A math professor’s effort to dismantle remedial classes

An instructor in a college math class prepares to call on a student. (Photo: Juice Dash, via Shutterstock)

As a math professor at Cuyamaca College in San Diego, I often have students who believe they are “not prepared” for a college math class. They’re afraid they can’t remember what they learned in high school, or that they never actually learned it. In the past, most students would start in remedial courses before they could take a class that counted toward a bachelor’s degree, with some taking two full years of these classes.

I helped create these remedial structures because I believed they would help students be successful.

But over the last decade I’ve worked to dismantle them, eliminating both remedial courses and placement tests. Cuyamaca now offers only transferable math classes, and we provide corequisite support to students with weaker high school grades and math preparation. Why? Because enrolling in a remedial class makes students less – not more – likely to be successful in college.

Instead of taking a generic class that repeats high school algebra, students take a more interesting and relevant course in quantitative reasoning.

I’m proud that my college’s early work transforming remediation helped lay the groundwork for AB 705, a 2017 law that put in place similar changes statewide. I also support a follow-up bill being considered by the California legislature, AB 1705, to further reform how our community colleges approach remedial classes.

Transforming remediation has more than doubled student completion of transferable math at Cuyamaca.

In 2010-11, only 26% of students completed a transferable math course in a year; in 2019-20, it was 63%. In addition, our STEM programs have almost doubled, due mostly to an increase in enrollment among students from historically marginalized groups.

For example, enrollment in Calculus I has increased 80% with a 333% and 100% increase in Black and Latinx students, respectively. And while equity gaps still exist, they have decreased for Black students and almost disappeared for Latinx students.

We also worked closely with our career education and certificate programs to provide better math options for their students. Instead of taking a generic class that repeats high school algebra, students take a more interesting and relevant course in quantitative reasoning, and they’re succeeding at higher rates than when we offered remedial algebra.

And if these students later decide to transfer, they’ve already completed their quantitative reasoning requirement.

Faculty have the best of intentions for students when they advocate for remedial classes. I understand this mindset because I once shared it.

However, we must follow the evidence. Students are better prepared for college than we’ve given them credit for, and if they do need support, corequisite support models are far more effective than remedial courses.

I’ve seen so many students who believed they weren’t “math people” thrive in corequisite courses.

There was Mariam Shamon, who did so well in Statistics with Support that she became a STEM major and is now a Construction Engineer. And Tracy, a single mom returning to college after years away to become a paralegal. She was nervous taking Quantitative Reasoning with Support but excelled and is now almost finished with her degree.

Opponents of AB 1705 claim that students should have a “choice” to enroll in remedial classes. In 2019, just 18% of Cuyamaca students who took one remedial math course completed a transferable course in a year, compared to 73% of students who began in a transferable course.

As educators, we have a responsibility to make sure the only choices we give students are ones that will help them reach their full potential.

Sometimes I think back to the 20 years of students prior to this work. Too many students came and went who didn’t achieve their educational goals because they got stuck in remedial classes. We might as well have told them, “We’re going to take your money, but you’re not going to go anywhere.”

With AB 1705, the state legislature can ensure this doesn’t keep happening to California community college students.

Editor’s Note: Tammi Marshall is the Chair of the Math Department at Cuyamaca College in San Diego. 

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