uses statistics to determine where you can eliminate certain topics in intermediate algebra—and this is what many of the most well-known projects are doing—is much more controversial. You have great supporters and you have mathematics faculty who feel that [redesigns] water down curriculum. You also have mathematics faculty who believe this is the way we need to go because some curriculum is outdated.
Starting with data analysis and descriptive statistics right on day one, I think is fabulous. I can remember when I first started teaching at De Anza College, and I brought in one of the first changes to intermediate algebra on topics that I believed were no longer needed because of technology. For example, we used to, but no longer, teach how to compute logarithms using logarithm tables. We don’t teach this anymore pretty much anywhere across the country because it is not really needed. Technology has made [reading logarithm tables] an unnecessary topic. There are other topics that the redesign movements are saying, “Well if students are not going to go on to STEM careers—science, technology, engineering, mathematics, or business—but are instead going into humanities, social science, or art, do they really need these particular topics?” What students actually need is to be able to analyze data—not necessarily do the actual number crunching of the data, but be able to read a newspaper and understand what surveys and charts mean, whether they are biased or unbiased.
The math community is split [on using pathways instead of the algebra sequence]. I think the redesigns are wonderful, but I think there are two big caveats with all of this. First, [redesigns] should not replace providing students with support, study skills, and counseling. These items are all necessary to math programs. For the most part, successful programs focus on these services. Second, we need to make sure that our ultimate goal is not to help students pass elementary algebra or statistics or even earn a bachelor degree. Our ultimate goal is for students to become contributing members to society and to apply mathematical concepts to their own life situations. We also need to makes sure that students are able to achieve their own goals. We need to make sure we counsel students carefully before we direct them into any program. Some students [without knowing it] are reducing the possibility that they can major in a subject matter that offers the highest wages and broadest career choices. This is very touchy because I am not putting any judgment on what it means to get a humanities degree or art degree or psychology bachelor’s, but we do know that the job market is better for some majors and that engineers are paid higher than many other professions. We do know that nurses are paid higher; we do know that bookkeepers are paid higher; we do know that even teachers are paid higher.
Many minority and nontraditional students are not majoring in these high paying disciplines. So there are many state and national programs that work to encourage students in underrepresented groups to major in these careers. At the same time, we are guiding them to an alternate pathway that eliminates being able to major in these careers. Students are often required to make this choice early because they are making it at the time when they are choosing elementary algebra or a different pathway.
ASP Blog: So you are saying that the fact that students have to make a decision so early on in their college careers as to what pathway they will take toward graduation, restricts their flexibility to make changes if they have a sudden change of heart? Students who may choose an easier math pathway before their first semester may decide later on that they want to go into a major that might lead to a more lucrative career, but will not have the knowledge or prerequisite courses to enroll in higher-level math courses?
Illowsky: Right. Some people will say, “Well students may not know what they want to major in, but they do know what they hate.” They know they hate engineering, science, etc. But maybe they don’t hate [these subjects]. Maybe they take a few courses and find out that they really like them. I’m not against pathways. I think they are fabulous. What I do suggest is that we make it really, really clear to students that pathways directly [affect what they can eventually major in]. I know that the Dana Center [at UT Austin], for instance, is working on a bridge for students who decide to change majors.
ASP Blog: Is there anything else that you would like to discuss?
Illowsky: Sure. There are a couple of things that I do want to mention.
First, the University of California now accepts STATWAY for transfer. California State University has said that they will accept statistics if it is a part of certain alternate pathways, on a case-by-case basis. In general, they are in support of the alternate pathways leading up to statistics. One thing that is common to all of these programs, but is not unique to all of these programs, is an emphasis on real-world application and collaborative learning and analyzing problems. One of the great accomplishments of these programs is that they have really brought out into the public the value of non-lecture math courses. They have highlighted the value of working together with groups, with real-world problem solving. Many of us have been doing this for years and years. But the majority [of teachers] still mostly stand and lecture, and their group work is maybe five minutes of, “Do you have any questions for me?”
I also want to talk about one more concern about redesigns—state and national. We haven’t seen the expansion far enough yet to know whether or not [redesigns] will work on a larger scale. We are taking some star faculty, who have all of the resources available to them and are statistically some of the best faculty in their departments—the ones who are innovative and are willing to try new things—and we are using them to represent instructors in general.
