A core purpose of remedial education is to provide all students with a real opportunity for college success, regardless of their skill level or academic background. Inside Higher Ed recently published opinion pieces with different takes on the best ways to design remedial programs. This exchange between Stan Jones of Complete College America and Hunter Boylan of the National Center for Developmental Education is a welcome sign. We are concerned, however, that an important consideration has been largely undervalued in the current conversation. Students assigned to remedial education in college are not a uniform group, and the colleges they attend are far from homogenous. Treating them as such masks important differences in opportunity and achievement due to differences in students’ prior academic preparation, incoming skill level, age, race, income and status as first-generation college students.
Students who start in developmental education, particularly those at the lowest levels, face significant obstacles that frequently lead to gaps in educational opportunity and achievement down the road. While there has been considerable rhetoric about the existence of these gaps on the front end, there has been surprisingly little data used to show how the solutions being put forward today would actually address these inequities in the long run. Reform efforts that neglect to address these disparities only threaten to perpetuate them. We support extending the current conversation on reform efforts in developmental education to include four critical considerations:
1. An explicit focus on closing opportunity gaps for students. Opportunity gaps arise when students have different degrees of access to college programs in high school, and these opportunities vary according to a variety of factors, such as school quality and academic preparation. Opportunity gaps are the first step in closing achievement gaps nationwide, yet they are almost never referenced in reports of developmental education reform. Jobs for the Future’s Early College Expansion report provides one example of how closing postsecondary opportunity gaps can be done, and highlights linkages between opportunity gaps and achievement gaps for various groups of students. Starting college while still in high school has been shown to have a significant impact on college enrollment, retention and success for a wide range of student populations. Expanding these opportunities to all high schools and all students, including at-risk students, is one of the most critical steps in closing achievement gaps and fulfilling the completion agenda.
2. An explicit focus on closing achievement gaps for students. The Lumina Foundation recently issued its annual report, A Stronger Nation Through Higher Education, which highlighted persistent college degree attainment gaps by race, with "black adults (ages 25-64) reporting 28 percent degree attainment, Native Americans representing 23 percent, and Hispanics representing with 20 percent attainment, compared to 59 percent for Asians and 44 percent for whites." Also, college participation rates still differ significantly based on income. “While 82.4 percent of potential students (of all races) in the top third of the income scale enroll in college, only 53.5 percent of those in the bottom third do so,” The report said. Jamie Merisotis, Lumina’s president, states, “As the nation’s population becomes increasingly diverse, we must do more to address these troubling attainment divides … We cannot successfully meet our nation’s future economic and social needs unless educational achievement opportunities are available to all Americans.”
3. Comprehensive examples and disaggregated data showing how proposed solutions will address gaps in opportunity and achievement. This information is vital if the chasm between national goals and institutional implementation is to be bridged. Yet these details are notably missing from many national reports and publications. Large-scale solutions require local implementation, and many colleges and programs have little knowledge or information on achievement gaps by race, income status or academic ability for their own students. The 2011 report from MDRC, Turning the Tide: Five Years of Achieving the Dreamin Community Colleges, illuminates this divide with the findings that “overcoming racial, ethnic and income achievement gaps was not a key goal at the majority of Round 1 colleges. Only eight college leaders made explicit attempts to raise awareness about those issues.” As we move forward into an era of reform in developmental education, it is more important than ever to not only acknowledge, but to confront these gaps in educational attainment. Education Trust’s Replenishing Opportunity in America provides helpful examples that show the impact of the solutions on various student groups. This should be the norm when it comes to national reports. Providing these details and data about the proposed solutions will both enrich the conversation and help to gain buy-in of stakeholders.
4. Examples of other successful models. Boylan and Jones both encourage looking to new, innovative models in our efforts to reform remedial education, and we agree. Mastery learning, for example, has been shown to not only close race and gender gaps; it has also been shown to provide a solid foundation for college success. Given the scarcity of examples and data surrounding achievement gaps in the current reports, additional models and examples should be sought out and welcomed into the conversation.
In conclusion, overcoming racial, ethnic and income achievement gaps should be a goal of all American colleges. We cannot achieve equity until we are able to identify and address inequity. Simply acknowledging achievement gaps does not close them. Putting forth models that have actually closed these gaps, complete with details and data, will help to get us there. Using data to illuminate and address gaps in student opportunity and achievement should be the focus of the national conversation and reform efforts in developmental education going forward.
John Squires and Angela Boatman
John Squires is head of the mathematics department at Chattanooga State Community College. Angela Boatman is an assistant professor of public policy and higher education at Vanderbilt University.
Michael Boyd, associate dean of English, humanities and language studies at Illinois Central College, has been appointed as vice president for instruction and student success at Kankakee Community College, also in Illinois.
Competency-based education has been available to students for several decades, but there’s been a jump in interest over the past year. The White House is encouraging innovation in new delivery models. Federal agencies and foundations are weighing in with studies and grants. And think tanks and higher education associations are organizing convenings and webinars.
Meanwhile, more colleges and universities are beginning to offer competency-based education (CBE) programs and many others are considering them. There has been plenty of attention, at the 30,000-foot level, concerning the potential benefits and risks of CBE, but little has been shared about what the programs entail on the ground, particularly for traditional institutions.
Over the past year, Western Governors University (WGU) has been working with 11 community colleges in five states as they create new competency-based programs (with support from the U.S. Department of Labor’s TAACCCT programs and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation). We found that faculty are creatively adapting to CBE based on their students’ needs and within their existing practices.
