Florida is one of several states where legislatures are exploring dramatic approaches to reforming developmental (remedial) education.
A high percentage of students who enroll at the 28 state colleges (formerly the community colleges) in the Florida College System have remedial needs, and only a small fraction of those students actually earn college credentials.
To try to combat this problem, the state’s Legislature in 2013 passed a new law mandating that the 28 state colleges provide developmental education that is more tailored to the needs of students. As reported earlier by Inside Higher Ed, the policy gives students much more flexibility in terms of whether they participate in developmental education and what options they choose if they do decide to participate.
Some concerns have emerged since the Florida reform was implemented in the fall of 2014. For example, The Chronicle of Higher Educationdescribed “headaches” such as a drastic decline in students enrolling in developmental education courses, challenges faculty members face and other issues regarding student decisions and choices.
It’s clear that the state’s developmental policy reform could have a long-lasting influence on student success in Florida and beyond. The Florida reform would be particularly relevant if the proposal of two years of free community college by President Obama ever becomes a reality. To learn more about it, the Center for Postsecondary Success (CPS) at Florida State University has been conducting a comprehensive evaluation of the implementation and effects of the policy.
The Florida Experiment
The law drastically changes the placement and instructional practices in developmental education. It prohibits requiring placement testing or developmental education for students who entered ninth grade in a Florida public school in the 2003-2004 school year and after, provided the student earned a standard high school diploma. The law also exempts active-duty members of the military from required placement testing and developmental coursework. It does, however, allow exempted students to choose to be tested and/or to take developmental education once advised of their options.
Students now have several new options in terms of developmental education delivery methods that are designed to move them quickly into college credit, using corequisite instruction, modules and tutoring. The new strategies include: (1) modularized instruction that is customized and targeted to address specific skills gaps; (2) compressed course structures that accelerate student progression from developmental instruction to college-level coursework; (3) contextualized developmental instruction that is related to metamajors (a collection of programs of study or academic discipline groupings that share common foundational skills); and (4) corequisite developmental instruction or tutoring that supplements credit instruction while a student is concurrently enrolled in a credit-bearing course.
The legislation does not mandate the specifics around each option and therefore allows the individual campuses in the system some flexibility in regard to the form and delivery of each option.
Challenges and Opportunities
The reform strategies underway are sweeping.
Because a key intent of the reform is to provide greater flexibility in determining who needs to take developmental education courses, it is not surprising to observe a sizable drop-off in students enrolling in them. The drop-off itself may not necessarily become a concern for some students, but we will need to closely monitor those who choose not to opt in to developmental education programs to determine their outcomes compared to those who did.
Research has indicated that developmental education may not be that helpful for borderline students, thus suggesting flexible placement may increase student success by not holding back students just shy of the cut score. However, a large number of students who would have scored far below traditional cutoff scores and instead opt in to college-level courses may present new and difficult challenges to institutions and instructors, and may also jeopardize students’ chances of succeeding in college. Such a scenario could be compounded depending on how students of different backgrounds make decisions.
While some perceive the increased student choice to be positive, others question whether developmental education students have the preparation and wisdom to make informed choices about course options. Students, though, generally appreciate the increased choice provided by the legislation but questioned whether other students would always make the appropriate decisions. Colleges and universities have ramped up advising and student support services, which could be key to student success and the reform as a whole. Advising students to make the “good” choice, and students following the advice properly, will be critical to student success in this new policy environment. Meanwhile, providing the necessary support to students along the way is important to sustain student success.
With greater flexibility in placement, the developmental education reform could alter the composition of classrooms across college campuses, possibly also shaping the structure and culture of teaching and learning on campus due to the wider range of student academic preparation in both developmental and college-level classes. The voices of faculty have indicated this is the case. A promising sign is that faculty members are designing customized instruction tailored to students based on their assessment of student preparation. This is consistent with the substantial literature on effective teaching and learning by meeting the needs of learners. Of course, this customization increases the work of faculty members, but if there is a way to support faculty adaptation to the new classroom reality, student success may be well in reach.
