I know very little about the internal structure and politics in the Lansing Community College (LCC) Math department so I apologize in advance if I miss the boat in my analysis. I am not intending to criticise teachers or advisors as I know how hard their job is and I know that it takes dedication to do their work.

But, it does seem that the remedial program at LCC is very badly designed and managed, resulting in lost revenue to LCC and far worse in my mind, lost souls in society. What the math department is currently doing is so harmful that someone needs needs to step in and clean things up. I suggest a simple fix in the short-term and then some deeper analysis to fine-tune things.

One simple solution is to make a remedial course below MTH050 – perhaps it is not even on the books as a college course. Perhaps it is not eligible for financial aid so you don’t run afoul of the federal government using Pell grants to teach middle-school math. Perhaps it is not even 15 weeks long. If funds are an issue, lets make a foundation and come up with a way for folks to give a charitable contribution to help those who cannot afford tuition get the remedial training that they need – I would write a check for $1000 tomorrow morning to support such a program. Lets write a grant and call it an experiment to get funding for a while.

By the way, one very clever idea in the boot camp program design was that one requirement to qualify for the boot camp was successful completion of some non-math LCC courses. That requirement is a great way to make sure students have demonstrated some basic study and maturity skills before they get to take this remedial class or apply for a scholarship to cover the remedial class tuition.

It would be perfectly fine to demand a certain reading level to take the remedial math class – because you have sufficient remedial reading courses. In some ways, it is good design for the path into remedial math to lead through reading for the weakest students.

My second choice as a solution is to simply let students into MTH050 regardless of ACCUPLACER score and let them take it repeatedly if need be. As I look at the material in MTH050 – it seems very well structured and has a reasonable pace. I do think some students would need to take it twice – weaker students would probably start to fall behind around mid-term time – but that is OK. Perhaps you could allow “visitor non credit” registration for MTH050 for marginal students – so your “fail rate” does not look bad when you look at the numbers. Marginal students are given the option to attend MTH050 and they can qualify for the course (perhaps even by the midterm) by doing well in the course material.

I would bet that before you used the ACCUPLACER, failure rates in MTH050 were higher than they are after ACCUPLACER was in place. Of course – ACCUPLACER simply filters out the students who **need the course the most** so you only teach the students who barely need MTH050. So failure rates go down. Yay! Kind of a hollow victory.

What you fail to understand when you focus on pass/fail rate for a single semester as your only important metric in isolation, is that you completely miss the fact that sometimes a lot of learning happens even when a student gets a failing grade. Are you interested in more and better learning or are you interested in “better values for the numbers you happen to track”? For one of my previous rants about “numbers-obsessed high-school administrators” – click here.

A far more important question for you to measure success is whether students who fail once eventually pass, and do those students eventually find solid success in later math classes. Of the people I personally have informally talked to as they went through the LCC math program over the years, many of them took MTH050 more than once to build a solid base of math understanding that led to great success later in their college careers. But these people who you positively affected in an amazing way would make your pass rate trend toward 50% because they needed to take the class twice – so your learning outcomes are great – and your pass/fail numbers are not-so-good.

I bet it would not take much looking at all to find a bunch of people who failed MTH050 once and then took it again and passed and then went on to an amazing college career including advanced degrees. You could be satisfied in knowing that you really were part of an important transformative moment in those people’s lives.

And yes, students complain all the time that putting them in courses that they pay for and fail, is a trick that colleges use to to increase revenue.

So all in all there are many solutions and no one will be happy with any of the solutions. Students and parents will always complain. So instead of looking for a way to eliminate student complaints by kicking the marginal students to the curb – instead look for a set of policies that results in the best possible learning outcomes to the broadest population of students.

Even though I despise the design approach of ACCUPLACER test (separate post someday), it is not really the fault of the test. It is the fault of the LCC Math department policy makers that alter the test from a *placement test* which you cannot fail to an *entrance exam* which can be failed.

Ultimately, you need to find a way to take the results of the placement test and use them to **place** students – not use them to reject students and give them no other options.

P.S. In talking with one of my higher education pals about the previous post, he pointed out that I (and we as society) are expecting community colleges to compensate for a failing High School system that seems unable to teach math consistently. Furthermore, schools like Michigan State and University of Michigan hide behind the ACT and SAT to make sure that the students they admit are filtered for success. In a sense, UM and MSU kicks these marginal students to the curb even before they get on campus. At least LCC lets them in the building and lets them take the test and go to the math lab for help if they have the energy and drive to do so.

So is it unfair to be upset with LCC and Community Colleges in general when they do not solve these hard problems that seemingly no other educational institution in our country is capable of handling? Yes – of course it is unfair. But that is what is so wonderful about community colleges – they truly do take everyone and they give an amazing teaching value for the money spent – and they bend over backwards to bring students up to speed. Community colleges are the one place where a confused, poor, or marginally skilled student can come and clearly be cared for and be given a real chance for a future.

LCC already embraces the role of solving the hardest education problems in our society – and does an amazing job in every way that I have observed in all of my interactions with LCC over the past 35 years as a student, faculty member, spouse, and parent.

That is for everything except for math placement. It seems like something that is easy enough to fix – please find where or who the sticking point is and fix it. And when you come up with a solution, make sure to look closely at your your own data that suggests that the best way for students to learn math is when there is real human contact with a teacher and make sure your solution for the weakest math students includes classrooms and teachers instead of online and self-paced approaches which your own data proves is a strategy for failure.

Thanks for listening.