Home > Uncategorized > The Key to Success in Remedial Math ISN’T Teaching… It’s Counseling

The Key to Success in Remedial Math ISN’T Teaching… It’s Counseling

I just read David Kirp’s article in today’s NYTimes on the “Curse of Remedial Math”, the course that tends to be the biggest roadblock to success in NYC’s Community Colleges. Mr. Kirp offers data on the frustrating drop out rates in community colleges, which he and many education policy writers view as the key means of economic advancement for millions of high school graduates. He succinctly describes the existing flaws in math instruction in this paragraph:

Typically, those students fell behind in elementary school, and as new concepts were piled on every year, they never caught up. The “Strasbourg goose” school of teaching, in which students’ heads are stuffed with formulas that bear no relation to the real world, left them convinced of their own incompetence. Old-school remedial education in college — skill and drill, lecture-style classes, taken at the same time as college-level courses — offered more of the same.

Mr. Kirp then describes the way classes are conducted in the CUNY program he is profiling, with the teacher citing two major factors: an intensity (25 hours per semester) and a focus on thinking instead of memorization. But the real reason the CUNY program succeed (and the reason K-12 instruction fails) is described in two later paragraphs:

Counseling is vital to the success of the program, because it gives students someone to talk with about their lives. “They aren’t comfortable telling their teachers about the court date, the pending eviction, the abusive foster parent,” Jessica Mingus, the director of CUNY Start at Hostos Community College, said.

During orientation, students are asked to list the ups and downs in their lives. “Sex experience with a family member,” “Guns fired all the time,” one student wrote matter-of-factly. All that took place while she was still in elementary school. In middle school, she added, she had a miscarriage, tried to join a gang and wound up in jail. Abandonment, homelessness, fickle boyfriends and thoughts of suicide were among the “downs” other students mentioned.

In re-reading the second of these two paragraphs I was struck by the fact that the “downs” in the lives of the students DIDN’T occur recently. They were all issues these students faced from the time they entered school., issues that few of their counterparts in relatively affluent suburban schools EVER faced, and issues that they faced without the support of a caring adult.

Mr. Kirp and other reformers can talk all they want about improving instruction… but the key to making the lives of children raised in poverty better is to make certain all students have “…someone to talk with about their lives”… because the quality of instruction matters very little when children are exposed to the kinds of stresses the students at CUNY describe.

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