Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Freedom to be College Ready? Reforming Community College Developmental Education

I am fresh off the fall conference season having most recently attended the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE), the leading scholarly organization on all things postsecondary education. The conference theme was “Freedom to Learn,” which ASHE President Anna Neumann eloquently defended in her keynote and further challenged the association membership to consider how teaching and learning touches their work, including work in the policy domain. This challenge could not be more central to the predominant policy conversations and research related to college readiness and developmental education. Inspired by several sessions at the ASHE conference and my own work on college and career readiness and developmental education, here I focus on developmental education (also known as ‘remediation’) reform and the role of teaching and learning.

Developmental reading, writing, and math courses, offered at both community colleges and universities in some states (but more often at community colleges), have garnered a significant degree of policy attention. This is, in part, because accumulating evidence suggests that many students participate in developmental education but do not progress into college-level credit course or complete college; this is especially the case at community colleges. For example, data from Complete College America show that approximately 51% of all students at public 2-year colleges in 33 states need developmental education. Of those students who need developmental education, 62% complete developmental education but only 22% complete a college-level course (in the associated academic discipline) within 2 years and even fewer graduate. Other data from community colleges participating in the Achieving the Dream initiative show similar disappointing results.

The point I want to emphasize here, and what the evidence suggests, is that existing developmental education programs and policies are not working and students are not succeeding. Though existing K12 reforms may reduce the need for developmental education courses at colleges, as many as 40% to 60% of incoming community college students are enrolled in developmental coursework and colleges must act now to ensure these students are college ready. More troubling is that we know students of color and low-income students are overrepresented in the total population of developmental education students, so these students are disproportionately affected by existing policies. The question left unanswered by this body of research and other quasi-experimental research focused on testing and placement policies (see here, here, and here), however, is why? Why is developmental education not working and what is needed to improve student success?

As I was reminded by the ASHE conference theme, we need to better understand how and why developmental education students are or are not learning in the classroom to better inform practice and policy. Let me offer a few theories or explanations and related solutions from the literature—explanations that are relevant to the teaching and learning process. One theory is that traditional developmental education instruction is decontextualized from the students’ lives and experiences, and proposes the use of contextualized or integrated forms of instruction can improve student learning through both cognitive and effective mechanisms. Another explanation is that there is a fundamental misunderstanding of expectations that faculty and students have of one another, and proposes to create stronger faculty learning environments to support community college faculty. A third theory suggests the sequential and multi-semester structure of developmental education sequences is too lengthy and takes students too long to complete, and proposes accelerating the pace of instruction as a solution. And a fourth explanation suggests that traditional face-to-face instruction is disengaging, and proposes the use of technology be integrated into the classroom, where students use self-directed technologies or receive supplementary technological instruction.  

This is not an exhaustive list by any measure, particularly relative to the sweeping state and national strategies penetrating community college developmental education. The similarity among these four ideas, however, is a set of pedagogical issues about the relationship between content and student experiences; the assumptions and expectations of faculty and students in the classroom; the pace at which students learn and faculty teach; and the instructional environment and platform of developmental education courses. Returning to Anna Neumann’s point in her ASHE Presidential address, state and national policy conversations often ignore these pedagogical issues, especially in the policy context of college completion and college readiness. If we believe teaching and learning are important as researchers, and more importantly, as educators, we need to look for intersections between teaching and learning and our policy work. I would argue we need to elevate the relevance of teaching and learning in our research, and the models and policy solutions we research or evaluate need to make pedagogical assumptions explicit.

I do not pretend these are easily achievable goals for researchers, but I extend Anna Neumann’s invitation to those studying developmental education. I particularly extend it because those students who matriculate to college in developmental education are often those that have already been failed by educational systems and by society, and we need to know why these students have been failed and then work toward not reproducing that failure in developmental education. These students deserve the freedom to learn and to be college ready. 

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