Weak solutions to the wrong problem: why we should stop reforming developmental education

I am increasingly convinced that most attempts to reform developmental education are misguided and ultimately destined to produce marginal or no improvements.

This is also not a growing pessimism or an attempt to diminish the critical contribution of developmental education innovators all across the country.  This is rather a deepening of my appreciation that framing the problem matters.

Yesterday, I sat in on a call of some of the country’s leading voices in the community college reform movement – folks from Complete College America, Jobs for the Future, the Community College Research Center, the Education Comission for the States, and the Charles A. Dana Center.  Our task at the top of the call seemed simple enough: to distill the key 5-7 principles of effective community college developmental education systems.  Our motivation and the reason for the call was to develop this list as a way to provide a common answer to the question that we all are constantly bombarded with: “how do we fix the problem of developmental education?”

Developmental education is one of the most notorious bottlenecks in the P-20 pipeline (the “Bermuda triangle” as some would have it — or, more forcefully, the place “where many dreams die”) and our respective organizations have invested a lot of time, money, and energy in increasing student success in these courses.  State and institutional leaders in the field are under increasing pressure to produce more graduates — and to do so at a higher standard of quality with fewer resources.  Added to this the rising attention that developmental education has been receiving on the national ed reform platform, it seemed only logical that these national experts should be able to distill – at a high level – the common design principles of systems that are able to help low-income, first generation students succeed.  Given our shared work and points of view, this should not have been a difficult task.  Or so we thought.

As we got into the discussion we quickly discovered that solving the developmental education crisis is a false premise.  Pursuing this path would only serve to prop up the current, ineffective and inefficient system that we have today and would ultimately produce, as one participant put it, more “weak solutions to the wrong problem.”  What we discovered is that as long as developmental education remains a problem that those students have and that those (mostly adjunct) faculty members need to fix, we will not make meaningful headway on actual outcome improvement.

The sad reality is that even students who enter a community college and do not need developmental education fail at alarmingly high rates (a recent CCRC analysis conducted using data from Completion by Design colleges puts the 5-year completion figure for these students below 50% compared to less than 20% for students with high remedial need.  This includes all credentials and yes – the analysis even uses NSC data to account for students who transfer to another college).

So what is the path forward?  If solving the developmental education crisis is the wrong premise, what’s the right one?  This is emergent thinking for our group, but I think we’re on our way.

At the foundation, we’ve been talking about “early momentum to a credential” as a way to frame the task at hand less around those courses and more around helping students make measurable progress to the ultimate goal of credential completion in a reasonable amount of time.  CCRC’s recent work emphasizes enrollment in a program of study as the new standard for success in the first year of community college (and other work by Judith Scott-Clayton importantly questions whether we should in fact consider community colleges “open access” institutions when so many students are forced to take non-college courses upon entry).  ECS, Jobs for the Future, and Complete College America frequently describe the need to “blow up” developmental education and help colleges recosider the questionable distinctions that colleges make between “developmental” and “college ready” students.  In partnership with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the Dana Center is questioning the curricular integrity and applicability of pre-college programs altogether.

Amidst these points of view is a path forward.  I’m optimisitc that – with continued hard work and collaboration – we will find it.


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