But the masses of developmental education courses in all disciplines—mathematics, English, reading, writing—are typically taught by adjunct faculty. Many of our adjunct faculty are our best faculty, but they often do not have access to professional development by the nature of the structure [of adjunct faculty]. This has nothing to do with their desire or abilities, but they are often going from one college to another. The redesigns at these colleges vary. This does not allow adjunct professors the opportunity for strong professional development.
So what we typically see are the great success rates from star faculty. We don’t know how this will scale out to the masses of all faculty. We don’t know if this will work, because we don’t know whether the faculty without professional development or those who don’t want to change or those who are told to teach things one way at one college and a different way at another college are going to [succeed with redesigns].
When I applied for my first teaching job at my college, I applied for a full-time position. I was called on a Friday so that I could start teaching on the next Monday. I was handed a book, I was handed a course outline, and was basically told, “OK, we are going to make this pretty easy on you. Don’t worry. Just do …” This is not that different from the way many adjunct faculty are still hired nationwide right now. So we don’t really know what is going to happen [as redesigns] are scaled out [nationwide].
All of this being said, it is still essential that we continue to offer, research, and expand many of the most successful pathways in order to educate and serve our students.
Few in the world of college education wear more hats than Dr. Barbara Illowsky. A well-known educator based at De Anza College in Cupertino, California, Illowsky, in addition to her contributions to the national developmental mathematics redesign movement, has also spent years on the vanguard of using modern technology to improve student learning. In 2013, she won the OCW Consortium Educator Award for her decade-long effort to promote open education through her open textbook, Introductory Statistics.
We recently had the pleasure of chatting with Illowsky. The first part of the interview involves the history of her open textbook and the future of the textbook industry. Part Two will focus on math redesigns. Enjoy!
ASP Blog: How did you get involved with the open textbook movement?
Illowsky: The reason I originally got involved with open education resources (OER) was because of the need to save students money. Not just to save them money for the sake of saving money, but because students are not always able to attend college, even when they get tuition waivers and financial aid, because the textbooks are so expensive. I had two incredible mentors in this: my chancellor, Dr. Martha Kanter, who became Undersecretary of Education; and Hal Plotkin, who was our board of trustees. At our district, he was the real force behind [OER] because of his own experiences of not being able to afford text books. Plotkin became senior policy analyst for the Obama administration in the department of education.
It really opened my eyes [working for these people], so I began to think, “What can I do to help students?” In California, we accept the top 100 percent of students who apply to college in the community college system. But the issue is, they come, but because financial aid might not come through for two to three weeks, they go two to three weeks without textbooks. Susan Dean, my coauthor, and I, began to wonder what we could do to make a big difference from our end. I couldn’t change financial aid, I couldn’t change tuition, I couldn’t change whether or not someone needs childcare, but what I could do was make sure students did not need to pay for a statistics textbook.
We were really in the right place at the right time. Our book became an open education resource. What this means is that even before day one, students can go online and get the whole textbook. They don’t have to wait two weeks. They don’t have to decide whether or not their children will go on a field trip versus the cost of a textbook. They don’t have to use their GI-bill funding for it. The book is free.
ASP Blog: What were your initial experiences with offering your book as an open education resource? It must have been scary relinquishing control over your work.
Illowsky: Freedom was behind all of this: access to the book from day one. What ended up happening over the years—I’ve been involved since 2005 or so—the book started getting better. The people who used it made suggestions. Through the Rice University Connexions platform, and now through OpenStax College, we were able to pick and choose what we wanted to incorporate into the book. Users could then customize the book. All they had to do was give us attribution for the first book. Or if it was something we thought might improve the textbook from our end, we could immediately make changes. We did this many times. A professor at another university even wrote a 1,000 question test bank to go along with it. Someone else created PowerPoints to go along with it—so we got this huge community of people around the country that wanted to share different parts.
This led to a much better textbook, and it also led to innovation. The for-profits became involved with this because it had a creative commons attribution license. This meant that for-profits did not have to pay to use the book. Publishers and bookstores could print the book without paying a fee.
Some people say, of course, “Why would you allow a company to make money off of your book when you don’t?” The first for-profit that I personally became involved with was WebAssign. I was at AMATYC and doing the very first presentation on open textbooks. The room was packed. It was greatly received, but several people said to me, “This would be great and I would use this, but all of the for-profits have homework grading systems with their books.” So I went down, and I was in the vendor area, and I met with WebAssign. I asked them if they had ever considered doing a homework system for an open textbook. They didn’t know what an open textbook was. They looked into it, and they decided to get into that market. Mine was their first open textbook; now they have a few others. They worked really well with me.
