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
As promised, here is Part Two of our interview with Dr. Hunter R. Boylan! This segment of our conversation focuses predominately on the relationship between the government, educational think tanks, universities, and teachers. Once again, we'd like to thank Hunter for agreeing to this interview. We'd also like to thank our readers for their continued support. Be sure to check back on Wednesday for a new post.
ASP Blog: So you’ve touched on this a little already, but I want to get your thoughts on what, exactly universities and community colleges can do to improve developmental math given certain budgetary constraints…
Boylan: Universities tend to have much more money and flexibility than community colleges. So it is quite possible that universities will do whatever they want to do regardless of what the legislature or the state higher education executive body thinks. Universities probably have a little more leeway in how they implement these things, and some will just pick up the current instruction sheet and simply do what it says. Some will look at the instruction sheet and say, “We can modify this, and modify that, and still say we are doing it in spirit, and still get more of our students through.” And some will probably say, “This isn’t going to work. We’re going to keep on doing what we are doing.”
What state do you live in?
ASP Blog: I live in New York.
Boylan: Well, I don’t know what it is like in New York, but if you live in say, North Carolina or Ohio, schools like UNC or Ohio State are going to do pretty much what they want. In any event, what universities typically do is invest a lot more time and energy and money in the advising, placement, counseling, academic coaching and tutoring side. Rather than putting all of their energy into remedial courses, they put their energy into support services. They tend to have strong learning centers, they tend to have well-organized tutoring operations, they tend to do more intensive academic advising. Right now, this is typically the university model—to approach whatever academic shortcomings students might have through all the things I just mentioned.
Community colleges on the other hand don’t have those resources. While they’d like to focus more on intensive academic coaching, they can’t afford to pay for it. That is one of the reasons why community colleges are more likely to go with a course-based model. Now, many of them are revising their intake assessment processes. They are requiring less assessment, which enables more students to go on to college-level courses, but they are not putting the support directly into the courses like they probably should. Community colleges in America like the idea of embedded course services. They try to put more support services into classes, which is kind of labor intensive.
It is interesting. There are two trends in how community colleges are approaching this. On the one end, they are saying, “We need more time in class, so we are going to give you three hours in class, and if you scored lower on an assessment test, we are going to provide an hour or two of extra labs connected to the class.” So you’re putting more time in on class. On the other end, some community colleges are saying, “Ok, well you really don’t need to know everything a 16-week course will teach you, so we’re going to condense it all into 8 weeks, and you are going to work harder and longer.” So I find it interesting that some colleges are reacting by contracting the amount of time in class, while others are extending the amount of time spent in class.
Now, theoretically, a highly motivated student in either class will spend a lot of time studying and going over material. That’s probably true. So, well-motivated students will get what they need in eight weeks, because they’ll put in two hours a week in class, and spend another eight hours studying. So, for good students, both systems work. And by good students I mean those people who have study skills and motivation. For those students who don’t—it won’t work either way.
ASP Blog: There doesn’t seem to be much of an effort to turn students into these types of motivated students that you are talking about; we seem to sometimes assume that a student is just the way he or she is, and that there is no real room for growth or change. Paul has focused on this quite a bit: how do we make students better learners, how do we get them to take on the type of affective characteristics that might help them find success? Do you think that maybe some community colleges are ignoring this goal when they focus solely on trying to expedite the process itself rather than making sure the process actually works?
Boylan: Well, I think some states, like Virginia and Florida, have plans in place to measure the outcomes of what is going on (and hopefully to revise things accordingly). Florida State University got a multi-million dollar grant from the Gates Foundation to study the impact of all of these reforms—what is happening even now, is that the street bureaucrats there are releasing data that is saying that reforms are causing more students to fail college algebra, which is probably true.