In anticipation of both student and faculty concerns, most campuses planned to increase the student support services they provide. A content analysis of the 28 implementation plans indicated that the colleges planned to ramp up advising as well as extensive training and professional development for front-line personnel. In addition, support services such as tutoring and success courses are widely considered in colleges’ implementation plans.
An earlier survey of college administrators also indicated a whole-campus approach in implementing the new policy. There is a fairly wide agreement that the reform reflects a spirit of innovation and offers an opportunity to solve an old problem in new ways, and colleges mobilized to respond to the new law and increased intra-institutional collaboration in developing strategies. Each campus has an implementation team that includes the key constituents on campus so that perspectives from all can be shared and considered.
Learning From the Experiences
The Florida experiment is a state response to a persistent problem. It marks a drastic departure from the traditional developmental education model that has not been working well. The “headaches” reported in The Chronicle from the early stage of implementation are not unexpected. However, the issues raised should not be ignored. In fact, we should keep close eyes on those issues and student outcomes.
The law allows institutions to be responsive to their individual student populations. But because there are variations in institutional reality based on student characteristics, infrastructure and previous experiences with developmental education, some colleges may be ahead of the game while others may be struggling to catch up, resulting in different reactions to the reform. While some colleges embrace it, others may have some reservations. The state and other interested parties should provide assistance to help struggling colleges to get up to speed.
The success of the reform depends on a multitude of players and factors. It depends on students to make the right decisions for themselves; it depends on practitioners and administrators to successfully rally the troops on the ground to implement the critical components called for by the new law; it depends on faculty members to deliver courses that meet student needs; it depends on advisers to effectively advise students and support services staff members to provide timely and needed support to the students along the way; it also depends on policy makers to create favorable policy environments for those on the ground to do the work at the best of their expertise and capacity.
The bold reform strategies in developmental education in Florida could blaze a new trail, or offer states valuable lessons. It is easy to point fingers to K-12 education for the lack of preparation of college students. While it is important to continue to improve the quality of K-12 education for all students, it is also important to consider the ways the higher education system can improve student success. Given the nature of the reform and the multiplicity of issues, strong and sustainable leadership at both the state and campus level is required in order for the reform to stand a chance of delivering results. At least six steps appear to be warranted to determine whether such a broad reform is capable of achieving its intended outcome.
First, as for any policy change, it will take time to see results. Is there willingness to wait for a period of time to see the impacts of the current policy changes on student success, given the likely pressures from various sources? If not, we may never know whether such a reform is able to deliver.
Second, to assess the impact of the reform on students and continuously improve the policy, there is a need for credible evidence. The research community needs to contribute to the conversation by conducting valid research to understand the perspectives from all concerned and affected, and assess the impact of the new policy on outcomes related to student success.
Third, practitioners and administrators need to be open-minded and provide feedback on what works and what may be needed on the ground. On the one hand, they need to challenge conventional practices that have been in place for a long time. Fortunately, the early signs indicate they indeed embrace the idea of innovation. On the other hand, they should demand the support they need to ensure the new initiatives will be successfully put in place.
Fourth, policy makers should use the evidence and results to guide the policy-making and -remaking process. Just as practitioners within community colleges need to be open-minded in implementing reform, policy makers need to be open-minded and honestly consider feedback to adjust the policy accordingly.
Fifth, funding agencies should be keenly attentive to what is really going on in educational reform and put their resources behind research on real-world problems. Instead of waiting for perfect research, they should strike a good balance in pursuing the rigor and relevance of the research to promptly respond to the needs on the ground. Otherwise, they may end up being empty-handed in the pursuit of connecting research, policy and practice.
Finally, credible and timely research has the potential to generate valuable evidence to inform policy and practice, and it can be accomplished by collaboration among researchers, practitioners, state agencies and funding organizations. After all, it is our shared responsibility to optimize the educational environment so that our students can succeed, reach their full potential and realize their dreams.
