Over this past weekend the New York Times ran an op-ed piece about the success that CUNY has been having with a bottoms-up approach to revamping remedial education. As ‘success’ can mean many things, to many people, from the piece:

More than half the students who complete the program are ready for college in just one semester, something that’s almost impossible with regular remedial courses.

If you’re not familiar with the challenges around remedial education let’s spend a moment level-setting as the numbers are quite sobering:

  • 35% is the six-year graduation rate for students starting community college programs
  • 16% is the six-year graduation rate for students starting at urban community colleges
  • <33% of students referred to remedial math will pass
  • <50% of students who are referred to remedial reading will pass
  • 15% of students required to take remedial classes before credit-bearing work at two-year programs complete their program of study on-time

It’s certainly difficult seeing motivated students who have applied for, gained admittance for, and enrolled in, degree-granting programs not achieving their educational goals – particularly in such large numbers. Often, the challenge is the accumulated knowledge gap accrued through primary and secondary school. Failure at one level has led to failure at the next and eventually, lack of self-confidence in students own knowledge and ability to learn leads to an ongoing pattern of educational struggle. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

The CUNY Start model is different. Full-time students are exclusively in Start classes for 25 hours a week — substantially more than the usual course load — for one semester. The focus is on thinking, not memorization. “Math isn’t just memorization,” Ms. Fells told me. “I teach them how to investigate problems — how to think. The first sentence on the first day is a question. We start by making a connection to real life and slowly build a foundation of knowledge for more abstract algebraic problems. I never say you are right or wrong. The answers come from them.”

Ms. Fells knows, firsthand, what the students are going through. “I grew up in the same neighborhood, attended the same mediocre schools,” she said. “They’re as smart as students anyplace — they just haven’t been given the opportunity.”

For community college students – often working adults with family members to care for – education is another item on their long list of responsibilities. One critical element highlighted by CUNY:

Counseling is vital to the success of the program, because it gives students someone to talk with about their lives. “They aren’t comfortable telling their teachers about the court date, the pending eviction, the abusive foster parent,” Ms. Mingus said.

Success isn’t just about academics, it’s about juggling everything that life is throwing at these students and having a guide to help navigate often choppy waters certainly helps. Positive encouragement, no matter the odds, makes a big difference as well.

“They say they’re not cut out for this,” Ms. Mingus said. “We remind them that they passed their New York State Regents exams, after as many as five tries. We tell them that’s a great accomplishment, and you can do the same here.”

Once students complete remedial work and begin taking credit-bearing courses nearly 75% of them enroll in another CUNY program which offers financial help, purposefully designed class schedules and individual advising / support. Per the author 64 percent of students in this program earn their degrees within six years, that’s fully a four-fold improvement in graduation rates.

To learn more about CUNY’s program, click on the article below.

Opinion | Ending the Curse of Remedial Math

CUNY Start holds some clues on how to solve an education crisis. Nationwide, only 35 percent of those who start community college receive any form of credential within six years. At urban community colleges, the six-year graduation rate is only 16 percent. The biggest academic stumbling blocks are remedial math and English courses.