No Silver Bullet

Fixing remedial education will be much more complex than reformers and policy makers acknowledge, writes Hunter Boylan. 

April 18, 2014

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. 


Back to Top