Palo Alto Weekly

News - October 29, 2010

Statewide report blasts community colleges

But Foothill beats averages on remedial education, leader says

by Chris Kenrick

A scathing new report is questioning the effectiveness of California's 112 community colleges, stating that remedial education in California's community colleges must drastically improve if the nation is to meet President Barack Obama's goal of substantially boosting college completion rates by 2020.

But locally, Foothill College students are faring better than average, Foothill President Judy Miner said.

"Large portions" of community college students enter the system unprepared, according to the statewide report, "Something's Got to Give," by the education research organization EdSource.

"Continuing to tackle the problems of readiness and remediation with the same strategies will simply not work," the report said, and the state lacks data systems even to measure the extent of the problem.

"Precise measures of the extent of the challenge — and of who needs (remedial) courses and why — are not currently available," it said.

But at Foothill, students in remedial courses had an 81.5 percent rate of successful completion — the highest among peer colleges, according to an accountability report issued by the state Chancellor's Office.

In addition, the community college has been recognized by the Gates Foundation for innovative remedial education, Miner said.

Although the EdSource report focused on remedial education, it provided figures suggesting that few community college students ever transfer to a four-year institution or earn an associate's degree or vocational certificate.

Of the 2.9 million individuals served by the California system in 2008-09, only about one in 13 transferred to a four-year institution or earned an associate's degree or vocational certificate that year, according to the report.

"Accepting that not all enrollees hope to complete a degree or certificate, 2008-09 completions for the system as a whole still provide perspective," the report, commissioned by state Community College Chancellor's Office, said.

Of 18,060 students enrolled at Foothill last fall, more than 600 transferred to four-year institutions, 500 earned associate's degrees and hundreds earned certificates from one or more of the college's 107 certificate programs this past June, according to numbers provided by the college at the time.

In regards to assessing the remedial needs of students at Foothill, a 2008 "inventory of basic skills needs" will be updated and available at a college-wide conference in late January, Miner said.

At Foothill, the term "basic skills" denotes remedial coursework. Other colleges sometimes use the term "developmental," she said.

Foothill will get some help when it comes to improving remedial education. It is one of 13 nationally that have been funded by the Gates Foundation for its "Global Skills for College Completion" project — an initiative to test fresh ways of teaching remedial math and writing with an eye to boosting pass rates.

The Gates Foundation hopes the effort will "create a database of effective practices" to double the national average pass rate in remedial classes, from 40 percent to 80 percent.

"If we all are successful in doing so, we will have created a powerhouse force of workers and thinkers, and estimates are that this higher pass rate will pump billions of dollars into the economy," Gates Foundation Director of Education, Postsecondary Success and Special Initiatives Hilary Pennington said.

Bill Gates himself tiptoed into a Foothill math class this past April to observe the college's intensive "Math My Way" program, designed to give previously math-phobic students the skills and confidence to succeed at college-level math.

"Math My Way continues to be held up as a model program," Miner said.

The program "was recently cited by the Gates Foundation as an example of the type of innovation that they aim to support with the Next Generation Learning Challenges grants that will be awarded next year.

"We are partnering with Rio Salado College ... to propose a hybrid version of Math My Way, i.e., a portion of the course requirements that could be completed online."

Miner said the EdSource report offers "a comprehensive description of the breadth and depth of challenges statewide in offering effective (remedial) instruction."

Noting state budget challenges cited in the EdSource report, Miner said, "I am hopeful that Measure E (on the Nov. 2 ballot) will bring additional resources to Foothill so that we can hire more full-time faculty and staff who will develop, deliver, assess and improve programs and services in support of underprepared students.

"Their educational success is key not only to their future, but to all of ours."

According to college data, Foothill has taken in roughly 14 percent to 16 percent of the Gunn and Palo Alto high school graduating classes in recent years.

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be e-mailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.

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