CSU officials: Remedial education reform will change lives and not ‘dumb down’ classes

Larry Gordon/EdSource TodayStudents at Cal State Dominguez Hills. Larry Gordon/EdSource TodayStudents at Cal State Dominguez Hills. Loren J. Blanchard and James T. Minor are at the heart of efforts to reform how students get remedial help throughout the California State University system’s 23 campuses.
The goal is to replace the noncredit remedial classes with ones that offer degree credit while bringing students up to speed academically, according to Blanchard, who is CSU’s executive vice chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs, and Minor, who is the system’s senior strategist for Academic Success. Such changes, they say, are a crucial part of the university’s $450 million plan to sharply improve graduation rates by 2025 from the current systemwide average of just 20 percent of incoming freshmen finishing in four years and 57 percent in six years.
Details of the reforms will be debated and worked on for the next two years or so. But the cause is clear: Nearly 40 percent of newly admitted CSU freshmen are required, based on placement tests, to take one, two or even three remedial classes in math or English. They usually receive no college credit for those courses, and just having to take those classes causes some to drop out, worsening the weak CSU graduation rates.
Many remedial English classes have already changed into credit courses, and more reform is ahead. Perhaps more difficult, CSU hopes to also replace the remedial, or developmental, math classes with other models. CSU’s Early Start summer programs, which aim to bolster math and English skills, may start to count toward diplomas.
CSU officials James Minor (left) and Loren Blanchard are working on plans to boost graduation rates and reform remedial classes.Both Blanchard and Minor have much experience in the field. Blanchard previously served as provost and senior vice president of academic affairs at Xavier University of Louisiana and in a similar post at the University of Louisiana system. During the Obama administration, Minor was deputy assistant secretary in the Office of Postsecondary Education at the U.S. Department of Education.
EdSource senior correspondent Larry Gordon recently interviewed Blanchard and Minor at the system’s headquarters in Long Beach. Here is what they said, edited for length and clarity.
Many people can’t understand why some students are admitted to CSU and yet are deemed not college ready. That seems to be a contradiction. Can you explain that?
Minor: There is a difference between what’s required to be admitted to the CSU and what we now deem to be college ready. While there has been a pretty steady admissions standard, college readiness standards have ratcheted up over the last 20 or 30 years….We’ve gotten more sophisticated in identifying what it means to be college ready. And it’s still not perfect science. I think we are still struggling with misalignment between what’s required to graduate from high schools across a lot of districts and what’s required by the CSU to be deemed college ready.
CSU Executive Vice Chancellor Loren BlanchardSo is that why you are pursuing these changes in remedial education?
Blanchard: We have a collective responsibility to ensure that every student we enroll graduates, and not only graduates, but is prepared with the knowledge and skills that best positions them for the workforce, or for graduate and professional school or for some further self-discovery….And with the chancellor (Timothy P. White) wanting to make sure we close the equity gaps, that’s where we really started critically looking at the direction we should take to close that gap.
Minor: We don’t want students to begin their college career in the hole – meaning they are required to take two or three courses that will never count toward their degree. The goal is to have the opportunity to earn college credit on Day One while at the same time achieving better alignment between what is required for being admitted and what is required for being college ready.
CSU Senior Strategist James MinorIs your goal to have no traditional remedial courses in two years and have all replacement courses be credit bearing? 
Blanchard: We are starting…to rethink developmental education so it will result in the opportunity for those students to have credit and the support they need to be successful in those courses.…I don’t want the thinking to be that we have the magic wand or the silver bullet and that we have it all thought out. We don’t have it all thought out…But we are learning a tremendous amount through consultation as we move toward the ultimate goal of retooling developmental education at the CSU.
Is the model going to be corequisite classes? (Corequisites cover the same material as traditional classes, but require extra class time and offer more academic support.)
Blanchard: That could be one model. It’s not a one size fits all. There are other models out there, and corequisite is one that most of us are familiar with. But even within corequisites, there are different ways to approach this. We are approaching it with the mindset that all will be credit bearing, that it will provide the required support for students to be successful, and that we are not in any way compromising academic integrity or rigor.
Minor: I don’t think you will see us take a position waving a flag for this model or that model. What we want to do is engage the faculty and empower them to be innovative and creative and progressive. We will leave it to them as experts on the front line…A model that works really well at Dominguez Hills may not work as appropriately at San Bernardino or Pomona or Northridge.
Aren’t these changes going to take an enormous effort?
Minor: It is significant, not only in terms of cost, but also in terms of effort and the numbers of sections and more importantly the number of students beginning college with a deficit. You think about the fact that 38 percent of our roughly 65,000 incoming students are subject to taking courses, sometimes two or three, that do not earn them college credit. That is significant. If you think about the number of young people who receive an email that says: “Congratulations, you’ve been accepted to the CSU!” and the very next communication they get says: “You are not ready to be here. Go take some classes that don’t count.” I think it sends a very clear message to students that may require them to question their belonging in college. It can be pretty detrimental to students.
Blanchard: There is a huge price tag on trying to make sure this gets done, but we are determined to make sure it does.…We spend a lot of time thinking about how impactful this will be on the lives of these young people. That’s the piece that matters more to us, more than just the number of courses. How we can really change their lives and get them where they really need to be?
Aren’t there some fears that courses will be “dumbed down” and made easier so more students can pass?
Blanchard: Whenever you begin talking about what’s necessary to increase graduation rates, some people think the only ways you can get to that is to raise (admissions) standards or somehow sacrifice academic rigor and make the courses easier. That is not what we are working to achieve at all here. Neither of those. What we are working to achieve is to ensure that we get as many of our students educated and out into the workforce or graduate or professional school…and to maintain the level of rigor and quality we’ve had all along.
I am confused about Early Start (the summer remedial programs many students are required to attend to improve math and English skills). Is it going away? 
Minor: Early Start is not going away. We intend to strengthen Early Start dramatically. For students who come in early and give up time working and doing other things in the summer, we want Early Start to be as powerful and consequential as possible. The goal is to give students the possibility to satisfy their educational requirements and earn college credits…It may vary depending on the campus. We want to give campuses and faculty a lot of room to define what the intervention might be.
Would it still be required?
Minor: The requirement remains as it stands today. But once we get closer to a possible policy reconsideration, it may be renegotiated.
What about the recent PACE (Policy Analysis for California Education) study that found “no consistently positive effect” from Early Start? 
Minor: I don’t know that we are in the position to endorse or dispute the report at this moment. But I think what’s fair to say is we are not surprised by the finding that you’ve got uneven results across the system. And one of the reasons that it is not surprising is that Early Start is practiced unevenly across the system.
We have been talking a lot about CSU’s job. But what are the responsibilities of high schools to send you better prepared students. Aren’t you the victims of poor preparation for the 12 years before students arrive?
Blanchard: I don’t see us as a victim. I believe in the spirit of partnerships. We’ve really got to find increasing ways to partner with our K-12 and community college counterparts to make sure we are all on the same page for the expectations we have for quantitative reasoning and mathematical skills our students have to bring to the classroom. It provides more opportunity to work collectively to make sure we have increasing numbers of students prepared when they come to us.
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