Archive for August 2010

Remedial Math at LCC – What is the way forward?

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.

Remedial Math a Roadblock to Education – Teaching Methods Matter

The Lansing State Journal recently ran an article titled “Math a roadblock for many in a quest to further education” that talked about how Lansing Community College (www.lcc.edu) is approaching Math Education – a topic near and dear to my heart. The article featured some interesting data on the relative success of teaching math in lecture format versus more self-paced options.

But the biggest theme in the article was how success in math is a necessary pre-requisite to success in college – and for many students – they get “so close” and the only remaining hurdle is Math – and when those students fail at math – they simply drop out and quit.

One of my favorite quotes from the article is

“Remedial math is emerging as the roadblock that prevents many students from earning degrees or transferring to a four-year school. The cost can be calculated, not just in tuition dollars, but in degrees left unfinished and careers that never begin.”

What the article glossed over is the use of the ACCUPLACER placement test at LCC and how that impacts student success. LCC uses the ACCUPLACER test to determine if you can get into their remedial math course (MTH 050). To get into remedial math, you must take a test without benefit of a calculator, and demonstrate solid mastery of multiplication tables, finding the common denominator, skillfully converting mixed numbers to fractions, conversion between percents and mxied numbers, and many other basic math skills. Let me say that again without benefit of a calculator.

We are talking about 19-20 year old kids who were supposed to learn multiplication tables in 4th grade for a few weeks and then spent the next 8 years with a calculator in their hand for every math class they took – and yet those students who have long-forgotten those 4th-grade skills (many students who have a basic understanding of algebra, geometry, and even calculus) literally cannot even take the first Math class at LCC until they go back and learn the skills of long-division by hand.

This suggests a really basic failure in the design of the ACCUPLACER exam and/or a failure on the part of LCC to provide remedial training on the skills needed to succeed. If multiplication table memorization is critical to student success at LCC – then why not have a course in multiplication memorization. Other LCC placement tests for Reading and Writing always place you in a course so you can start. Math is the only LCC placement course that you can “fail” and be washed out.

As a personal example, my son Brent took the ACCUPLACER writing test (which is not even a writing test at all) and placed into the second-lowest writing class which he promptly got a 4.0 in, and then took the next up writing class which he promptly got a 4.0 in, and this semester he will be taking college level writing. I am actually perfectly happy he got this kind of remedial education as it make absolutely sure he would be ready for college level writing. When he took the ACCUPLACER reading exam – he placed into the lowest possible class (but there was a class) – he took the class and it was way below his skill level – but whatever – he took the course, got a 4.0 in it and he is off and running into other courses. A little review never hurt.

But for math the ACCUPLACER says “you cannot go to college until you learn multiplication tables” – period. It is no wonder that many 19-year olds walk out and say “f*ck that!” and give up on college. They found their way to college, found their way through getting financial aid, got registered, arranged transportation, found the cafeteria, and yet, they are told that “college is not for them” by a f*cking computer program. And a computer program for which there is no negotiation – the advisors will never override the program – the student simply needs to go home and spend the rest of their life as an unskilled worker working for low wages.

This seems so unfair. I wish pundits would get more pissed about this as “fair access” / “social justice”.

The good news is that Lansing State Journal Article shows that the LCC math department (a) understands that there is a problem, (b) understands that failure in math is equivalent to failure in college, and (c) is looking at and measuring their own success and making changes.

Here is data from the article in the physical paper that did not make it into the online version of the article.

The simple summary of the data is that in all situations, the traditional lecture is the best way for kids to learn math at LCC. And the more remedial the level of the course – the more important the lecture format is to student success. If you look at the data a little more closely, you will see that human contact is a big factor in student success. The more students were left to their own to learn the material, the less successful the students were in those courses.

Human contact and learning – wow – who would have guessed? Sage on the stage actually works – wow. The word “lecture” is not a “dirty word”? All the education experts who have never actually taught in a classroom – or perhaps people who claim to be experts but who have never taught students with an SAT score less than 600 – piss me off so badly..

It turns out that this Lansing State Journal Story has a personal angle. Brent was actually in the class that was featured in the story so I have a bit more inside perspective.

Brent has been struggling to get into remedial math for well over a year now and we were very pleased when he was contacted to be part of a one-week “book camp” to help students succeed on the ACCUPLACER math test. To get into the boot camp, you had to have (a) failed the ACCUPLACER several times, and (b) successfully completed college-level courses in other areas. Brent had a 4.0 in his other classes and had done decently but failed the ACCUPLACER three times in 12 months and had one shot left to try it and then had to wait another 12 months to take the test again.

So we were overjoyed to be part of the boot-camp. It was 8AM-noon in the middle of summer so we figured that this would be pretty painful for a teenager – so we got him up and took him for the first few days. After Wednesday he was motivated enough to get up and go to LCC on his own.

The boot-camp teacher was Ms. Hardin who was featured in the article. For the first two days, I took Brent and would wait in the coffee shop with free WiFi but from time to time I would wander by the door of the classroom and peek in. I wanted to talk to Ms. Hardin and ask her some questions but Brent forbade any teacher-parent interaction.