Shouping Hu is the Louis W. and Elizabeth N. Bender Endowed Professor and the founding director of the Center for Postsecondary Success (CPS) at Florida State University.
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.
His name was Bobby. He sat in the front row. He paid attention and asked smart questions; he engaged his classmates in debate. He wrote his first paper about pistol-whipping another 20-something in his trailer park over a drug deal. Bobby had so many stories. He wrote about rescuing a woman after she had been raped by a neighbor. He wrote about being homeless after he left gang life. He rode a beat-up bicycle five miles one way to the college in all types of Minnesota weather, then sat wet and shivering in the front row, his hoodie pulled over his head. In late November his girlfriend gave birth, and all we had left to remind us of Bobby was that empty front-row seat.
Next came TJ. He dressed like Eminem and sported white sneakers, floppy and unlaced. He smelled funny, an overpowering bodily odor that I would learn to recognize as meth recovery. His classmates avoided being put into groups with him; they gave him space around the table. Between classes, he chain-smoked in the courtyard. When he visited me during office hours, his hands shook from nicotine.
TJ wrote about dropping out of school to join a circus. He had worked as a carnie and developed a nasty addiction. TJ wrote intoxicatingly about his past; he wrote convincingly about his new, sober life. He had no license, so his grandmother drove him to and from campus. But she was afraid to drive in snow or sleet, so TJ missed a lot of class.
TJ brought me an early draft of his essay to read. He also brought along his notebook from last semester’s remedial writing course, in which he had taken copious notes. He referred to those notes as he explained what he knew about paragraph structure, thesis placement, and the use of examples. We discussed voice shifts, tense shifts, and where to break up paragraphs. I encouraged him to visit the writing center, which I direct, and a tutor discussed his second draft with him.
The day I handed back these papers, he walked in late and slid into the back row. I walked to the rear of the room, still talking, and handed him a paper with a large blue A- circled at the top. I was already back at my teaching console, showing items on the course website, when TJ approached shyly and stopped me in mid-sentence by holding up his paper.
“Is this my grade?” he asked.
“Yes, TJ, that’s your grade,” I replied.
“Are you sure?” he asked.
“Yes, TJ, you earned that grade through hard work and good revision,” I said, loud enough for the class to hear.
We all watched TJ walk, beaming, back down the aisle to his seat. TJ was my model developmental writing student. But three weeks later, he vanished from my class.
I have 60 to 80 developmental writing students in my classes each term; many of them lead precarious lives. They come to me, to college, to the hope of a brighter future, but they are wounded and vulnerable and unprepared. They lack self-confidence in general; they lack academic confidence in particular. And if one thing tips the scale out of balance in their precarious lives, they will disappear.
I lie awake at night, worrying about them. Not them collectively, as one-third are doing fine and another third are squeaking by. It’s the final third, the vulnerable ones, that rob me of sleep.
As a lifelong educator, I used to worry about paper-grading burnout. Now that my teaching load is largely remedial English, I worry more about emotional burnout: the accumulated psychological toll of caring for so many.
Because the more I care about my students, the more they break my heart.
I wish that I knew less about them, that they could simply be students to me. But the best subject matter for fledgling writers is their own lives, and my students love to tell their stories. While my colleagues in other departments are feeding multiple choice bubble sheets into Scantron machines or ticking off points for math equations, I am scribbling comments in the margins of my students’ papers. I am writing things like, “Do you know how to get a restraining order? Please ask me; I will help you” and “Here’s the counseling #. Ask for Robert.”
I am also writing letters and emails, to both these students and their advisers. I am seeking student services and support agencies for them. I am trying to put a finger in every hole in the dikes of their lives so that they can stay in my class, they can learn, they can move on to college level English and the rest of their lives.
