Job-Training Programs Make Remediation Relevant
A few years ago, Sheila Ortega was scrubbing floors at a local grocery store, a high-school dropout with no clear path out of poverty. Today Ms. Ortega, 23, has four certificates in manufacturing skills and big plans for the future.
What turned her around, she says, was a program at the Alamo Colleges that caught her up on fundamentals while she worked toward her credentials. It combines developmental, or remedial, education with job training and intensive advising, so that even the least prepared students can quickly get certified for jobs that employers are trying to fill.
Designed to solve two problems, the model was developed in Washington State as Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training, or I-BEST, and is now being adapted and tested at more than 150 community colleges nationwide. It challenges the traditional approach to developmental education, in which students must pass a series of courses in math, reading, and writing before moving on to credit-bearing work. The problem there, say educators who are pushing to streamline remediation, is that many students get discouraged and drop out before cracking their first college textbook.
I-BEST and its spinoffs let students jump right into job training by teaching academic skills, in practical terms, at the same time. For example, an aspiring pharmacy technician whose eyes glazed over in middle-school math might see the point when learning how to measure the correct dosage of an antibiotic for a 50-pound child. Same with the welding student calculating how many quarter-inch steel plates, at 10 pounds per square foot, he can safely load into a one-ton truck.
The nonprofit advocacy group Jobs for the Future coordinates a network of similar programs at 78 community colleges in seven states, and the results are encouraging. Students in Washington’s highly structured program are three times as likely to earn college credit and nine times as likely to earn a work-force credential as their peers in traditional basic-skills programs, according to multiyear studies by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College.
The dual programs, however, are expensive and time-consuming to run—and may not attract enough students, the research center found. Another finding: When I-BEST serves as a bridge to a degree program, the compressed, embedded remediation isn’t always enough for a successful leap to the more rigorous coursework required for, say, a certified nursing assistant to become a registered nurse.
While some associate- and bachelor’s-degree programs have long incorporated subject-specific remedial work, the approach can be especially helpful, advocates say, for students who might otherwise start out in English as a Second Language programs or adult basic education. They tend to struggle most with traditional approaches to remediation.
It was a good fit for Ms. Ortega, who learned English after coming to San Antonio from Mexico in the fifth grade. She passed all but one of the exit tests—math—required to graduate from high school in Texas.
Demoralized, she dropped out and started working as a cleaner at the grocery store. Her mother, undeterred, drove her to the Alamo Colleges’ work-force-training center to check out a traditional pharmacy-technician program. When counselors there described the I-BEST alternative, including the academic support she badly needed, she signed up.
Ms. Ortega enrolled in April, and this month she donned a cap and gown to collect certificates for an introductory course in logistics, as well as courses in supply-chain, transportation, and warehouse management. If her application for financial aid is successful, she’ll start building on those skills this fall in an associate-degree program in logistics—followed, she hopes, by a bachelor’s degree. "I can move up quickly and be a manager by the time I’m 27," she says. "With a degree, I could become a CEO."
Later in the class, students take turns guessing, based on their classmates’ clues, the meaning of terms like "procurement," "eminent domain," and "dunnage." Math lessons for future warehouse clerks and transportation coordinators include metric conversions and calculations of the time it takes to travel various distances at different speeds.
The Alamo program’s student-success coordinator, Stephanie Coats, frequently stops by to offer encouragement and hugs. When a homeless student showed up exhausted and filthy, she found him a bed at a local shelter. To reassure another student convinced that he’d never find work, she tracked down an employer willing to hire ex-offenders.
The personal touch that the program relies on doesn’t come cheap. At Alamo Colleges, the general student-to-adviser ratio is more than 350 to 1. For the 200 or so students in I-BEST during a given semester, it’s 66 to 1. That, along with paying two instructors for a single course, can be an obstacle for community colleges at a time when state appropriations are down and enrollment in the sector is shrinking.
Katherine Mangan, Chronicle of Higher Education.