Fixing the Remediation Barrier by Supporting ALL Learners of Mathematics

Latino Student and Teacher

March 29, 2023

Dr. Ben Sinwell

Across the country, tens of thousands of students in community college are required to take remedial or developmental mathematics courses as prerequisites for their for-credit courses. These courses can be time-consuming and expensive and can act as barriers to students pursuing their desired career path. They can also create staffing and other administrative problems (i.e. placement testing) for community colleges. How can we help students to complete their community college classes without traditional remedial math courses? 

As a start, this can be facilitated at the secondary and community college level by better preparing students for future coursework by embedding prerequisite mathematical content into core classes and required courses. NCTM, NCSM and ASSM (2021) have made the case for shifting from “remediation to scaffolding and support.”  They have called for educators to:

“humanize mathematics by creating greater opportunities to learn for all students and ensure that all students have access to grade-level content. Creating greater coherence and just-in-time support for grade-level content provide a lever that helps students develop a deeper mathematical understanding, increase their motivation for learning because they see the connections, and enhance their identities as confident and effective doers of mathematics.”

At the secondary level this means having ALL students progress through their mathematics courses (not hold them back). However, this does not mean we just let these students sink and not swim, rather, we support them both inside and outside of the classroom – and this will require many different resources and a variety of supports. For many students, the teacher might embed content from previous courses into their lessons to ensure that students have the prior knowledge necessary to learn the content of their current course. Powell and Gray state that “readiness” is a “false construct” and that “we should organize and plan instruction on the premise of coherence with just-in-time support.” For many students, this just-in-time support might be to complete an additional and relevant online lesson or virtual module. This could happen during the school day if the schedule allows for it (i.e. homeroom, advisor, or RTI time) or, it could happen asynchronously if this is a successful delivery method for a given student or group of students. These lessons or modules (i.e. CollegeReadyMath) should have a proven track record of success with preparing students with the skills they need to succeed in college-level (2-year or 4-year) courses. These types of virtual materials are intended to serve as just-in-time supports; they should be chosen based on their ability to provide the prior knowledge students need to be successful with their current grade-level coursework. How can community colleges provide just-in­-time support?

                Just like secondary teachers, instructors and professors at the community college level should embed the math skills students need into their lessons and offer online and virtual modules that help students to build the knowledge they need to succeed in their current or future coursework. In addition, community college administrators should look at the prerequisite mathematics knowledge required in each course of study and integrate the teaching of this prior knowledge across first year courses in each degree program. There are already programs being piloted where students engage in self-guided courses that focus on the skills needed for their degree programs. For degree programs where algebra skills are the prerequisites, programs like CollegeReadyMath would meet this need, but many post-secondary students would need additional supports (i.e. tutoring, coaching) to make this happen. The National Partnership for Student Success (NPSS) is part of “a nationwide three-year effort that brings together experienced organizations to recruit, screen, train, support, and engage an additional 250,000 caring adults in roles serving as tutors, mentors, student success coaches, wraparound service coordinators, and post-secondary transition coaches.” Community colleges and high schools could leverage this extensive resource to pair individual students and cohorts of students with tutors and coaches to ensure that students are supported in learning the specific mathematics they need to be college and career ready. 

                We need to support our late high school and early college students in their learning of mathematics as they transition from school into the workforce. I have argued that this can happen within their current coursework or in addition to it, but with the understanding that the mathematical content be relevant to their coursework and target the knowledge students need to be successful in their courses and careers. Schools and community colleges can receive free technical assistance to connect their students with the NPSS which is an organization “committed to providing the supports that will help our students succeed”. I have discussed several avenues that can be taken to help make sure that ALL students are ready for college coursework and these avenues require that students be supported – these supports will help to dismantle the remediation barrier and allow students to be successful in their careers.

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