Friday, May 27, 2016

Improving Developmental Education in the Community College

In a post last week, I discussed what I called The College Remedial Course Hoax, which was critical of the system of remedial courses at four-year colleges. In this post I would like to address remedial courses on the community college level. Community colleges face challenges that most four-year colleges do not face because most have open enrollment policies that allow anyone with a high school diploma to enter school. Open enrollment is a good thing, because it opens the opportunity for a college degree to many students who lack either the financial resources or academic credentials to enter a four-year college. This good thing, however, comes with many challenges.

Faced with a large number of students who are not academically well-prepared for college instruction, community colleges have developed elaborate remediation programs designed to get students up to academic speed. Nationally, billions of dollars are spent on these programs, The courses are well-meaning and are developed and taught by people dedicated to helping students improve their ability to learn in a regular college classroom. And yet, just as in four-year colleges, these remedial or "developmental" courses, have proven to have had limited impact on student success in completing a degree.

This does not mean that the courses in themselves do not improve student performance in reading, writing and mathematics. Certainly many of them do, but they also set students up for failure to complete a degree. Students can find themselves locked in a maze of several levels of remedial courses, all costing them money and none providing them with college credits or progress toward a degree. According to Thomas Bailey, writing for the Community College Research Center Brief, fewer than 50% of students who enroll in community college developmental courses ever finish these remedial courses let alone complete a degree. Bailey concludes that the "developmental function in community colleges is not working well."

Bailey makes some sound recommendations for change in remedial programs at the community college level. Suggestions 1-3 come from Bailey, with some of my own thoughts. Suggestion 4 is mine.

  1. Rethink Assessment - A score on a placement test gives us very limited information on what a student needs to excel in college. There is a weak correlation between scores on these tests and student success. Bailey does not state it, but for me a focus on student needs would include an assessment of non-cognitive abilities including such things as student resilience, study habits, social skills and empathy, all of which have been shown to be important factors in student degree completion and all of which can be addressed in a college program (Sparkman, Maulding and Roberts, 2012). Placement in developmental courses should be based on a knowledge of the student gained through a combination of high school records, counseling sessions with community college learning experts and placement testing. In my ideal world, students would bring a portfolio of their high school work to the counseling session to demonstrate what they know and are able to do.
  2. Place More Students in College Level Courses with Learning Supports - Bailey's suggestion here is similar to what I wrote in the previous post. For many, if not most, students, the best way to improve reading and writing skills is in a regular college classroom with an embedded tutor and regularly scheduled group tutoring sessions led by the tutor outside of class. In addition, these early college level courses would be taught by professors who embrace an instructional design that incorporates skill improvement through sound pedagogical approaches.
  3. Explicitly Work to Minimize Remediation Time - For those community college students whose skills are not at a level to allow them to be successful even in a supported college-level course, Bailey suggests speeding up the remedial process and doing away with the layers of remediation so that these students move into credit bearing courses as quickly as possible. Intensive summer programs would be one way to accomplish this.
  4. Provide Instructional Coaches for Professors - Many K-12 institutions use literacy coaches and math coaches as a form of embedded professional development for teachers. A similar model could be used at the community college level. Essentially, a literacy instruction or math instruction expert would be teamed with the content expert professor to help the professor design and deliver instruction in a way that helps students achieve the learning objectives. This would be a more effective way to use staff who are currently providing instruction in de-contextualized reading, writing or math improvement classes. Students would be working to earn credit in a freshman level course, say Psychology 101, and at the same time receiving instruction designed to help them meet the reading and writing requirements of the course.
Some would take issue with the whole idea of developmental instruction in any college setting, whether in non-credit or credit bearing courses. Some might argue that the issue is in the high school and that high school graduates should, by definition, be ready for college. This is the genesis of the whole standards movement culminating in the Common Core. However, history would show us that raising standards does not, in and of itself, raise performance. Improved student performance in high school will require major societal shifts in income inequity, segregation and commitment to funding schools. Until that happens, a more enlightened approach to developmental education on the college level will remain a necessity.