I thought I was doing this just as a way to get homework graded quickly. As it turned out, the more I used WebAssign, the more I found out it was helping students to increase their learning because it wasn’t just grading yes and no questions. It actually involved a learning system. Students do pay for this—about $30—but the book is free, and I give them the option. Almost all of the students do it though, because of the feedback potential.
Another example is that Apple made an iBook with it. This allows students to pay $4.99 for the book to use on their iPad or phone. They can highlight with their finger, and they can do assessment that doesn’t come to me. They can know if they are getting things right or wrong. This is an improvement of learning—and all of this does not require a student to pay, it just gives them more options.
ASP Blog: How are people using your book? I imagine by offering it for free and allowing users to adjust the text to their own needs, your book is used in radically different ways in radically different places.
Illowsky: A school in Sweden took one chapter and used it for their doctoral psychology program because it explains a concept that wasn’t in their other textbook. A dental school on the East Coast used the book in a similar way. Students in a dental program do not need to spend their money on an entire statistics textbook—especially when they only need one chapter. Once, a few high schools students in an AP statistics course wrote to me to tell me that they were using the open videos I made to go along with the textbook. Their teacher, who did not really know statistics, used the videos and learned along with the students. Because they were free and creative commons licensed, they were able to do that.
ASP Blog: I'm curious, how do you think open textbooks will affect the future of college learning? What you are describing here is a totally malleable and adaptable text. This is something that was not possible until the last ten years. In one way, then, open textbooks would seem to represent the future, in that you can create intellectual property that will organically evolve through collective use. But will we ever, as a collective culture, be able to get past the desire to make money off of educational texts?
Illowsky: What I can tell you is that we DID make money off of the original book. It started off as a for-profit book (though it was affordably priced). We sold it to the bookstores for $38 and they sold it for $50. As for the open book, a foundation bought the copyright from us and donated it to Rice University with the idea of us giving up all future royalties. We gave it all up, but we did receive a one-shot payment.
Still, this is different from the traditional model. I just read about a Harvard professor who made $42 million off an economic textbook in one year. He was defending that, and I’m not going to say anything about that one way or the other, but I really feel that getting paid for the work once is enough. I don’t need to get paid every year for work I did ten years ago.
The bigger and better part of this is that I feel really good. Students have come up to me and told me that they probably would have dropped a course without the book. We all get paid for our work. I get paid for teaching. I go around and speak at colleges and conventions. But the idea that we have established a collective community of sharing is [worth more than money]. The faculty who have made the test banks and PowerPoints see this as a part of their professional responsibility. I have not made money off of the book for more than ten years, but I still want to work on improving it because I think that it is important.
ASP Blog: Before we wrap up this first part of our talk, I'd like to ask you about any links between open textbooks and developmental education. Are there any open developmental math books?
Illowsky: Sure. There are a lot of open textbooks at the developmental education level. I have been working with faculty on adopting free and open developmental textbooks, and I also want to add low-cost, because there are some companies that have textbooks for $30 or so. This is fine; they are paying their employees to work after all. Free is ideal, but $30 or $40 is not the same as $250 for a one-semester course.
ASP Blog: This is all particularly interesting because the textbook industry is completely in flux right now. Publishers are having to come to terms with the changing expectations of students and changing university expectations—what people are willing to spend and what they are willing to spend it on. Many are struggling to adapt.
Illowsky: I think that publishers do a good service. But compare a mass market paperback book that costs $15.99—for which a whole series of people are getting paid to write, review, and edit—then compare this to a college textbook at $200. I would be thrilled if all of the major publishers were able to work out their business plans so that they could make money, and faculty could make money, but their costs were low enough that students could access them on day one, and not come out of school in debt or drop classes.
Click here to read Part Two of our conversation with Barbara Illowsky.
ASP Blog: How can colleges determine what types of students belong in what types of courses. Is it a matter of assessment?
Goosen: Universities have an advantage here because they usually bring students in for several days of orientation. In that time, they have the ability to [assess and get to know students]. Community colleges usually, if they have orientation, have four hours for orientation. Often, what happens is, the first day students are in class, most instructors can pick out who has no clue about what they’ve said over the last hour.
At San Jacinto, we do some assessment. What has happened in Texas is that our state has required that we do a pre-assessment activity. At my institution, we developed our own guide. We don’t have the education planners or the faculty advisors to spend a lot of time with these students, but our guide does feature non-cognitive questions. Things like, “What was the last math class you took?” Or, “Do you enjoy math?” Or, “How many hours do you work per week, and does your boss mind you being here?” Or, “How are you getting here, do you have reliable transportation?” Some of these questions give us insight into who these students are.
