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Developmental Education: Relevant or Relic?

Learning Abstract

March 2014, Volume 17, Number 3

By Pamela Lau

In recent times, community colleges have attracted unprecedented levels of public attention. The Obama administration has positioned community colleges to play a primary role in the nation's economic recovery and expansion. The president has envisioned two-year colleges as the vehicle to deliver job training programs that will impart skills to Americans enabling them to compete with workers from other nations. This vision is strategically tied to his bold pronouncement that our nation's community colleges will have five million more graduates by 2020.

Developmental Education: A Broken System

At the same time we face this daunting challenge for additional graduates, the light of public scrutiny has turned to community college developmental education programs. The ensuing press has been critical. In a scathing report, Complete College America (CCA), a private advocacy body, described developmental education as higher education's "bridge to nowhere" (Complete College America, 2012). Developmental education, conceived as the academic bridge between inadequate high school preparation and college readiness, is a broken bridge. Too many students start in remediation; too few ever cross the bridge into college programs and reach the destination of credential attainment. Less than 10 percent who begin college with developmental course work graduate within three years. CCA argues that the very structure in which remediation takes place is inherently flawed. Putting students in noncredit courses to build basic academic skills is a major stumbling block to graduation.

State policy makers over the last decade have been questioning the need for programs that are designed to teach skills that should have been learned in high school. One prominent strand of criticism arises from the cost of remediation. States that support public institutions often have to pay twice for the same preparation. High attrition rates combined with minimal graduation rates make this expenditure a particularly poor return on investment. Placement in developmental education is also costly to students who have to pay tuition and fees, or use financial aid resources, for courses that will not count towards college graduation (Levin & Calcagno, 2007).

Developmental education also drains substantial resources from budget-conscious institutions as they serve academically underprepared students in the name of access and the democratization of higher education. At Parkland College in Champaign, Illinois, for example, more than $250,000 a year is allocated to maintain an enviable learning support center whose student clients have a wide range of academic needs and learning challenges. It has been estimated that annual expenditures to support developmental education in public colleges total between one and two billion dollars. Some states have responded with legislative action to push the responsibility for college preparation back to the K-12 system. In Florida, recent high school graduates have been declared college ready by legislative fiat. Starting in 2014, they will not be required to take placement tests for college. In Connecticut, legislation mandating the reconfiguration of developmental education allows no more than one semester of stand-alone remediation for the lowest performing students. Most students needing remediation will be directly placed in credit-bearing college-level classes and receive embedded support.

Developmental Education: Reform for Relevance

Despite calls to eliminate or minimize remedial programs, the demise of developmental education is not in sight—at least not in the foreseeable future. Several reasons stand out. First, developmental education programming arises out of deep-seated principles of equality and social equity. As long as community colleges hold dear the mission of access to serve populations traditionally underserved in higher education—low-income students, minority students, returning adults, incumbent workers needing skill improvements and industry-recognized credentials—there will continually be a need for programs to empower successful transitions into college-credit programs (Myran, 2009). These democratic ideals are intertwined with economic and pragmatic motivations. For a nation upgrading its workforce to meet the demands of the 21st century, there is, in the words of Robert McCabe (2000), no one to waste. Even the academically underprepared must have the opportunity to receive some level of postsecondary training (p. 23). McCabe argues that community colleges need to place a high priority on remedial education programs not only because remediation is inseparable from the mission of access, but also because the nation cannot afford to lose potential workers. Eighty percent of jobs in the 21st century require at least some postsecondary training. Almost one third of high school graduates are underprepared for higher education (p.vii). For these adults, developmental education in community colleges is the primary bridge to "continued education, constructive employment, and full participation in society" (p. 48). Arguably, developmental education lays the essential foundation for the nation's future economic well-being.

Further, developmental education embodies the quintessentially American belief that everyone deserves a second chance. Anyone who did not receive adequate secondary preparation, regardless of reason, gets the chance to try again. Last, the research conducted by Attewell, Lavin, Domina, and Levey (2006) indicates that gaps in college graduation are due more to skill gaps carried over from high school into college than to placement in developmental coursework in college. The lack of adequate academic preparation in high school may play a larger role in the current developmental education crisis than the requirement of remedial coursework at college. That said, it is true that developmental education as it is currently structured is flawed. If programs for the academically underprepared are not merely to remain in existence but to move center stage as being effective in fulfilling the Completion Agenda, reform is not optional.

At a minimum, three interrelated reform strands are needed. Reforms begin with a change in perspective. Traditionally, developmental education has been viewed through the lens of the retrospective deficit model. A student whose placement score falls below a certain level is seen as deficient in reading, writing, and/or math skills and must be retaught what should have been learned in high school. The emphasis on student deficits has translated into the need to elevate test scores on standardized tests. Unfortunately, this has devolved into a focus on discrete drills and skills that are typically decontextualized from the actual college-level work and the occupational world—all for the sake of making the cut score. This deficit approach does not encourage deep learning in students; worse, it has unwittingly caused developmental education to become a barrier to student success (Grubb, 2012; Holschuh & Paulson, 2013).

Developmental educators should instead adopt a forward-looking perspective, using a transitional model in which the emphasis is on building learning bridges so that skills acquired can be successfully transferred into the college classroom (Perin, 2013). The transitional perspective has encouraged recent shifts in developmental math curriculum and pedagogy. Instead of making students relearn all or most of high school Algebra II, the focus is now on equipping students to succeed in the required college math course in their academic program (G. Griffiths, personal communication, January 28, 2014). In the field of reading, there is a growing recognition that developmental reading is not a practice of isolated skills, like identifying main ideas and memorizing definitions to increase vocabulary, but rather, the process of acquiring academic literacy and textual engagement skills needed to function in the specialized discourse of college disciplines (Holschuh & Paulson, 2013). The negative reduction-of-deficits approach is replaced by a positive emphasis on developing the student as learner in college.