I am teaching the disciplinary material which I was trained to teach, but I am also serving as a life coach, student success skills instructor, and amateur therapist, and I have no training in these areas.
Jeff is my latest heartbreak. The last day he came to my class was a much-publicized workshop day, and I was unhappy with him for arriving without his draft. When I asked him to retrieve it from his car, he stood up and nearly keeled over. He told us he felt funny, he felt tired; he slurred his words and the sentences trailed off. His classmates looked frightened. I told him to forget about the writing assignment and go see the school nurse. I wish so badly that I had walked him to the nurse’s office myself. He never went there. But she followed up, on my request, and has since told me that he is “under the care of mental health professionals.”
I will never forget the shock on TJ’s face, followed by intense pleasure, when I confirmed his A-.
Am I the only person to ever recognize TJ’s academic aptitude, to ever tell him that he did a good job? I hope not. But so many of my remedial students hover on the brink of “I can’t do this” that I work mightily to find qualities to praise, to point out aptitudes, even as I tough-love them with sentence structure, journaling, grammar quizzes.
I cannot say that these students disappear from the world; rather, they cease to attend my class. They are still members of my community. I saw Bobby in Walmart last spring, looking as happy-go-lucky as ever, as his friends shoplifted.
TJ may be the man putting my child on a carnival ride at next summer’s county fair. Even if my female student does get that restraining order I mentioned in the margin of her last draft, she could still become a city statistic, another assault victim or death.
I live with my students perpetually on my mind. I worry about the stories that they’re not telling me. Sometimes, teaching them how to write college essays seems trite in comparison with the other challenges of their daily lives. I wish I could pour the knowledge into their brains, test them on it, and go home. I wish I could see them simply as students.
I know the way out of my dilemma. I could go back to teaching courses with names like Writing Poetry and Women’s Perspectives.
I could teach the students who are college-ready, who passed that arbitrary, high-stakes placement test, or who have already schlepped their way through a remedial course like mine.
But then who would encourage John to get tested for dyslexia? Who would ask my Hmong student about her pregnancy, or my Somali student about her father’s heart surgery? Who would watch the 30-year-old veteran’s face for signs of anxiety and reassure him?
When I was a graduate student, teaching freshman comp, I used to walk home each day, asking myself one question: “Did I do a good job?”
At the end of a day teaching remedial English, I still ask myself one question, and it’s always the same one: “Did I do enough?”
Pam Whitfield is an English and equine science instructor and writing coordinator at Rochester Community and Technical College, in Minnesota.
Members of the professional community in developmental education agree with many studies suggesting that simply placing students in remedial courses is an inadequate response to the problems of underpreparedness among entering college students. They would further tend to agree that the current process of identifying and placing underprepared students is flawed and that the entire process of assessing, advising and teaching them needs reform.
But if there is a “solution” to the remediation education “problem,” it is vastly more complex than many reform advocates and most policy makers acknowledge.
It will require that community colleges change the way they do remediation. It will also require that they address non-academic issues that may prevent students from succeeding, improve the quality of instruction at all levels, revise financial aid policies, provide better advising to students at risk, integrate instruction and support services, teach college success skills, invest in professional development and do all of these things in a systematic manner integrated into the mainstream of the institution.
It may be useful for reformers to collaborate with the developmental education professional community, a community that has not only supported but invented many of the innovations reformers have proposed. Instead many policy makers are ignoring these professionals and requiring colleges to adopt unproven innovations disconnected from institutional systems or existing innovations. .
Policy makers often fail to understand that the majority of remedial courses are taught by adjunct faculty who, although they may possess content expertise, often have no idea how to teach underprepared students. Many of them do not understand the principles of adult learning and development and they are offered no support or training to help them learn techniques to teach these students. Although learning laboratories, tutoring and other support services are often available, few systematic efforts are made to ensure that those enrolled in remedial courses participate in them. The services designed to help students succeed in course work are seldom integrated into the courses they are supposed to support. In addition to this, underprepared students are often placed in some sort of computer-based or online remedial course, frequently without assessing their levels of computer access or literacy.