From what I could observe, Ms. Hardin is a wonderful teacher. She loved math, she loved students, she loved teaching, and she was dedicated to student success. Her approach was classic awesome hybrid lecture – she would introduce an idea in the front, give the students a few tips and tricks on how to approach a problem – sometimes a little memory aid (like “around the world” for mixed fractions) and then she would pair them up and have them practice in teams. Brent’s teammate for several days was a retired solder who had some good war stories for Brent about the Iraq. Then Ms. Hardin would have different students come to the board and work problems – and then she would move onto a new topic.

Watching the body language of the students through the doorway – she had them all in the palm of her hand. The students knew she wanted them to succeed and that she cared about each and every one of them – the students knew that what they were trying to learn mattered – after all depending on the outcome of the ACCUPLACER that they would be taking on Friday August 13, 2010 – their lives would change forever – this was their last chance to get into math for 12 months – and a large fraction of those who failed the test Friday would probably drop out of college for the rest of their life. For many this was literally their last chance at succeeding in college.

Each day Brent would come home happy with what he learned and confident. We would do a bit of homework and he knew all the tricks and tips from Ms. Hardin and they made sense to him. He wanted to try everything himself before I helped him. As we did the homework, his technique was always right – but he got the wrong answer on 1/3 of the problems because of a simple math error like thinking 21 was divisible by 8 instead of 7 (remember – no calculators allowed).

The Friday morning was to be a 1-hour review and then the whole class would troop over and take the ACCUPLACER together while Ms. Hardin would wait outside for the students to emerge and she would celebrate with them if they made it into MTH 050. Thursday night the whole family was excited at the possibility that tomorrow morning we would be “in” and Brent’s college could really start in earnest. Everything felt good. Brent promised he would take lots of time on the test and double and triple check his hand-math. He was feeling really confident.

If this were a Disney movie, the story would have a happy ending at this point. But it does not. Brent got exactly the same score on the ACCUPLACER after a week of boot camp that he got two weeks earlier after home study – a 25. You need a 34 to get into MTH050. As best Brent knew it appeared that most of the students had similar results – most still failed (probably like Brent it was their fourth consecutive failure).

From what Brent said, it seemed that Ms. Hardin was disappointed and sad at the results – I am sure that she like the students had high hopes that the boot camp would have a more positive result.

She promised the students that failed that she would try to see if she could get her newly-adopted kids (including the 35 year old soldier back from the war in Iraq) into MTH050. I am guessing that using her instincts as a teacher, she had assessed the students and realized that they were good learners and could handle MTH 050 – particularly if they could have a calculator. Ms. Hardin wanted to open on a new section of MTH050 that she would teach and bring all the students from the boot camp into her section – she wanted to finish what she had started.

Given how much Brent enjoyed learning from Ms. Hardin, this seemed like the most wonderful of possible scenarios. Wow – not only getting into MTH050 without having to pass the dreaded ACCUPLACER – but getting an absolutely wonderful teacher – after all the struggle we have had on this – the thought of going from failure and waiting 12 months to try again to Brent taking MTH050 from Ms. Hardin brings a bit of mist to my eyes as I write this paragraph.

We anxiously waited for the word from Ms. Hardin on the MTH050 decision – Brent checked his e-Mail several times per day and we asked him over and over. About a week later, the bad news arrived that Ms. Hardin could not create the MTH050 section and she could not override her boot-camp students into the class. Again, this is not a Disney movie – this is real-life.

So at some level, it might seem as though we are back at square one – staring at the unblinking, unfeeling, demonic ACCUPLACER test as the hard gateway to Brent getting a degree. We are going back to the drawing board, home study, multiplication table memorization, mixed fractions, waiting 12 months until we can take the test again.

But there is a little hope – Brent has met Ms. Hardin and realized that math can be learned and that somewhere inside of LCC there are caring people who are really good at teaching math. So fighting our way in will be worth it. We are motivated to continue our efforts. We will see where it goes.

But the thing that tugs at me is that Brent is one of the lucky ones. We can afford to keep trying no matter what roadblocks we encounter. With a dad with a Phd. and a mom with a 3.5 in Calculus – this will work out for Brent eventually. For many other students – Friday August 13, 2010 has a good chance of being the day that they walk out of a college building never to walk back in for the rest of their lives.

In my next post, I will make suggestions to LCC as to how I think things should be improved.

Solving a Bug in a Dream – Sort Of

Last night I had a pretty detailed dream about a Sakai bug. In this dream, I stumbled across a bug in Sakai that was very simple and very obvious. It was not as much a code bug – but a bug in how we deployed something.

In a way, I was shocked that we had not already caught this simple mistake. Since it was so simple, I coded up a nice clean fix in the dream, tested the fix, and checked it into the trunk all before I woke up.

Then I woke up and immediately tried to remember the bug. But for the life of me, I could not remember what the bug was. For a while I wracked my brain – after all it was a simple bug with a very elegant fix.

After a cup of coffee and some more brain searching – it did occur to me that I had forgotten to add the feature to make it possible to place more than one instance of the Basic LTI tool in a site in Sakai 2.7.0.

So I made JIRA for the Basic LTI multi-placement feature, coded the two-line change, and tested the it, committed the code, and closed the JIRA over a second cup of coffee.

http://jira.sakaiproject.org/browse/BLTI-69

But I still have no idea what that bug that I fixed in the dream actually was.