Reform necessitates structural changes. To become relevant in meeting the challenge of improving success, developmental education classes need to emerge from the margins of college programming where they mostly exist in isolation as stand-alone classes. They must be reconfigured as essential and relevant foundations for the clear and coherent pathways that community colleges are called to create for students. In recent times, partly in response to public criticism and partly as a consequence of program evaluation, developmental education has seen a range of structural changes (Perin, 2013). These changes include the creation of learning communities to link developmental courses with college-credit classes and the embedding of upper-level developmental writers in college composition classes using a co-requisite model. In developmental mathematics, some colleges have adopted format changes to allow the pace and length of developmental math sequences to be adapted to the skill-level of students. Other colleges have employed the emporium model, which allows students to work only on their math skill deficiencies with the support of individualized learning assistance provided through state-of-the-art technology. Structural adaptations such as these have attracted attention as best practices to boost developmental completion rates.

However, if these structural changes are conducted in isolated developmental programs and not integrated with larger efforts to delineate meaningful educational pathways for all students, their relevance to the overall Completion Agenda is diluted. Efforts to break down silos so developmental education programs become integral components of guided pathways to student success are imperative. Silo deconstruction may well present opportunities to foster partnerships between developmental faculty and their peers who teach college-level content classes so that reading and writing skills acquired in developmental classes can be reinforced by discipline faculty.

Lastly, structural reform calls for complementary pedagogical changes in developmental classes. The effectiveness of developmental education is ultimately measured not in standardized test scores and grade distribution curves, but the degree to which students exiting from basic skills classes can competently transfer skills acquired into college coursework (Perin, 2013). Also, the instructional practices of many developmental classrooms has been described by Hunter Boylan (2002) as "dull and monotonous," and rightly so. Teaching practices that dwell predominantly on the technical aspects of grammar and punctuation, comprehension strategies, and math computations not only diminish the transferability of discrete academic skills and the nurture of essential critical thinking skills, but worse, sap the motivation of students.

A student's ability to transfer skills, and the degree to which that student is motivated, impacts learning, persistence, and completion. Dolores Perin's research points to contextualization of instruction as a pedagogical practice that promises to both enhance transfer as well as increase student motivations. In developmental reading, for example, this means situating teaching within the context of textual engagement and study strategies needed in a student's declared major or program of study. Initial data indicate that contextualized instruction has the potential to effectively address both the cognitive dimension of skill transfer and retention of information and the affective dimension of intrinsic motivation. When students perceive that what they learn is pertinent to their academic aspirations, they are more motivated to make choices and expend effort to stay the academic course (Perin, 2011; Perin 2013).

Contextualization of instruction indeed captures all three strands of the envisioned reform. Its use of authentic practice in the teaching of reading, writing, and/or math grows out of the forward-looking transitional perspective of developmental education: Basic skills classes are not intended to make up gaps from high school so much as to impart the foundation for success in college classes. Also, implementation of contextualized instruction encourages a fuller integration of developmental education into community college operations. Integration opens opportunities for developmental faculty to be exposed to the academic literacies that students must acquire in their journey to credential attainment, whether a transfer degree, an occupational certificate, or a career-focused applied degree. Lastly, contextualization promises to be the teaching practice that speaks to both the cognitive and affective dimensions of improved student outcomes in developmental education: skill transfer and motivation.

Developmental education can and should have a vital role to play in the future of community colleges. However, the shape of that role depends on the receptiveness of the movement to this call for systemic transformation and the concomitant shifts in perspective, structure, and pedagogy.



Attewell, P., Lavin, D., Domina, T., & Levey, T. (2006). New evidence on college remediation. The Journal of Higher Education, 77 (5), 886-921.

Boylan, H. (2002). What works: A guide to research-based best practices in developmental education. Boone, NC: Continuous Quality Improvement Network and the National Center for Developmental Education, Appalachian State University.

Complete College America. (2012). Remediation: Higher education's bridge to nowhere. Retrieved from http://www.completecollege.org/docs/CCA-Remediation-summary.pdf

Holschuh, J. P., & Paulson, E. (2013). The terrain of college developmental reading. Milwaukee, Wisconsin: College Reading and Learning Association. Retrieved from https://www.crla.net/docs/TheTerrainofCollege91913.pdf

Levin, H. M., & Calcagno, J. C. (2007). Remediation in the community college: An evaluator's perspective (CCRC Working Paper No. 9). New York: Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University.

McCabe, R. H. (2000). No one to waste: A report to public decision-makers and community college leaders. Washington, DC: Community College Press.

Myran, G. (2009). A new open-door model for community colleges. In G. Myran (Ed.), Reinventing the Open Door (pp. 1-11). Washington, DC: Community College Press.

Perin, D. (2011). Facilitating student learning thorough contextualization (CCRC Working Paper No. 29). New York: Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University.

Perin, D. (2013). Teaching academically underprepared students in community college. In J. S. Levin & S. T. Kater (Eds.), Understanding Community Colleges. New York, NY: Routledge.

Pamela Lau is Dean of Academic Services at Parkland College, Champaign, IL.

Opinions expressed in Learning Abstracts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.

Posted by The League for Innovation in the Community College on 03/03/2014 at 6:00 AM | Categories: Learning Abstracts -