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Community colleges rethink remedial education

Sarah Tan
Daniel Najjar teaches an accelerated remedial math class at Berkeley City College on November 28, 2016


With more than 2 million students, California has one of the largest community college systems in the country. But its graduation rates have been disappointing for years.

Last year, only 30 percent of community college students graduated with a two-year degree, or transferred to a four-year college. Research shows that part of the reason for this is that many students often get caught in a cycle of remedial courses.

“More remedial classes means lower completion rates,” says Katie Hern, English professor at Chabot College in Hayward and co-founder of the California Acceleration Project. She and Myra Snell, a math professor at Los Medanos in Pittsburg, created the program six years ago.

“So we decided to try to work with other colleges to rethink remedial courses, so they weren’t getting stuck in these layers of remedial courses and bleeding out of college,” Hern adds.

The Acceleration Project is working with about two-thirds of the state’s 113 community colleges to create more accelerated remedial math and English programs, and shorten the amount of time students spend taking classes that don’t count for college credit.

At places like Berkeley City College, professors have noted a marked improvement in how many students pass and go on to graduate. For most students who enter community college, one of the first exams they must take is a college placement test, which will determine their eligibility to take college level courses.

Sam Kaso has been a student at Berkeley City College for about eight years, and had been putting off taking a remedial math course after he failed his math placement exam. He placed two levels below college-level math, and would have had to take two semesters of algebra before he could take his math requirement.

“It was always, I’ll do it next time, I’ll do it next time. Really, I never wanted to take elementary algebra again,” Kaso says.

These days, Kaso works as a dog handler at a doggy day care in West Oakland. But he’s also an artist, and he has dreams of one day transferring to a four-year college and getting an art degree. But he was worried that his math score would hold him back.

“So it was just this fear and dread of this amorphous amount of time that I was going to have to delay,” he says.

Luckily for him, his college counselor suggested he take an accelerated remedial math course this past summer. Called pre-statistics, it’s a one-semester course that teaches only the math skills necessary for students to go on and complete Statistics 101 and graduate. Berkeley City College has been piloting about six different sections of the class. The push to convert all of City College’s remedial math classes to accelerated ones has been led by professor Daniel Najjar. He says most of the skills taught in remedial algebra, like factoring polynomials, are ones the students will never use again if they’re liberal arts majors.

“The concept of this is to eliminate the algebra that you really don’t need for statistics, and there’s very little that you need, actually,” he says.

He adds that many students also have bad memories of learning algebra in middle school.

“When you throw up the polynomial, oh yeah, they saw that in 8th grade, it’s back again.”

Beverly Escobar Sudario is a student at Community College of San Francisco, and has been attending classes there on and off for over a decade. Like Kaso, she also failed a math placement test when she first entered, and had tried and failed to take elementary algebra before giving up. Her counselor also suggested she take an accelerated course last summer, and she says the class has made all the difference.

“I like how now you’re only going to need this, and you have all the support,” says Sudario. “You see the light at the end of the tunnel, I’m almost there.”

Now, she’s on track to graduate in the spring. Unlike traditional remedial courses, she says the structure of the accelerated course allowed her to see how math was relevant in her everyday life.

“Maybe it’s because I’m older, but it’s not like we’re just taking this math class to graduate,” she says. “We’re not just taking this class just to get it over with, but I think [the teacher] is trying to help and help apply things in our everyday life.”

But some critics worry that accelerating remediation might be taken too far. Shoshanna Tenn, an English professor at Chabot, says she was worried that speeding up English remediation wouldn’t be effective.

“My concern is not so much on graduation rates, but on the quality of education. I think a lot of students are just focused on degrees, and a lot of colleges are just focused on degrees,” she says.

She adds that accelerating remedial classes might reduce the quality of education students receive.

“We’re not here offering hamburgers, trying to make them cheaper and faster,” she says. “Quality education takes time. I could pass all my students tomorrow...but what is that worth?”

Hern however, says she isn’t worried about that.

“When we put them into a pre statistics course, they’re getting a rich and meaningful course in statistics...and that that’s the math they should focus on,” Hern says. “It’s not a lowering of standards, it’s a clarity of math that should be used.”

Across the country, the movement towards accelerated courses has been gaining speed, and colleges in Colorado, Indiana, Tennessee and West Virginia have stopped remedial classes altogether, placing students directly into college level classes, with the help of an aide or tutor.

Research on outcomes so far is sparse, but data from the California Acceleration Project does show that students in accelerated classes finished required courses at up to four times the rate of students in traditional remedial courses. And a recent Public Policy report stated it saw a “positive association with completion” and accelerated remediation, though it did not cite specific numbers.

As for Kaso and his dogs, he says he’s just focusing on graduation. He’s now set to graduate in June.

“My goals for now is just to finish, because I’ve been stuck in community college for years now,” Kaso says. “And I’d have to take years more of math if this wasn’t here.”


Crosscurrents Education