For those students who say, “I have always hated math,” you aren’t going to put them into an accelerated pathway right away. We recruit for these pathways from our beginning classes. Instructors know [capable students]. They have an idea of who should go into what pathway because they’ve had a chance to work with the students. They have seen their work, they know them, they’ve had conversations with them, and we can then determine where they go.
The important piece around that: we had a movement for a while that said, “Let’s do everything online. Let’s register them online, let’s advise them online, etc.” The problem with that was that the students we see need to know a face. They need personal interaction. That is why our Intentional Connections program is working because students see faces, and they go back to these faces, and they meet several people who can help them every semester. They don’t just visit an education planning office. Individual students always have the same faculty advisor, and they know who that advisor is, and they feel confident in what that person is going to tell them. We have many good advisors in our education planning center, but you always get a different one when you walk in the door. Consistency connects students to an institution. The repetitiveness of hearing, “You belong here, and here are the resources that can help you,” helps students get to where they need to go. It is more than whatever they got on a test score.
Some schools have figured out how to give non-cognitive tests. They do use those in placement. We have more of a relaxed way to do it, but I think that it does get to the heart of who a student is rather than having him take an assessment that may or may not work.
ASP Blog: What is it that has decreased the amount of face-to-face interaction in colleges? Is it that policymakers are worried about logistical issues, or is it some weird fear of defying modernity or something? It seems fairly obvious that students would benefit from personal attention.
Goosen: It is mainly an economic thing. That’s just my opinion. It costs money to have people sitting in your advising center. Quite honestly, our students don’t typically go to the advising center. You have peak times, like right now, I’m sure there is a line outside of our advising center. But then what do you do a few weeks into the semester and everybody is enrolled? What do you do with all of these people that theoretically don’t have a job? You have to figure out what to do with them.
We have integrated them into our instructional piece. They come to all of our student success courses, they are doing presentations, and they are reconnecting with students. We give them a job once they get students into classes. They are a part of what we are doing all year.
Part of it is logistics. We don’t have enough advisors. We bring in 5,000 new students, not including returning students. That is a huge number of people. So we are trying to be more efficient about it. If you are new to our school and you are a developmental student who is forced into education planning, how we get around that is, they have to register during orientation. We take them into the lab and we register them. Many schools are doing this, and it is a really good technique. Get them for orientation, explain everything, take them into a lab and help them register. They still register on computers, but to have a person sitting next to you and help you through it, that becomes a huge part of this.
Bottom line, it is personnel and people intensive. It costs money. Our state has, and most states have, cut budgets. [Our budget] used to be about 60% [from the state] and now we are down to 30%. Everything else is through tuition and property tax. So you try to be economical. Computers are cheaper. Still, students need to connect with someone at the institution. Quite honestly, this is usually the instructor in the classroom. Who do they see more? They go to orientation, and they see the lovely girl standing in front of the room, and they may never see her again. They don’t know her name. But when they go to the classroom two or three times a week, [the teacher] is the person that they come to know.
I’m lucky that I work at an institution where the two sides have figured out how to do all of this [administrative and instructional]. It is not us against them. It is us together, trying to help students succeed. A lot of schools just don’t have the money to [pull this off].
ASP Blog: Is there any hope that budgets will some day increase, or is it more productive to learn how to thrive in this new status quo?
You go anywhere, and you hear that college is expensive. And it is, and prices have gone up. I think community colleges are an economical oasis in a lot of places. My brother sent his kids to out of state Big 10 schools, then he figured out that the community college would have given him a better education cheaper. I kind of laughed when he told me that.
Understanding that the education students receive at community colleges is quality is important. Students aren’t put in classes with 500 students. Teachers know their names. But having said all of that, I think there is a big push in the U.S. about how expensive college is. I don’t see the states contributing any more. I think the policymakers have been very effective in how they have influenced this agenda that developmental education is costing schools a lot.
Most students who go to college are in the upper quartile economically. There is not a lot of room for growth there. Where there is room for growth is in the lower two quartiles of economic situations. They don’t have a lot of money to go to college. That is where colleges is where students are going to have to pull from to increase the number of workers we need, the number of students we need getting degrees and certificates. I don’t see that happening in the present economic situation. I don’t think a lot of people understand this.
