One school's experiment with remedial education Howard Community College, private tutoring company are partners in classroom

September 28, 1996|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN STAFF

Kwadwo Asafo-Adjei came to Howard Community College hoping to be a doctor someday. But for now, he spends 14 hours a week repeating high school classes because he came unprepared for college-level work.

"That's the price I pay for not taking care of it in high school," the 1996 Howard High School graduate said during a remedial algebra and geometry class this week.

Marylanders are also paying a price. At public colleges across the state, nearly half of the freshman right out of high school needed remedial classes in 1994-1995 -- and the campuses spent more than $17 million on those classes, educators say.

With 30,000 new undergraduates expected at those colleges during the next decade, educators are looking for ways to make remedial classes less costly and more efficient.

The Maryland Higher Education Commission is studying whether four-year colleges should get out of the remedial business (community colleges are increasingly picking up that function) and whether students should pay fees for such classes.

Another option -- privatization -- has put the spotlight on an experiment at Howard Community College, which has a year-old partnership with Sylvan Learning Systems Inc., a Columbia-based tutoring company. So far, the project has had mixed results, while challenging the thinking that lower student-teacher ratios necessarily improve performance.

"There's going to be close scrutiny given to the success of the program and how cost effective it is," said Michael J. Keller, director of policy analysis and research at the commission.

In mid-1995, Sylvan began teaching some remedial math sections at the college. The company offered smaller sections -- a 6-to-1 student-teacher ratio compared with 24 to 1 in regular remedial classes -- as well as an individual curriculum and as much extra help from teachers as students needed. Last spring, the college began charging students a fee for the Sylvan classes.

Officials from the college and Sylvan say it's too early to draw conclusions from the experiment, which is expected to continue through spring.

But the results so far show interesting patterns, including the possibility that students who pay extra will work harder to make it worthwhile.

For example, the only significant gains posted in Sylvan classes were in algebra last spring, when students were charged an extra $115 for the course, college officials said.

More than 80 percent of the students in that Sylvan section passed, compared with 56 percent in the regular remedial college course. In the fall 1995 algebra course, when no fee was charged for the Sylvan class, results from the Sylvan sections were not significantly better than those of the regular college sections.

"There's this thought out there that if you get the checkbook out . . . if you bought the theater tickets, you're going to show up and use them," said Zoe A. Irvin, mathematics division chairwoman at the school.

Sylvan math teacher Galina McKee said the extra fee alone boosts attendance. "I even joked with the college, make it more [money] and more will come."

Students who took the Sylvan classes say they learned more there than in high school, where large classes made it tough to overcome their math deficiencies.

"They really took the time to listen, and if you messed up a problem, they took the time to break it down, and show you how to fix it," said Jessica Phebus, 19, who earned low grades in math at Howard County's Glenelg High School.

But the 6-to-1 student-teacher ratio was too costly for the partnership to continue as an experiment, college officials said.

The college switched the Sylvan format this year to a 12-to-1 ratio, using more computers to allow students to work at their own pace while teachers help other students. The fee has been reduced; Sylvan students now pay $90 extra.

Steven G. Pines, managing director of Sylvan College Study Centers, called the evolving experiment a success so far, but said it needs time to work. "We want to find a program and cost structure that fits into the institution's budgets."

The company's partnership with the community college is its first venture into teaching in a school setting and working at the college level. Pines noted that Sylvan's pass rates have improved each semester.

Pub Date: 9/28/96

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