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A New Way of Looking at Remedial Education

By Thomas Bailey

To successfully remake developmental education, educators must frame it in the context of students’ broader academic goals.

Community colleges are in a fruitful and exciting period of developmental education reform. While it is heartening to see so much activity in this area, I am concerned that policymakers, as well as college leaders, administrators and faculty, continue to view remediation as a separate and isolated activity, rather than as a process that can be leveraged to integrate students thoroughly into their college programs and experiences.

What does it mean to integrate remedial — or developmental — education into the college experience?

What does it mean to integrate remedial — or developmental — education into the college experience?

Students arrive at community colleges with many barriers — both academic and non-academic. For these students, remedial education is by far the most important intake service they receive. However, in its traditional form — narrowly focused on basic math, reading, and writing skills — remediation often serves to divert students from starting a college-level program of study, rather than setting them on a clear route to successful degree completion. To launch students more effectively on their college pathway, developmental education should be conceived of as a set of academic and support experiences that are thoughtfully integrated into college-level fields of study.

Viewed this way, developmental education reforms cannot be undertaken separately from reforms aimed at restructuring the entire student experience. For instance, it would be impossible to create contextualized and integrated developmental education courses for every program of study a college offers. However, if colleges were to create several broad meta-majors ­­— one of which every student must choose upon enrolling — and then create developmental education curricula oriented toward each meta-major, remedial education could become an experience that propels students toward further study. In such a model, developmental courses in the social science meta-major, for instance, would focus on the kinds of reading, writing and math assignments that students encounter in the college-level courses required for social science majors.

A number of colleges are working to make remedial education more relevant to college-level work by adopting a corequisite model: students whose assessment scores place them in remediation are enrolled in the introductory college English class, as well as a section for additional support. While this approach shows promise, it needs to go farther to link students to a college-level program of study. In a meta-major model, the corequisite approach could be expanded to include required introductory courses in fields such as business, health and education. Although meta-majors are being developed in some colleges, even on these campuses remediation thus far remains a separate function.

Given the weak academic skills of so many entering community college students, it is not surprising that reform has focused on strengthening developmental education. We tend to hope that if we just choose the right model — a modularized approach to math, or an accelerated curriculum in reading and writing — we will fix the problems of high student attrition and low completion. But I have come to believe that to truly move the needle on college completion, developmental education reform must be undertaken as part of a broader rethinking of how students move through college. Remediation should be viewed as the first step in a clear and structured pathway that leads students into and through programs of study and towards their goals of degree completion or successful transfer.

Thomas Bailey

is director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, N.Y.

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  • Tom, thank you for your insightful and simple presentation of how developmental education could become more relevant to students–and thereby more successful. With my own students I have found that helping them acquire technical skills integrated within a learning path provides the possibility of much greater engagement.

  • I love the idea of “contextualized” developmental education. Many years ago, we worked on “paired courses” which integrated reading and a content area (meta-major such as social sciences, health science, etc.), and the same for developmental writing paired with a first-year seminar and the first content-course in a chosen field. Of course, this works best in (a) large settings, where the population can be separated into the suggested areas of study, (b) when registration processes and advisors are aware of the possibilities and work with the system and (c) when the students are informed, in a positive way. When any of these three elements are not done well, the package tends to fall apart.
    I will suggest that the most important are (b) and (c), if you have good developmental teachers who can manage their curriculum so that each week’s lesson (lecture, activity) is then paired up with small groups, even in one class, working on discipline-area (meta areas) content. I’ve done that, in a small school, when there were only 2 sections of reading. Actually, it was exciting, and the students enjoyed the work. While they were working on improving their reading skills, they were directly applying it – so, there was immediate and obvious benefit. Sound like adult learning?


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