At the same time, the whole notion of “remedial” classes is being hotly debated. Most colleges still use separate classes that underprepared students must pass before enrolling in college-level courses, while recent research indicates that integrating remedial learning with regular college coursework brings better results.
Regardless of reform efforts, a key factor that is usually overlooked is the teaching itself.
In most cases, instructors hired to teach pre-college-level math and English have little experience and no training in how to teach. At the K-12 level, how to improve teacher quality has been a decade-long, often nasty, debate. But at the college level, the effort to improve disastrously low success and graduation rates for students assigned to remedial classes—only 20 percent of students who enroll in a remedial math class make it to a college-level math class and only 37 percent of remedial English students move on—has centered on restructuring courses, adding counseling services, and increasing financial aid. The role of the instructors has been little discussed.
Three-quarters of the instructors who teach remedial classes are part-time employees. They may work at more than one college, they are less likely to have office hours (or offices), and they are not required to have any teaching experience at all; all they need is a bachelor’s degree. For underprepared students taught by a full-time professor, the situation may not be much better—those professors’ career prospects depend heavily on research and publishing, not on their teaching ability. In fact, very few full university professors have any training in teaching. Some may have served as teaching assistants in graduate school, but they are not required, or even expected, to learn the skills of ensuring that students understand or learn the material presented in class.
“It seems there is no standard practice across academia to get the most dedicated, trained teachers in front of the students who need it the most,” said Puhak, who is the director of college algebra and basic math at Rutgers’s Newark campus.
* * *
Donna Davis was put in Puhak’s algebra class in January after scoring too low on a placement exam to move directly into college-level math. She had already passed two remedial math classes at Essex County College, and got her associate’s degree in 2012, but she said even then she knew she didn’t really understand the material.
“With other professors it was like, whoever gets it gets it, and whoever doesn’t doesn’t,” said Davis, 33. “[Puhak is] the only one so far who’s made me like math. Where I was before, everything was just overwhelming. He goes step by step. He’ll tell you, ‘You can do this.’”
Davis returned to college this winter after losing her job as a corrections officer. She wants to get a bachelor’s degree to improve her salary and get a job as a counselor. She has been working nights in a homeless shelter, from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., for $11 an hour, while taking a full course load, majoring in social work. Davis took the night job so she could take her 12- and 13-year-old sons to school in the morning and spend time during the day with her 4-year-old daughter.