Developing Story: A Forum on Improving Remedial Education

By John O. Harney

Why is remedial or developmental education such a hot issue? Partly because it costs time and money and casts doubt on the elementary and secondary education systems that we assume will prepare students for college.

The New England Board of Higher Education (NEBHE) explored solutions to the problem at a recent forum in Kennebunkport, Maine, called “Ready for Real: Innovative Strategies for Improving Remedial Education and College Success.”

NEBHE staff briefed the audience of educators, legislators and policymakers on the recent Lumina Foundation for Education grant the regional organization received to support community colleges implementing Khan Academy materials in developmental math courses. NEBHE also released a policy brief outlining college placement policies across the region and models for boosting college readiness.

Rethinking developmental ed

Many colleges use the College Board’s Accuplacer test to determine whether students are ready for credit-bearing college courses or first need to take and pass one or more remedial classes.

In a session on “Rethinking Developmental Education: State and Institutional Perspectives,” Lara Couturier, program director at Jobs for the Future, offered a national context for remediation. She noted that 60% of community college students were referred into developmental education programs—Dev Ed as she called it. Once there, most never progressed into college-credit-bearing work, and only one-quarter earned a college degree within eight years.

A historian by training, Couturier spoke about different developmental education models, including some involving long sequences of courses with too many exit points where students are tempted to drop out—and too often do. Some call Dev Ed the place where college dreams go to die. Others, Couturier among them, believe it should be looked at in a more holistic way, as an “on-ramp to a structured pathway to graduation.” Virginia has been a leader in a wave of states redesigning developmental education, followed by North Carolina and Florida. Another promising model is the California Acceleration Project, which aims to reduce the number of exit points.

Some models involve partnering with local K-12 districts, so students’ skills can be assessed in their junior year of high school. If at the point, the students are deemed not college-ready, they can take remedial courses while still in high school. Others make developmental education a co-requisite—a formal course taken simultaneously with another as opposed to a prerequisite. The Community College of Baltimore County, for example, places developmental students into college-level English but also supports them with an hour-long companion course.

Couturier noted that the placement tests that have been relied upon historically may not be the good predictors of success we thought they were. She also urged aligning development education with the student’s major and career interest. The spotlight, she suggested, should shift to getting development education students into programs of study, which means more intentional and frequent advising.

Couturier also noted a dearth of efforts to help students who are severely underprepared.

Feed me data

Norwalk Community College President David Levinson, who is also vice president for Community Colleges with the Connecticut Board of Regents for Higher Education, said he was amazed by how little Connecticut relied on data when he came aboard in 2004. Indeed, a self-study for the  New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) had not a single bit of data. Then Achieving the Dream came along and brought to bear the purpose of research, Levinson said.

Norwalk Community College has tried blending college-level courses and developmental courses in “learning communities” but that was with just over a dozen students. The question, said Levinson, is how do you bring that to scale?

Today, such issues are being overshadowed in Connecticut by legislation calling for all remediation to be confined to a one-semester, intensive course—not as a sequence. “We are faced with the really daunting task of not only a new structure that is not even a year old (the state’s new Board of Regents for Higher Education) but also this humungous task of trying to implement a piece of legislation that doesn’t have a penny attached to it,” said Levinson.

He noted that Connecticut acknowledges enrollment ‘swirling,’ and students starting at one school, taking some courses at another, and going on to get not only an associate degree but perhaps a bachelor’s and master’s. Levinson said that even at his college on Connecticut’s euphemistically named “Gold Coast,” 83% of students from Norwalk and Stamford need at least one precollege course. What politicians see in all this, he said, is the state paying for remedial education twice—in high school and college—and the students still are not succeeding.

Nashua Community College President Lucille Jordan said she was asked by the New Hampshire Legislature to identify which students needed developmental education and which high schools they came from. Problem was, she said, many have been out of high school for a long time.