Hello Readers! We at Academic Success Press hope you had a blessed holiday break! To get the New Year off to a great start, we thought we'd begin by publishing an interview we conducted last summer with Dr. Rebecca Goosen. One of our country's foremost experts on developmental education, Goosen is the Associate Vice-Chancellor and Dean of College Preparatory at San Jacinto College in Houston, Texas. During her 16-year stay at San Jacinto, she has helped her student body—largely comprised of first-generation college students from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds—improve math success rates from 15% to 50%. Dr. Goosen has also served as the President Elect for the National Association of Developmental Education.
This conversation is particularly interesting as it provides great insight into the thought processes of a faculty-minded administrator who is not afraid to try out new initiatives in order to improve the success and experiences of her students.
Check back on Wednesday for the continuation of our talk.
(Photo taken from San Jacinto's Website).
Academic Success Press Blog: To start us off, would you mind describing your general goals for San Jacinto College—and particularly for your developmental education programs?
Goosen: Many of our students come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. For a lot of our students, their only access to education is through us. They are not typically coming directly out of high school. If students [in our town] say they are going to college, most often they are referring to us. So we have a huge challenge here. Our students come from poor backgrounds, poor high schools. We see many first-generation Americans. We really have to focus on what they need.
Things are not suggested at San Jacinto, they are mandated. Nobody is allowed in a class after it has met the first time. We have no late payments. We have a mandatory student success course. Everybody takes that course and has to reenroll until they pass it. This really helps students understand the campus and college systems. We have so many first generation students; they don’t really understand how to traverse the institution. When you say, "go to the registrar office," they have no idea what you are talking about.
We also have mandatory reading courses. Reading is important in whatever subjects students go into. Once you start your reading and writing sequence, you move forward and take it every semester until you complete the sequence. It is the same with mathematics. We have switched over to integrated learning and writing; students take the subjects together.
For the very low-level students, the state of Texas has put a floor into developmental education. Students who are just below that floor—they have a high school diploma—we put them in a program called Intentional Connections. These students are put into a learning community with an independent reading class and independent writing class. They are presented with all of the career paths we have here, and they leave with an individual education plan of their choosing. This has been extremely successful. We are seeing 90% of these students still in school at the end of the semester. We have only been doing this for four years, but people are beginning to emerge on the other side with credentials and jobs in the workplace.
ASP: Wow. So your approach seems to be intentionally rigid in some ways, though it also allowing students to obtain skills that will fit their own individual needs. The keys here seem to be structure and efficacy. This reminds me of a conversation I recently had with Hunter Boylan. We discussed the false premise that developmental education is inherently ineffective. When developmental education programs fail, some people blame developmental education itself, rather than faulty individual courses or systems. There has been at least some chatter about getting rid of developmental education altogether. This is the case in Texas as well, correct?
Goosen: (Laughs). Yes. That's a big deal in Texas. Our governing board has brought in various initiatives who see us as a problem. There are two definitions of what [these people] talk about. They talk about "remedial education," and they use that term incorrectly. Remedial education is a series of classes taught independently, which hopes students merely get through [on their way to credited courses]. I would agree that remediating classes in that matter does not work. Developmental education is much more than that. It is an integration of services, classes, and support systems. It is paying attention to exactly what students need and who the students are. Developmental education actually works.
What we have done here [at San Jacinto], is to look holistically at students. When you are trying to teach a factoring problem, and you notice a student in the back of the class is sleeping, you might not realize that he has worked until eight in the morning, and he is sitting in your nine a.m. class. Or he is sitting there, and he is worried about his sick child at home. Or he just got evicted. Or someone has told him that he isn't college material. Of course he isn't worried about the factoring problem at this point. The people who have figured out how to help these students all focus on the entire student. Support mechanisms are crucial. [The student mentioned before] needs online tutoring. He might need to do his homework at 10 at night—a time when no one will be at the school to tutor him. So how can we provide support mechanisms for these students to become successful?
There are several issues here. One, many colleges have not invested money into developmental programs. They have invested into other programs they believe are more valuable. Many of the schools have not invested in the kind of support systems that students need to make them stay in school. A lot of the accelerated programs—there is nothing wrong with them—but the problem that I see, is that we need more research about which model works for which student. Generally, you can’t say that every student will flourish in an emporium model or accelerated model. That is where it becomes tricky. When we start talking about individual students, with a face, with a name, with a background—it becomes much more complicated.
ASP: Who exactly is misunderstanding the distinction between remedial and developmental education?
