Mind the Gap
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 Dream in 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 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.
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