Local News

Wednesday, Jul 21 2010 06:44 PM

Taking teachers out of equation fails CSUB math students, figures show

BY JORGE BARRIENTOS, Californian staff writer jbarrientos@bakersfield.com

When Joshua Silvis, 39, recently returned to Cal State Bakersfield to pursue a bachelor's degree, he discovered he needed to pass two remedial math courses to graduate. No problem -- or so he thought.

Silvis enrolled, but the classes were not what he expected. They were Internet-based, which meant no face time with instructors, no chance to ask questions, no hope of someone with years of classroom experience putting the math concepts into terms he could understand. Like other students, he was given the option of sitting in a computer lab and getting help from an undergraduate student-tutor. But with a full-time job and a 5-year-old to raise on his own, he couldn't take the time to get that help, he said.

"It wasn't a class. There was really no one there to assist you," said Silvis, a project coordinator for local oil company. "There was no instructor."

To cut costs, the university had eliminated four of nine math instructors, opting to move the remedial math program to a mostly online format. Help was available only during a certain time frame.

The results?

During the past school year, more than half of the 1,600-plus students who took the new-style courses -- including Silvis -- failed the math classes, department figures show. In the year before, about 60 percent of the 1,100 students in an instructor-based, classroom setting passed. The disparity in outcomes of the two instruction models was especially stark when comparing fall of 2008, when about 75 percent of students passed, and fall of 2009, when about 40 percent of students were successful.

Instructors in the math department say the online experiment for the math remediation courses has failed, and they are asking for changes.

"These numbers are bad," said Joe Fieldler, a veteran CSUB math professor. "There is no instruction for the most vulnerable students."

Nearly 40 percent of freshmen CSU-wide were deemed unqualified to take freshmen math last year, according to reports. They were diverted to remedial instruction to improve their skills.

In Silvis' case, he took the course again and hired a private tutor to help him. He paid about $400 for each class, and another $400 for the tutor's assistance for two hours every week night.

"You need someone to put (the math) into perspective," Silvis said. "The best thing for that class would be to have an instructor. Once you have someone to show you how everything works, it stays with you."

CSUB has for years had an online presence for remedial courses, CSUB spokesman Rob Meszaros said. What changed in fall 2009 was that students were no longer required to go to a classroom and have questions answered by an instructor.

Tutors -- paid undergraduate students -- were available in a computer lab to help students if they needed it.

"They would be getting a very similar mode of instruction as to what was used in the past," Meszaros said. "It's not as if the math program went from all students experiencing direct lecture-style instruction in one year, and then in the next year went to an online environment in which there was no one there to help."

Critics argue that student tutors do not offer the same instruction as college faculty would. And Meszaros acknowledged that the change "was not as successful as was hoped."

So starting in the fall, students will be required to put in time at the lab to complete a portion of their online work.

The goal is have all students complete remediation within one year, Meszaros said. More than 74 percent of full-time freshmen who entered in fall 2009 completed their math remediation within one year. Students get another opportunity to pass in a summer session if they need it, he said.

Vanessa Rojas, a CSUB student and president of Students for Quality Education, said a lack of instructors compromises a quality education, an especially bitter pill considering student fees continue to climb.

Last school year, student fees increased by 32 percent, and officials approved another boost of 5 percent for the coming school year. In the midst of an $8 million budget cut last year, and a projected $6.4 million cut for next year, officials have reduced course sections and eliminated instructor positions.

"We're not getting what we're promised and what we're paying for," Rojas said.

Instructors are asking CSUB officials to allow more face-to-face lecture time. They're also awaiting passing-rate statistics from a remediation math course during the summer that puts an instructor in front of students, as in years past.

"There are no real villains in any of this. We would all like everyone to be on remediation," Fieldler said. "We're just annoyed with the results."

Starting in 2012, students in the CSU system will be expected to enroll in an Early Start program before beginning their first year at college, officials said. The goal is for students to be ready for college-level coursework at the start of every fall. Opponents of the program argue those classes will hit students in the wallet even more.

Meanwhile, last week the University of California system approved a fully online undergraduate degree program, and board members endorsed a pilot program to test it.

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