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remedial classes
Professor Robert Puhak is a rare bird in a class of underprepared college students — a full-time, experienced instructor with no research responsibilities. Credit: Meredith Kolodner

At Rutgers University-Newark, 20 college students were working through a word problem on a rainy February morning when several got stuck.

“I got 1/10 as the answer, but the computer says it’s 0.1,” called out one young woman.

“That’s the decimal equivalent of 1/10, right?” asked the professor, Robert Puhak.

“I guess so,” replied the young woman.

Puhak paused as he was erasing the problem from the board. “Do you understand why those two things are the same?”

“Not really,” she admitted.

She wasn’t the only one, so Puhak stopped. “OK, sorry, maybe I’m making too much of an assumption. Let’s go back.”

He used long division to walk the students through converting 1/10 to 0.1. “Ohhh, right, I get it,” said the student, as others nodded.

“I’m glad you asked that question,” Puhak said. “It’s important.”

The class moved on to the next sticking point, how to divide 5/6 by 4.

Colleges nationwide are grappling with the problem of how to educate students who come to campus significantly underprepared for college-level work, but instructors like Puhak — experienced, effective, full-time teachers with no research responsibilities — are the exception rather than the rule.

Related: Why are many students with ‘A’ averages being barred from college-level classes?

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 classes, while recent research indicates that integrating remedial learning with regular college courses 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 — for example, according to a 2010 study, 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 boosting financial aid. The role of the instructors has been little discussed.

Three-quarters of the instructors who teach remedial classes are part-time. 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, only 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.

Very few full university professors have any training in teaching, either. Ph.D.s are research degrees — no teaching ability or experience required. 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 University-Newark.

Related: Number of Americans with college degrees growing more slowly than advocates want

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 degree in 2012, but she said even then she knew she didn’t really understand the material.

Three-quarters of the instructors who teach remedial classes in college are part-time staffers.

“With other professors it was like, whoever gets it, gets it, and whoever doesn’t, doesn’t,” said Davis, 33. “[Professor 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.

Many faculty members say they want better training so that they can help students like Davis. They are acutely aware that their least-prepared students are juggling the most hectic schedules. These students often need the degrees the most, and are most at risk of not graduating. The instructors stand in front of their classrooms, watch students’ eyes glaze over and don’t know how to turn the tide.

My first day of actually teaching was traumatizing,” said Jason Plummer, a part-time lecturer at California State University, Los Angeles. “They looked at me, and I could tell they had no idea what I was saying.

“Someone asked a question that had nothing to do with what I was talking about, and I was like, ‘I have no idea why you’re asking that question,’” he recalled. “It was horrible.”

remedial classes
Donna Davis says Professor Puhak is the first college instructor she’s had who makes sure students understand material before forging ahead to the next lesson. Credit: Meredith Kolodner

Plummer had worked in the nonprofit sector and had successfully conducted educational workshops, but it was different with these students, many of whom were the first in their families to go to college. He reached out to the university’s Center for Effective Teaching and Learning and credits their professional development sessions with making him a more effective teacher.

Related: Communities come together to increase college-going from the ground up

“Anyone can do a basic PowerPoint and convey information, but teaching is different,” he said.

“The single best investment a community college can make is training its adjunct faculty to teach more effectively.”

As a lecturer, Plummer receives no compensation for the time he spends at professional development workshops. He keeps going because of his commitment to his students, but he also says that if he were working full-time it would be impossible.

Many colleges have teaching and learning centers, but the quality of the support they provide varies widely from campus to campus and participation is entirely voluntary.

Catherine Haras, who runs Cal State’s teaching and learning center, said that the problem is not limited to part-time lecturers, who operate like freelancers, filling teaching holes at a much lower cost than professors. She has seen tenured professors struggle with teaching, too, especially with students who are underprepared.

“The assumption is that because I’m an expert in something, I know how to teach it,” said Haras, “but there is no correlation between research and teaching, regardless of whether you love the topic.”

remedial classes
Students at Rutgers University-Newark who don’t pass a math placement exam are enrolled in a class that combines college-level math with some of the basics of high school algebra. Credit: Meredith Kolodner

“Faculty development touches on a very sensitive subject,” said Haras, referring to training that could improve professors’ teaching. “I think that is the big question in academia right now.”

