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Effort to improve program at BCCC gets mixed reviews

Two years ago, Baltimore City Community College thought so highly of part-time math teacher Patricia Pelham that it selected her for two awards.

Now, under a set of aggressive reforms, it is telling her she is no longer qualified to teach.

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In a bid to improve its troubled remedial program, BCCC is instituting several changes this fall that are winning praise, including creating a department devoted solely to "developmental" education and introducing a computer-based curriculum for remedial math. But a third reform has drawn criticism: requiring teachers to have master's degrees in their fields.

This change has barred some of the part-time instructors who teach many remedial classes. Among them is Pelham, who won BCCC's 2001 teaching excellence award, was selected for a national honor the same year and was featured in a Sun series last year on great professors, at BCCC's recommendation.

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A Hubble Space Telescope programmer who has taught night-school algebra at the college for 11 years, Pelham has a bachelor's degree in math and a master's in secondary education. She has only nine credits in graduate-level math, short of the 18 credits the college now requires teachers to have in their field.

Pelham declined to comment on the situation, saying she is hoping for permission to teach in the semester starting next week. But others criticized the new standard, saying study in advanced math shouldn't be the gauge of whether someone can teach basic algebra.

"We strongly are of the view that the important criteria for teachers is that they are effective, not their credentials," said Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation, which issued a report last year on BCCC's remedial program.

Driving the reforms are the bleak statistics highlighted in the Abell report. Most students, the report found, arrive at BCCC seriously lacking in basic skills, particularly in math, and get bogged down in noncredit remedial courses that become a roadblock to graduation.

Of the students who entered BCCC in 2001, the study found, 95 percent needed remedial math, and most were placed in the lower two of the three levels, arithmetic and basic algebra. That year, there were 113 sections of remedial math -- four times the number of for-credit math courses.

State standards for all two-year and four-year colleges require students to take a "college-level" math course for graduation. At BCCC, students can't take such a course until they've passed the highest remedial class, intermediate algebra.

Most students don't get that far. Failure rates in remedial math classes exceed 50 percent, forcing many to drop out in frustration. Of the 1,350 first-time students who entered the college in the fall of 1997, the report found, only 12 had graduated four years later.

The report's authors urged state officials to loosen the math requirements for two-year colleges, many of which experience similar problems, though to a lesser degree than BCCC. Most students, the report noted, attend BCCC not to transfer to a four-year college, but to obtain training for jobs that don't require advanced math.

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State higher education officials are considering lower math qualifications for certain two-year degrees. But there is disagreement about what revised standards should look like, and BCCC is starting the semester with the same requirements in place.

"I would really hope by spring there would be some movement on that," said Bonnie Legro, an education program officer at the Abell Foundation.

Meanwhile, BCCC is moving ahead with other reforms. The computer-based curriculum, in which teachers will guide students through instructional software, performed well in pilot classes last year, officials say. And separating remediation into its own department will bring it more attention, they say.

The reforms "address Abell's recommendations and will allow students to move through developmental classes faster," said BCCC President Sylvester E. McKay.

Officials defended the new qualification for remedial teachers, saying it resembled standards elsewhere, including in Anne Arundel County. But community college officials in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties said they would likely allow someone with Pelham's credentials to teach.

Officials could not specify how many instructors had been disqualified by the new rule, but said they had 80 qualified applicants for remedial math jobs. They rejected the suggestion that instructors teaching high school-level algebra should be allowed to have lower qualifications than those teaching college-level math.

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"What that [would] mean is that you're looking at developmental students as inferior," said Elizabeth Johns, BCCC's vice president of learning. "You're saying this is less of a student so you can use less of a credentializing process."

Johns said Pelham, who wins rave reviews from students and whose classes have an unusually high pass rate, would likely be allowed to tutor, but not to lead a class.

Legro said Abell is working with BCCC to solve the remedial problem. But she said the new qualification for teachers was not something recommended by the foundation.

"What we talked about was really trying to find teachers who understand serving students who need remedial support," she said. "Our recommendations were not about strengthening [instructors'] college-level course work."


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