Goosen: Policy makers across the U.S. There is a whole list of them. People with good intentions. They see developmental education as a barrier. They want to reduce the cost for students. They want them to get to credited classes more quickly. But there is a fundamental issue here. The state of Florida recently began putting students in college algebra with what they call “a little bit of support.” They don’t really define what “a little bit of support” actually means. They have found out that this “little bit of support” needs to be better defined—and for that matter it needs to be a little more than a “little bit of support.”
In Texas, we are trying to better prepare students in high school. This is a challenge because high school administrations have different ideas about what students need than universities and colleges. In Texas, [high schools and colleges] have different governing boards. They are trying to work together, and they are trying to make this transition seamless, but we each have different pressures coming from the state. This makes this a lot more complicated. If we could fix that, then we would fix a whole bunch of stuff.
What developmental education really focuses on is that 25 year old who has been out of school for six or seven years and has forgotten how to do certain math or maybe never really knew how to write an acceptable essay. It is much easier to get these students up and running in a short amount of time than someone who has come out of public schools at 18 and really has not mastered the math and English concepts that we need them to have to get them at the college-level. These students are much more of a challenge.
ASP: Many of these new redesigned math courses involve placing students in front of a computer with little instruction or help. How do you think these courses have affected developmental education across the country?
Goosen: I think that some of it is good; again, if you can identify the student who belongs in this type of system. There is another piece to this too: the instructors. We have accelerated models at my institution that are working very well because the faculty that are teaching them are excellent. If you decide to move to modular courses, then you need enough teachers who are good at teaching this way. There are some people, I don’t care how much professional development you give them, that will never be really good at teaching some of these models.
It is important to figure out what student belongs in what program. If you want to be general about developmental students, they tend to be the most unmotivated. They are not self-directed; they are not self-correcting. They are intimidated by being in college; they are intimidated about their actual abilities. They need structure. At my institution, the online instructors who have a lot of success have a lot of structure in their courses. There are no soft deadlines. Students have things they need to do by a certain time. They are held accountable.
When you don’t know how to be a student, we train you how to be a student. When we look at developmental education, we have overrepresentation from students who come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. At the same time, we kind of assume that all of these students are plugged in. While everyone has a cellphone, at home many of these students still have dialup. They don’t have computer proficiency. So I’m not sure that every student coming into our institution has the computer savvy to do well in some of these programs. We have some students who can, but there again it becomes about figuring out who can flourish in modular courses.
ASP: From an administrative viewpoint, what do faculty members need to do to convince you that certain redesigns or changes to courses are actually capable of improving student success?
Goosen: (Laughs). I’m probably not the average administrator when it comes to this. I give my faculty a lot of license. They are the experts. I am here just to support them with what they need: the space, the funds, those kinds of things. When they come to me with an idea, I usually ask them two questions. First, what will the change do for students’ experiences? Will it improve their lives, will it improve their educational experience? The second question is always, "how much is it going to cost me?"
We look at data a lot, and we look at it in a lot of different ways. Historically, has someone done this before, and what were the success rates? How are they getting this success rate? Often, numbers are interesting but there is usually a backstory at work. What works at San Jacinto College might not work at El Paso. So, what are the parameters around a particular initiative? Who is teaching these courses, what types of students are they working with? What sort of skills are students entering the course with?
When you try a new initiative, you better understand the pedagogy behind it, because if it fails or if it succeeds you need to understand why you got these results. I have sent probably more people to the Kellogg Institute than anybody else in the U.S., but I need these people to understand the pedagogical framework of what they want to do. I need to make sure they aren’t making a change solely based upon the idea that someone else did something somewhere else.
We try lots of things here. If it doesn’t work the first time, we revisit it. We retool it, we adapt it. Sometimes we walk away. But the faculty must have ownership [in these initiatives]. Teachers must believe in what they are doing and understand that [an initiative] may not wind up looking like how they thought it up—that it will evolve and become a good product for students (and not necessarily just for teachers). Here again one question continuously rises to the surface: what is this initiative going to do to help students become more successful?
Click here for part two.
Dr. Nolting is a national expert in assessing math learning problems, developing effective student learning strategies, assessing institutional variables that affect math success and math study skills. He is also an expert in helping students with disabilities and Wounded Warriors become successful in math. He now assists colleges and universities in redesigning their math courses to meet new curriculum requirements. He is the author of two math study skills texts: Winning at Math and My Math Success Plan.
American Mathematical Association of Two-Year Colleges presenter, Senior Lecturer-Modular