Besides, what would have been a good enough score in math at one time no longer is. Nashua Community College uses Accuplacer Diagnostics, providing a detailed analysis of a student’s strengths and weaknesses, so students can focus on the areas where they are weak. Jordan also called for embedding reading and study skills in 100-level courses. She acknowledged that many students may need tutors to stay with them through college-level coursework.

Community College of Vermont President Joyce Judy said the Vermont Legislature has chosen not to get involved in the developmental skills arena per se, focusing more on dual enrollment and multiple pathways.

“We have one shot with those students and if we’re not successful in helping them engage and feel like it’s relevant to them, we’ve lost them for another 10 or 15 years,” said Judy. Some students need a 15-week basic skills course; others need something different. We’re asking if Accuplacer is nuanced enough to see where strengths and weaknesses are, she said. She noted that the college is asking developmental English students to do a self-assessment, not of their skills, but of their practices, asking for example, if they read newspapers and magazines regularly.

“One size does not fit all,” said Judy. In developmental math, the Community College of Vermont is developing a one-credit, self-paced tutorial, which Judy says, “students could realistically move through in three weeks.” That’s a challenge, she noted, for institutions that like to go with 15-week courses that are easier to manage, but just don’t work for all students.

Several attendees said the Dev Ed conversation should not deal so much with repairing vs. preparing. Many believe the Common Core State Standards will help with preparation, but there will always be adult learners who need some kind of remediation perhaps via new models such as massive open online courses (MOOCs).

Sharing strategies

Developmental education can be improved, but not eradicated, warned Rhode Island College President Nancy Carriuolo. For one thing, Dev Ed is not just remediation, but actually covers a wide range of learning needs exhibited by all learners. Thomas Edison today would have probably been placed in remediation, Carriuolo asserted, because of his deficiencies in reading and writing.

“Policymakers often don’t know firsthand the distractions low-income students have—families to support, drug or alcohol problems, low self-esteem and the cumulative effect that comes from not doing well in school,” Carriuolo said, adding: “Notice in that brief list, I didn’t say anything about poor teaching.”

“We need to think carefully about what will happen to the most underprepared students who are turned away from community colleges,” Carriuolo reflected. “Will they enter adult basic education to learn the basic skills they need … will they enter a training program someplace else or will they simply go home to their couches, a bag of potato chips and a life sustained by a welfare check?”

Solving the math problem?

At Housatonic Community College, students who went through developmental English passed the gatekeeper college English at a 20% higher rate than those who tested straight into the course without the detour, said President Anita Gliniecki. But math was completely opposite, she said. Even if you got through the developmental math, your potential to succeed was at least 10% lower than those who tested directly in.

Students noted that the developmental math moved too slowly over the topics they already knew and too quickly over those they didn’t know—and still don’t. So Housatonic started self-paced courses, in which students test out of items they know and focus on items they don’t, until they ultimately demonstrate all the competencies. Faculty also embed in the course measures of how much time students spend on the work to keep an eye not only on skills but also on affective behavior.

When Housatonic allowed students to take an online math refresher programs, then retake Accuplacer, 69% of students increased at least one course level.

Speaking more broadly, Gliniecki and Carriuolo both lamented students’ failure to “estimate,” urging that high school calculus courses have students put away their calculators.

A private option

Deborah Hirsch, vice president for development at the private, four-year Mount Ida College, said one-third of students there are “first-generation,” one-third are Pell Grant-eligible; and half of entering Mount Ida students place into developmental education courses, but are also enrolled in college-level courses.

Mount Ida, she said, has tried to create some linked courses, for example, offering students guided study skills linked with Introductory Psychology.

And because the sequence of developmental math was a Bermuda Triangle for students, Mount Ida decided to combine the two-level sequence of developmental math courses into one course. The college renovated the classroom with chairs and desks that move easily on wheels, laptops and smartboards. The class features three days of mini-lectures and one day of  lab. Mount Ida has also added a “financial literacy” component, so it’s more relevant to students who often don’t want to be taking high school math again.

