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Community college access may not run counterpoised to standards

Posted By: Sherman Miller on May 25, 2008
Dolores Perin presents the dilemma that faces community colleges that are caught in the chasm between two counterpoised educational goals of access versus standards. Her article, “Can Community Colleges Protect Both Access and Standards? The Problem of Remediation” paints the problem as: If you allow background deficient students to bypass remedial courses, these students may have a high potential of failure. If you force the background deficient students to take the needed background course work, they may leave prematurely.

I feel that access and standards are not mutually exclusive goals if you shift the debate to a background deficient student acculturation process where students must adopt the college student modus operandi to be successful in academia. I have taught at two community colleges in different states and taught at four colleges with remedial courses where my experience has been that one does not have high failure rates if the teacher’s mindset is on how he or she teaches these students. The teacher can teach with the assumption that the students’ background levels are at the academic norm which may be true for fewer than fifty percent of the students suggesting a high failure rate. On the other hand, the teacher can assume that all of the students can learn; thereby, she or he will help the class establish a core base of knowledge on which to learn the course material.

I start by letting the students know that my job is to teach them and not to fail them. They are expected to work hard to pass or work hard to fail. I point out that some people work hard enough to fail. My goal is to establish that my course is not a weeding out course. The students quickly conclude that I am very concern about their success which allows me to encourage the acceptance of academic excellence and tenacity and chastise unacceptable behavior. I further tell the students that the classroom is a very sacred place where my job is to develop the next generation and they are this next generation of leaders. Once an emotional link is established with the students, I tell the students the trick to graduating from college is to take the right courses only once. If students are repeating courses they are burning up their college funds with no degree at the end and college loansc must be paid back.

I will focus my discussion to mathematics where my experience suggests that textbooks have a review chapter that offers the core knowledge that is critical to handling the course work. I find that covering this material may bring eighty percent of the students to core knowledge level to be successful. It also points out to the background deficient students how big the academic deficit he or she possesses.

This review coverage offers the opportunity to start teaching the students how to read mathematics textbooks in a nonthreatening environment. I find that having a student write the definitions at the whiteboard and parse them highlighting the new vocabulary words helps to turn the textbook into an asset. I tell my students, “If you learn to read the book, it is your friend. If you do not learn to read the book it is your enemy.” In the beginning, the pace is slow because I teach on an exponential curve. The exponential curve model allows me to cover the material on the syllabus once the students background deficiencies have be bridged.

Thus, I see the teacher's mindset being focused on teaching the deficit background student population and a willingness to find teaching techniques to accomplish her or his mission is the key to preventing access working against standards. Teachers have to teach where the students are academically not where they ought to be. If the focus is on covering the syllabus, then the students have a high caliber course.

I believe that community college access is not necessarily counterpoised to standards, if the professors are willing to accept that today’s underprepared students come with background deficits that can be bridged to produce tomorrow’s college graduates.
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 Community college access may not run counterpoised to standards by Sherman Miller on May 25, 2008
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