Jamille Cunningham’s primary learning tool in her remedial reading course at St. Petersburg College is a computer program.
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The series “13th Grade” is the result of a collaboration between the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and StateImpact Florida.
When Cunningham, 20, started the course, the program diagnosed her as weak in all but a handful of reading skills. It then directed her to a series of learning modules focused on skills she needed to improve, including reading comprehension and organizing ideas. The program also allowed her to bypass exercises in skills she had proficiency in. Her instructor goes over exercises in class and also follows her progress in the computer modules online.
A high school drop-out who passed her G.E.D. test on the third try, Cunningham has worked hard to complete the learning exercises, games and tests at her own pace. She can move through the material faster than if she were in a traditional remedial class where all students must sit through the same lessons. On her computer screen, she proudly points out the check marks beside more than half of the listed modules, indicating she has now mastered those skills.
“I’m really excited. I like this class,” Cunningham said. “It helps me write papers and to actually think about what I’m saying.”
The computer modules Cunningham uses to get through her remedial reading class are increasingly common at community and state colleges across Florida. The colleges, which are open to anyone with a high school diploma or G.E.D., are dealing with an unprecedented surge of incoming students who require help with the basics of reading, writing and math before they can move on to college-level coursework in those subjects. In response, the colleges are trying to find ways to move unprepared students through those remedial classes more efficiently.
There are two reasons why. One is money. From 2004 to 2011, the cost of providing remedial education, split between the colleges and students, ballooned from $118 million to $168 million. At the same time, state funding for colleges has been declining. So, one purpose of revamping remedial classes is to teach more people for less cost per student.
The other reason is that the students who need these classes are in a race against time.
Research shows that students who take remedial classes are less likely to graduate from college than those who arrive ready for college-level work. They have a longer path to graduation: Remedial classes don’t count for college credit, and students can’t move on to classes that do count toward a degree until they’ve passed their remedial classes. Revamped classes like the one Cunningham took are intended to speed up this process — and give the students their best shot at making it all the way through to graduation.
Randall W. Hanna, who became chancellor of the Florida College System in the fall of 2011, expects individualized computer learning to increase. “It is my belief that those pilot programs will lead to a complete redesign and how we operate developmental courses to students in the state,” he said, “which in turn will decrease the cost on the state and students as well.”
Roads to Reform
Florida is poised to become the nation’s petri dish for new approaches to the remedial education problem.
That’s partly because the problem is so pronounced here. Some 54 percent of Florida students who went from high school to a community or state college in 2010-11 required remedial work in at least one subject. The national average for first-time students needing remediation is 40 percent.
Florida’s history as a laboratory for education experimentation also makes it an attractive testing ground. The state’s regime of standardized testing was the blueprint for the federal No Child Left Behind law that instilled a similar approach around the country. Florida’s long experience with its most crucial test, known as the FCAT, makes it one of the few states that can statistically measure the results of new approaches.
“We really look to Florida for innovation,” said Bruce Vandal, director of the Education Commission of the States’ Postsecondary and Workforce Development Institute in Denver. “Places like Florida, North Carolina and Tennessee have taken on the problem very hard and are moving in the right direction.”
Due in part to Florida’s data-rich education system, several colleges around the state have won national grants to try new ways to increase the success rate of remedial college students.
For example, a handful of Florida colleges participated in the Developmental Education Initiative funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation. Building on earlier national grant-funded programs, college instructors experimented with computerized learning in redesigned courses such as the reading course Jamille Cunningham took at St. Petersburg College.
Pilot Shows Promise
Although the experimental courses required students to master the same skills, the participating colleges varied their methods. All of the courses incorporated a degree of computer-assisted learning. In some classes, students only communicated with instructors face-to-face when they had questions. Other classes combined in-person lectures and discussion with the independent computer modules.
St Petersburg College was the only participant that experimented with remedial courses in all three subject areas — math, writing and reading. Courses included a combination of classroom lectures and independent computer modules.
Educators such as Martha Campbell, dean of communications at St. Petersburg College, said the overall results were promising.
“Generally what was happening was pretty desperate,” Campbell said of the pass rate in the college’s traditional remedial courses. Only 46 percent of students passed developmental algebra courses taught only through in-class lectures, she said. In the redesigned remedial algebra classes, the pass rate increased to 71 percent.
Traditional remedial courses run for a full semester. They require students to do coursework in all areas, even the areas they already understand. Some colleges participating in the pilot program offered the remedial courses in mini-semesters, which allowed students to knock out two classes in one traditional semester. Since the computerized curriculum allowed students to progress at their own pace, a couple of the colleges let students complete the courses early.
Santa Fe College in Gainesville was one of those. Laurel Severino, an assistant professor of reading there, said she had one student who finished a class in just three weeks.
Other instructors who participated in the pilot program said the computerized courses also forced students to interact with material and take control of their own education. Efrain Bonilla, a math instructor and course redesign manager at North Florida Community College said, “They are learning on their own to be independent learners.”
Florida colleges have also embarked on their own initiatives to help developmental students.
Tallahassee Community College is testing a program which streamlines two remedial math courses into one semester.
The program, Statway, swaps out algebra for statistics because it’s easier to teach the real-life uses, said Smart professor Jim Smart. It helps older students whose math skills have atrophied.
“The students seem to enjoy learning math they can relate to, that they understand and see in the media every day,” Smart said.
Statway students are two and a half times more likely to finish their remedial math courses than those in the traditional program, Smart said.
Hillsborough Community College opened a new Student Success Center in the fall of 2011. The new center houses tutorial services, a radio station and a G.E.D. program for those not yet enrolled in college. It also hosts seminars on subjects such as note taking and navigating college.
St. Petersburg College devoted more resources to career counseling this fall and now requires remedial students to see college advisors each semester. Studies have shown that students with clear career goals are more likely to graduate.
Florida State College in Jacksonville offers courses that combine lessons in basics such as time management and writing with academic subjects. That allows students to receive partial college credit while learning core skills.
Hunter Boylan, director of the National Center for Developmental Education, said these kinds of programs may prove more effective than computerized learning in the long run. Computer-driven courses in other states initially produced good results, he said, only to falter when funding was cut for advisors and instructors.
“What happens in the experimental mode is they put a lot of students in a room with lots of computers and lots of help,” Boylan said. “As long as there is a good ratio of teachers to students, it might work. But people are expensive and computers, cheap. The public wants a cheap solution and that doesn’t exist.”
Florida educators recognize that new initiatives aren’t guaranteed solutions and that it will take years to assess their effectiveness. But Patti Levine-Brown, president-elect of the National Association of Developmental Education and reading instructor at Florida State College in Jacksonville, said she is encouraged by the state’s attempt at new approaches.
“Will it work? Who knows for sure?” Levine-Brown said. “But we have to do it. The bottom line is, we need to do it for the students. The students’ success mandates that we do it.”