It is a big enough question to convince Matthew Goldstein, who was chancellor of the roughly 500,000-student City University of New York from 1999 until 2013, to become chairman of the board of advisors for the Association of College and University Educators, or ACUE. A new commercial venture, it is partnering with colleges around the country to provide professional development for faculty members who hope to successfully teach underprepared students.

“The fact is that now with all of these cutbacks in public higher education … more and more of the teaching force now are adjunct personnel,” said Goldstein. “And while we [don’t] spend an awful lot of time reviewing teaching for tenure-track faculty, we spend virtually no time in evaluating contract and part-time faculty with respect to teaching.”

On Tuesday, ACUE announced a joint venture with the American Council on Education, designed to expand the number of instructors who have access to the new training.

If the goal of reform is to help underprepared students (many of whom come from low-income backgrounds), some experts suggest concentrating efforts on community colleges (about half of the students who attend community colleges have annual family incomes below $30,000).

“The single best investment a community college can make is training its adjunct faculty to teach more effectively,” said Hunter Boylan, director of the National Center for Developmental Education and a professor of higher education at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. “That’s the single most important thing to improve student success.”

“With other professors it was like, whoever gets it, gets it, and whoever doesn’t, doesn’t.”

Others worry about focusing on teaching to the exclusion of other improvements. They argue that the central problem with remedial education is that too many students are segregated into remedial pre-college classes, even though evidence shows that many would succeed if they were placed in college-level classes and given appropriate support there.

“If we don’t make structural changes, we’re doomed, even if the teaching is really good,” said Katie Hern, director of the California Acceleration Project, or CAP. “It is a mistake to think if you only focus on teaching you can solve the problem.”

Hern’s project has had impressive results restructuring remedial classes at California public college campuses while at the same time providing in-depth teacher training.

Once a college signs on to work with CAP (61 of California’s 113 community colleges have participated), Hern and her colleagues help redesign its placement policies and curricula to allow students to move more quickly through college-level English and math classes. The restructuring is coupled with intensive professional development for the instructors.

An independent study of the CAP program on 16 campuses found that underprepared students’ chances of completing a college-level English class more than doubled using its model. Students had a 4.5 times greater chance of completing a college-level math class. And the achievement gaps for African-Americans were eliminated in the math courses.

”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.”

At LaGuardia Community College in New York City, administrators say that developing their faculty’s ability to teach has been crucial to improving student pass rates and retention, especially among underprepared students. But they caution that the process must be rooted in faculty experience and must value their input.

“It’s a process of the willing,” said LaGuardia’s president, Gail Mellow, who has used grant funding to implement an intensive teacher training program. “You can’t put somebody else on a diet and hope that they lose weight.”

She believes that academia is struggling to catch up to the reality that many more students — regardless of how they did in high school — are enrolling in college today, especially in community colleges.

“If you’re in the top 1 percent of your class, it doesn’t matter if your professor is horrible, but that just doesn’t work for who’s in college now,” said Mellow. (In 2014, 89 percent of first-time degree-seeking students at LaGuardia required at least one remedial class.)

Back at Rutgers in Newark, Davis, the social work student, was frustrated with her score on the math quiz she had just taken on a computer. “Oh no,” she said, pushing back her chair and clapping her hands to her head.

“What happened?” asked Puhak, walking over. He looked at her answers on the quiz and pointed at a mistake. “That’s just a rounding error,” he said.

“I can’t believe I did that; I’m so disappointed,” said Davis, as she sat staring at her score of 75.

“I know you are, but that was just a silly error,” said Puhak. “You know that; you can do that.”

Davis nodded and smiled as she gathered her belongings to head home to her daughter, and hopefully a nap. She said she knows she’ll pass the course, but wants to do more than that. She is grateful to have landed in Puhak’s class and has no plans to give up.

“I want to be a social worker and get a good job,” she said. “I really want this. I really need this.”

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