The colleges and programs
All these pilot programs are in information technology and most are starting with certificate programs that lead to degrees. The certificates range from computer system specialist and business software specialist to network+ and programmer training.
All the colleges provide traditional classes in brick-and-mortar settings, as well as online and hybrid courses. The group includes large and small, urban and rural colleges. They serve large numbers of working adults, part-time students and students with families (see box).
Austin Community College, in Texas
Bellevue College, near Seattle
Broward College, in south Florida
Columbia Basin College, in southeastern Washington State
Edmonds Community College, near Seattle
Ivy Tech Community College, Ft. Wayne, Indiana
Ivy Tech Community College, Lafayette, Indiana
Lone Star College - University Park, Houston
Sinclair Community College, in Dayton, Ohio
Spokane Falls Community College, in eastern Washington State
Valencia College, in central Florida
We interviewed faculty, department chairs, deans and vice presidents of instruction at the colleges about the development of CBE courses. Here are some preliminary findings:
What is competency-based education?
One critical characteristic that distinguishes CBE from other courses is that students can progress at their own pace. They progress toward course objectives and toward a certificate or degree, based on demonstrating the knowledge and skills required at each level. That is, learning becomes the constant -- and is demonstrated through mastery of learning objectives, or competencies -- and time becomes the variable. Some students can accelerate their progress as other students might take more time and practice to advance. This requires faculty to think differently about how they support learning. Course materials need to be available whenever the student is ready for them. Faculty will work with a variety of students who are learning different things at any one time.
At all 11 colleges, faculty are responsible for course development in the pilot programs, based on their college’s policies. Working mostly in teams and sometimes through processes that included industry representation, faculty modified existing course templates, enhanced course mapping to learning objectives and changed assessment processes so that students could progress at their own pace. There was a broad range, however, in how the faculty handled course development.
Prior to beginning course development, faculty at Sinclair Community College revised the curriculum to align with new Ohio standards in information technology and with industry certifications, which entailed submitting changes through the college's curriculum approval process. Faculty then worked in teams of two or three with instructional designers to develop the courses, with each template redesigned to support CBE delivery. For each course, they mapped competencies to content and assessment items to ensure that all required competencies were met. At the end of each semester, faculty review assessment results to ensure students are achieving all competencies, and adjust assessment and content items if needed.
In comparison, faculty at Columbia Basin College are making fewer modifications. This approach is about changing a delivery mode rather than developing a new curriculum. They are using existing student objectives for their courses, with existing textbook chapters serving as course units that students draw from to master the learning objectives. Each faculty member takes on all the course roles, including collecting learning materials, delivering all content and developing assessments.
The pilot programs are gathering data, and faculty will assess student outcomes and make adjustments over the next year. So far, the following elements appear to be important decision points:
The mapping of content and assessments to student learning objectives (or competencies)
Faculty at many colleges preferred the term “student learning objectives” to “competencies.” They said it was more familiar. Most existing courses already have student learning objectives, but not all content or assessments are aligned with them. At Lone Star College in Texas, faculty are working in a committee process to rebuild courses for a competency-based approach. “Mapping course objectives to student learning outcomes to achieve student success; that is not new,” said Gina Sprowl, workforce education chair and professor of accounting. “But taking the course and building it to achieve specific outcomes from the outset, that was new.”
Alan Gandy, assistant professor at Lone Star, said the idea is not to compartmentalize learning, but rather to show students how each competency relates to the overall curriculum. He said faculty are “breaking down the competencies, matching them to the assessments, so the student will see what piece they are working on in the puzzle. They’ll see the big picture, why they’re studying this and how it matches to the overall competency.”
Each program is developing its own systems for supporting student learning. For example, faculty at all the colleges are serving their traditional roles as content experts and mentors. But these roles have shifted, as they often do in online courses, from delivering lectures to providing timely academic tutoring and engagement with students individually and in groups -- online, by phone or in person. The role is closer to that of a tutor than a lecturer.
In addition, some colleges are developing new roles to support student retention. Edmonds Community College has hired a “student mentor” to contact each student weekly to check in, find out how they’re doing, provide them with feedback and advice, and direct them to additional services as needed. The mentor serves as coach, troubleshooter, strategist and enthusiast, to address each student’s challenges and encourage their progress in these self-paced programs. Some colleges use faculty in this type of role and others use student services professionals.
Why do it?
Students attending community college in the United States are diverse, and there’s no single delivery system that serves all of them well. The faculty we interviewed described CBE not as a panacea or big risk -- but rather as another way to provide students with high-quality programs that meet their needs. Tom Nielsen, vice president of instruction at Bellevue College, said of his college’s new pilot program: “This feels like the transition when we started talking about online instruction 15 to 18 years ago. Many people at that time said we couldn’t do it. To me, it’s just another evolution. It’s another choice, another avenue for our students.”
Deborah Meadows, a dean at Columbia Basin College, said she wants to target the CBE program in information technology to women: “Our distance program tends to have more women. They tend to be working and have kids, so they're looking for ways to go to school and build options for the future.”
As colleges gain experience with competency-based programs, we’ll learn more about its impacts. Meanwhile, the programs appear to be popular at some campuses. As Suzanne Marks of Bellevue College said, “Students are voting with their feet. There’s definitely demand. Students are already asking about summer classes in this model.”
Sally Johnstone is vice president for academic advancement at Western Governors University. Thad Nodine, a novelist and writer specializing in education policy, is tracking the colleges’ experiences in creating competency-based education programs.