During the past decade, several research studies of varying quality have indicated this model of remediation doesn’t work -- that too few students complete it -- and those who do often fail to graduate. This has stimulated a nationwide discussion of remediation and a large number of foundation-funded initiatives to reform it.
Historically, reform efforts in remediation have been only moderately effective. Much of this is due to the fact that alternative models were thought to be too expensive and more labor-intensive than the traditional remedial model. Given the limited funding with which most community colleges operate, those thoughts were probably accurate. Furthermore, many community college leaders had no idea how poorly remediation was working and there were few incentives to find out. It was only after various groups began to measure the outcomes of remediation during the early years of the 21st century that we realized the poverty of those outcomes. Encouraged and supported by foundation funding, colleges across the country then began to experiment with new ways of providing remediation to the large numbers of students who needed it to be successful.
Meanwhile, new players entered the remediation reform game, usually without consulting any of those who were already advocating the reform of remediation. These new players included policy makers, foundation officers, politicians and organizations that sustained themselves with government and foundation grants -- few of them with any knowledge of or experience with underprepared students. Some of these individuals and organizations began the scientific study of remediation in an attempt to find data that might provide pathways to more successful remediation. Others simply announced that they had found the pathways.
The reformers have provided policy makers with an array of proposed solutions possessing various degrees of promise, research support and likelihood of success. The fact that there is often little research evidence supporting the proposed solutions appears not to bother either the policy advocates or the state legislators they lobby. There are two other major shortcomings with contemporary reform efforts in remediation. The first is that most reform advocates are promoting piecemeal, non-systematic change. The second is that none of the proposed reforms address the underlying causes of poor performance among underprepared students.
Many contemporary reformers are promoting specific techniques such as embedded support services, modular instruction, contextualized instruction, computer based instruction or accelerated remedial courses. Some are even advocating that remedial courses be eliminated entirely and replaced with these techniques. What these reform efforts fail to acknowledge, but what experts in the field know well, is that no innovation is going to be successful in a community college unless the institutional system into which it is being introduced also changes. There are those who contend that remediation is broken and needs to be abandoned. Equally likely, the campus system in which remediation takes place is broken and simply adding an innovation to the system or removing remedial courses from it will not fix anything.
Most community colleges do not have the resources to do the sort of intrusive academic advising needed by underprepared students. Academic support services in the community colleges are not systematically connected to the courses they are supposed to support. There is little focused faculty development for those working with underprepared students. The system provides few rewards for working effectively with underprepared students. There is insufficient communication between those who teach remedial courses and those who teach college-level courses. There are, of course, some exceptions to these circumstances, but they exist only at a minority of community colleges. Innovations introduced into environments such as described here are unlikely to be successful because the environment itself mitigates against success.
Furthermore, many of the proposed innovations fail to address the conditions that cause students to be underprepared. There is a naïve assumption among many policy makers that if we just find different ways of presenting the material to students, they will do well in college. If we are to increase success rates for underprepared students, we will also need to address the reasons why minorities and the poor and first-generation students perform poorly in the first place.
If policy makers are so convinced that they have a solution to remediation, then they should at least have the integrity to build evaluation plans into their policies and reforms. Ongoing systematic evaluation is a critical component of successful innovation which has been advocated in the field of developmental education for over two decades. If it turns out that the policies and reforms are successful, there will be proof that others can use to improve their programs. If it turns out that they are not, then the evaluation data can be used to inform the revisions of policies and innovations.
Thus far, few policy makers have bothered to build evaluation plans into their reform plans. In so doing, they are making the same mistake that let the shortcomings of traditional remediation remain for so long. They are not bothering to look at the results of what they have put into place, perhaps because they, too, have no incentives for doing so.
Hunter R. Boylan is the director of the National Center for Developmental Education and a professor of higher education at Appalachian State University.