Roaring up from Behind
While a report from the Southern Regional Education Board acknowledges falling short of remedial education goals, one college offers an example of developmental success
LARGO, Md. — They don’t like calling the students “at risk.” “Underprepared” is a more accurate phrase. They also don’t like to use the term “remedial education.” “Educational development” better describes what they do. “Developmental studies” is how they refer to their program.What the program at Prince George’s Community College does is improve retention rates and graduate students who perform on an equal — and in many cases, higher — level of academic competence than students who did not need the “developmental” assistance. A recently released report by the Southern Regional Education Board — Reducing Remedial Education: What Progress Are States Making? — acknowledges that decreasing the number of students who need remedial help has been a difficult task. And it suggests that in order to help reduce remediation, colleges do three things: n Begin encouraging students at an early age to begin academic planning for the skills needed to complete college-preparatory curricula in high school; n Give guidance to high school students in taking courses that will prepare them for college-level study; and n Help high school students apply for college admission and financial assistance.As for dealing with the current crop of remedial students, the SREB repor suggests that colleges ask three questions when evaluating their remedial education program:n How many students complete remedial courses and how well do they perform in these courses?n How well do students who complete remedial courses perform in their first college-level courses and subsequent courses?n How many students who take remedial courses earn college degrees?Prince George’s officials are confident that their institution’s answers to those questions can be replicated across the country. “Many people look at developmental programs in a negative light,” says Dr. David P. James, dean of educational development at Prince George’s Community College here in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. “I see it as a means for students to really overcome adversity and learn some important lessons about life.”According to the report, a large percentage of college students are learning some important lessons about life. “Clearly, too many students need remedial courses,” the report states. “One-third of the nation’s first-time, full-time freshmen in college need refresher courses before they are ready for college-level study.”Striving for GoalsIn 1988, the commission set a series of goals for education that it hoped to help colleges and secondary schools fulfill by the year 2000. One of them declared, “Four of every five students entering college will be ready to begin college-level work.” While the report shows that Southern states have had varying degrees of success in reaching that goal on the senior-college level — “nearly 80 percent of the students who now enter four-year colleges in most SREB states are ready for college-level work” — the percentage of entering students needing remediation at two-year institutions is up around 50 percent.“[W]e cannot claim that we have reached the goal that four of every five students who enter college will be ready to begin college-level work,” the report acknowledges.The report’s claim that there “is no ‘typical’ remedial student” is echoed at Prince George’s. The report says that remedial students generally fall into two different categories, and officials at the two-year school illustrate the point by discussing the demographics of day classes as opposed to night classes.“During the day, it’s all high school students,” James says. “In the evening, it’s all the older adult students getting off from work.”Remediation has become standard fare for many students entering college directly from high school. But Prince George’s officials back up the report’s assertion that older students also need remedial help.“We have folks here for a wide variety of reasons,” says Veronica S. Norwood, the recently retired chair of the division of educational development. “Because some of them have been out of school for so long, they need some help [getting reacclimated to the college experience]. But for most of them, a refresher course is all they need.”And while the report suggests that the policies of state governments could play a pivotal role in reducing remediation, it does not offer a clear-cut answer as to who should be responsible for remedial education — four-year institutions, two-year institutions or the K-12 systems. The report does say, however, that taking the right courses in high school will reduce a student’s need for remediation.At Prince George’s, all first-time entering students are tested in the three developmental skill areas — math, reading and English. Of the 1,663 students who entered the school last fall, 1,295 (78 percent) needed at least one developmental course. Yet despite that percentage, the institution’s developmental education program is considered one of the finest remedial education programs in the country.Setting the PrecedentIn a 1998 book published by the League for Innovation in the Community College and The College Board titled Developmental Education: A Twenty-First Century Social and Economic Imperative, an entire chapter is devoted to the program at Prince George’s. That study notes that “students entering PGCC with college-level skills are two-and-one-half times more likely to graduate, transfer or attain sophomore status in good standing than students needing developmental education.” However, it goes on to say, “Students identified as needing remediation who complete all recommended developmental classes achieve at the same rate asstudents not needing remediation.” And that is the most critical aspect of developmental education for the school’s officials.“Students who complete developmental programs do just as well and sometimes even better than students who never even had developmental requirements,” says Dr. Tamala Heath, director of institutional research at Prince George’s. “So it shows the quality of our programs. And students who take the math refresher course do even better.”According to studies done by the college’s office of institutional research and analysis, a higher percentage of students who took developmental education courses in 1994 passed general education English and math courses than students who were not required to take the developmental courses. Of the students in English 101, for example, more than 80 percent of developmental English students passed compared to less than 74 percent of nondevelopmental students. In Mathematics 101, 64 percent of developmental math students passed compared to 53 percent of nondevelopmental students. Prince George’s officials say their program is successful because they have encouraged their students to buy into the learning community concept.“Our program operates on the principle of a learning community structured so that you pair courses together so students can see the links between one course and another,” explains Dr. Beverly Reed, the current chair of the division of educational development. “And it involves the entire community — students, faculty, staff, administrators.”Math instruction provides an example of the importance of the concept.“For math students, sometimes the problem is reading,” Reed says. “We found that to be the case particularly in the lower-level math courses where there are a lot of reading problems. So then they need help in reading as well as math.”There is another huge advantage to the concept, she says. “The one thing that learning centers do is that students begin to form bonds and they tend to stay together,” she says. “They take courses together. They form study groups that stay together. They give each other support.“It’s all part of building self-esteem, and that helps them believe that they can do the work,” Reed adds.And Norwood points out that learning communities tend to keep students enrolled.“Institutional research says that if a student stays [in college] for three consecutive semesters, that student is less likely to drop out,” Norwood says. “So we try to keep the students here,” and learning communities are one way to achieve that.A Little Outside HelpThe learning labs are a large part of that community. All developmental education students are required to spend at least 25 hours per semester — in addition to regular class hours — in labs. According to Maureen Lee, director of the Developmental Education Learning Lab, the facility is used approximately 40,000 hours a semester by developmental learning students. Some hours, there are more than 100 students in the lab. The lab provides 110 computers and 20 video stations where students can use computer software and audio and video equipment to supplement classroom materials. Additionally, there are reading, math and English faculty coordin-ators and tutors to assist students in their studies.“We have a wealth of programs, study skills, workshops and tutors at our students’ disposal,” Lee says. “We even have tutors in the classroom with some of the instructors.”Brenda D. Brown, an assistant professor of developmental math at the college, points to another reason school officials have found learning communities — and tutors, in particular — so successful.“The tutors will tell [students] what professors won’t,” Brown says. “Some students don’t understand that you have to look at the book for a couple of hours after class [to understand the lesson]. Now a tutor will say, ‘Hey, brother, you’ve got to open the book.’ A professor isn’t going to tell you that.”She also says that the workshops have helped “to reduce anxiety, to show [students] how to take notes in math class.”But ultimately, the report blames the heavy need for remediation on poor preparation. Prince George’s James agrees.“We’re getting more students enrolled in college,” James says, explaining the difficulty in reducing the developmental education rolls, “but we’re also getting large numbers of students who were not given adequate preparation for the rigors of college life.”And while two-year colleges like Prince George’s have been earning praise for their remedial accomplishments, the report warns state governments not to rely solely on the lower-level institutions for remedial education.“States need to be careful in considering proposals to eliminate remedial courses or offer them only in two-year colleges,” the report warns. “Such actions could limit access tohigher education.”
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