With this in mind, I have hope that people on the ground will do one of a couple things. They’ll take the reforms and they’ll fit them into more efficacious patterns and, hopefully, put more energy into teaching those skills leading to achievement motivation. They’ll teach modularized math courses, but they’ll also develop videos for the students that teach them how to take a modular course on a computer. They’ll also provide a lot of personal consulting with the students to help them work their way through a modularized math course on a computer. So they’ll do what the state tells them to do, but they’ll also take what they know how to do and try to make the system that was imposed on them work. And they might be successful.
ASP Blog: So you are saying, if you are working at a school, and you are overseeing a developmental education program, and you have very little agency in the conversation about state mandates, and little choice but to follow them, then you might take a grassroots approach and implement your own support systems within what has been forced upon you?
Boylan: People are already doing that. The other thing that they are doing, is leaking damaging data to the press. They aren’t supposed to do this. I assume that someone at the system level will come down and ask these colleges “who released this data?” But the data was released because many people did not trust politicians to either release it at all or to release it without putting political “spin” on it.
ASP Blog: And you think that this may ultimately be these whistleblowers' only channel through which to enact any change? To make people in the general public aware of what is really going on?
Boylan: Yes. At least right now, channels of dissent are being stifled. I also think the important thing to remember about the reform movement, is that, in spite of its shortcomings, it still includes some good ideas. It is not entirely bogus. The people who aspire to lead the reform movement—Complete College America, Gates and llumina, etc— have some good ideas but few of those organizations have any actual experience or expertise in developmental education. This lack of experience and expertise makes it difficult for them to understand the context into which they want to insert reform. These organizations are coming up with some very good ideas and some very bad ones, but it’s difficult for them to know which is which. The bad ideas will probably have to be exposed by those you refer to as “whistle blowers.” They are the ones who can see what’s happening on the ground rather than looking at the situation from 30,000 feet.
Perhaps acknowledging their lack of expertise and experience, the reformers didn’t sit back in their offices and think something up based upon their own cogitation. They looked to community colleges for things that might work. They identified models that were successful in some settings and gathered data on them; then they took things they thought might work and promoted them. They have highlighted and promoted integrating reading and English, which I think, might be a pretty good idea. They’ve talked about embedded support services in developmental English courses. I think that’s a good idea. The Carnegie Foundation and the Dana Center, with their Statway and Mathway projects actually do represent something new and original—these are all good ideas. But what these organizations have done is to find existing models. With the exception of Statway and Mathway, they didn’t create anything new. They identified successful innovations that have at least worked in some places, and they are out promoting these ideas in various other places. On the other hand, given the legislation that has resulted from the reform movement, it’s hard to tell what innovations were originally proposed.
The problem is that doing these innovations right requires money, time, and training. And most institutions and/or legislators are not investing the money, time, and training into making these innovations work. Those that have should do well.
ASP Blog: It seems that many institutions have stumbled into a paradox: a lot of these changes are enacted to save money, yet, at least ostensibly, to make them work one has to invest more heavily into them and make sure they have all of the resources they need to be successful. You can see why people are waffling a bit as they are trying to do this….
Boylan: Yes. So the cheapest reforms—like “lets get rid of remedial courses”— are very popular because they don’t take time or money. Now they don’t work, either. But that seems to be beside the point. Again, I don’t want to condemn the reform movement. I’m just saying that because the people behind it have not been in the field or read about the history and research in developmental education, they were unable to create many new models. We have few really intelligent new workable models that anybody has presented. What we have are retreaded old models or individual cases where something has worked. For example, modularized math is simply mastery learning from the 1960s with computers added. The Accelerated Learning Program looks a lot like Supplemental Instruction from the 1970s only with mandatory attendance at enrichment sessions. The integration of courses and support services is something that developmental educators have been advocating since the mid-1970s.
Remember, the original definition of developmental education was the integration of courses and services guided by the principles of adult learning and development. The modern reform movement has at least emphasized the first part of that definition, the integration of courses and services. We’re still waiting for a pedagogy to catch up with the integration.
And that just about wraps it up! Pretty heady stuff, no? And we are just getting started! We have spoken to numerous national experts about the reform movement and its many implications. Check back every Monday for more posts and more conversations!
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