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! 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