Finally, Mount Ida formed partnership with Persistence Plus—the “Weight Watchers” of college completion. The system uses smartphones to give students personalized, real-time “nudges” to help them set and reach goals, manage their time, cope with setbacks and connect with campus services. The nudges include personalized motivators—such as “did you know a third of your class is in the library now studying for the exam?”

Janet Sortor, vice president and dean of academic affairs at Southern Maine Community College, where enrollment has quadrupled in 10 years, promoted an advising course called “My Maine Guide.” The program offers a personalized online portal for students, which provides quick access to student’s electronic portfolio, course schedule, important reminders and other tasks. And students are required to take Freshman Interest Groups—theme-based one-credit courses that combine college success skills, goal exploration and setting, and investigation of a topic aimed at capturing the interest of students.

National views

At an evening session, Bruce Vandal, vice president of Complete College America, and William Trueheart, president of Achieving the Dream, addressed a panel on national views on developmental education and improving graduation odds.

Vandal noted the urgency of addressing college readiness, particularly in light of the Common Core State Standards assessments coming online in 2014. A study by ACT suggests that in many states, fewer than half of students who take that test will be deemed “college ready.”

Vandal urged states to focus on developing strategies that effectively transition students from high school to postsecondary institutions, including early assessment in high school, perhaps 10th grade. He also called for better pathways into academic programs by realizing that not all students need the same skills. Students in social sciences and humanities, for example, may not need the heavy algebra appropriate for STEM students. He suggested diversifying the placement tests used to predict success, including adding high school GPA.

Trueheart described the mission of Achieving the Dream to help students, many of them lower-income and students of color, to be college ready. He held out the example of El Paso Community College in Texas, where 98% of students in 2003-04 needed remedial education, partly because so many students at the border institution did not speak English as their first language. In 10 years, the community college closed achievement gaps in math and English and raised rates of completion significantly.

Legislative view

At a session of legislators and former legislators on the NEBHE board, Maine state Rep. Emily Cain began by citing the recent finding by economist Anthony Carnevale of Georgetown University that job growth is occurring for jobs that require a credential beyond high school, but is declining for jobs that require only a high school diploma.

Maine state Sen. Brian Langley, Senate chair of the Education Committee, took time from opening his restaurant in Ellsworth, Maine, to describe his path as a nontraditional learner through vocational school, community college, the University of Southern Maine, Syracuse University, and the online Capella University. But, he assured the audience, he understands the pressures of traditional higher education cost issues, having put his kids through Colby College and the University of Michigan. “I have a picture in my mind of good culinarians who are still working in the industry but left my programs because they didn’t have the math or writing skills to do college-level work.” said Langley. “A few have taken remediation courses and failed them; adult ed can be more supportive,” he believes.

Rhode Island state Sen. Hanna M. Gallo, chair of Education Committee and a speech pathologist by training, said she is a big proponent of full-day kindergarten. If that were available, she said, the college readiness problem wouldn’t come down to high school failing or college remediation. We need to remediate not in college, but earlier, she said, adding, that we also need better teacher-training programs at colleges, professional development and accountability for parents and communities.

Former Massachusetts state Sen. Joan Menard, now vice president at Bristol Community College, said that being all things for all people has become a problem for community colleges. They admit everyone, including adults with 6th grade educations, and help employers write workforce training grants, but they are judged on graduation rates. Menard argued that community colleges need to bring legislators to campus not only to ask for more money and when parents and students call with complaints, but to tell them the good things that are happening.

Among those good things, New Hampshire state Rep. Ralph Boehm, vice chair of the House Education Committee, told of Nashua Community College’s relationships with Honda for car mechanics and Delta Dental’s gift of equipment to New Hampshire Technical Institute to help train dental hygienists.

Middlesex Community College President Carole Cowan urged community colleges to partner with vocational-technical and high schools. But, she added, don’t dismiss the academic mission: “Those technical workers are going to go for a baccalaureate degree some day because they will want to walk that pathway to greater success.”



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