Lawmakers tout improvements tied to Florida's second year of performance-based funding. But is it a coincidence that the system punishes its campus most focused on liberal arts and the one most focused on serving low-income students?
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.