For the past 11 years, Renton Technical College (RTC), in Washington state, has been spearheading a teaching approach that might reform remedial education. The approach — called Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training (I-BEST) — combines college-readiness coursework and credit-bearing job training or academic classes.
“The classes are taught by a two-person team,” says Jodi Novotny, interim vice president of instruction for RTC. “One teacher provides the content, and a basic-skills instructor teaches writing, math and reading that is contextualized for the specific class.” The basic-skills component must make up 50 percent of the class to be considered a true I-BEST course.
I-BEST programs can only be funded if they lead to jobs that are in demand and pay living wages. Putting students on pathways for those kinds of jobs is yet another reason I-BEST has expanded. Today, RTC and 33 other community and technical colleges in Washington state offer 170 I-BEST programs in 14 areas, including health care, engineering, accounting and IT.
Over the past five years, RTC has served 1,315 I-BEST students. Best of all, colleges in 20 other states have asked for I-BEST training and are on the path to offering I-BEST or I-BEST-like programs.
Why the I-BEST model works
Weaving remedial-level work into a subject the student is interested in and making it relevant and timely has proved to be an extremely successful model. In fact, I-BEST students are three times more likely to earn college credits and nine times more likely to earn a workforce credential than students who are in basic-skills programs, according to a study by the Community College Research Center and the Washington Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board. Even better, graduation rates for I-BEST students at RTC exceeded the graduation rates of the all-college cohort by 13 percent in 2013.
“With I-BEST, we’ve found that students are not only completing their program but also improving basic skills at the same rate or better than if they were in regular basic-skills classes,” says Novotny. “The students are much more motivated to learn reading, writing and math when that content is relevant.”
Two teachers is a winning combination
Another reason I-BEST has been so effective is because the teaching team can personalize the way it instructs the class, based on the needs of the cohort. Having two instructors makes a world of difference, says Novotny. The basic-skills instructors sometimes take on the role of counselors, offering guidance and encouragement for the I-BEST students, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college.
William S. Durden, an I-BEST policy associate for the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, believes that the contextualization of content is a magic formula for students. “We know that studying for the GED or taking basic skills with no application can be uninspiring and that it’s hard to persist and get to that college level. I-BEST puts students in college right away and is tied to a career path that’s interesting and viable, and that makes all the difference in retention and completion,” he says.
Correction: A previous version of this article reported that the state served 1,315 I-BEST students. RTC served that many over the past five years. We apologize for the error.