Published on 2018/08/07
The EvoLLLution | Remedying Remedial Education
While reforming remedial programming has been a priority for years, the growth of competency-based programming options may provide exciting pathways to bringing developmental education up-to-date.
Imagine the following scenario: You have done well in high school, finishing in the top 10 percent of your class, which in your state automatically qualifies you for a college scholarship. But when you get to college, you learn that you require “developmental” education before you are allowed to enroll in college-level, credit-bearing courses—in other words, you learn that you are not college material after all. Or perhaps you are the first in your family to go to college and have scraped together a combination of grants and loans so that you can pursue your lifelong dream of becoming a nurse. Unfortunately, on the basis of a test that could have as few as twelve questions, it has been determined that you require two years of remedial math before you can even begin the prerequisite courses for the nursing degree. Or maybe you are a working adult uneasy about returning to school but know you need a degree to move up in your organization. However, your writing skills are solid and you use math on the job, so when the college counselor tells you not to worry about the placement test, you don’t. Like most students, you take the test (typically ACCUPLACER) without any preparation or without any understanding of the consequences. Unfortunately, on the basis of that test, which has, at best, limited validity evidence, you are “referred” to developmental courses in math and writing. And like many students in that situation, you don’t even go to the first class. Ironically, at the college down the road, the very same placement scores would have qualified you for college-level courses. Furthermore, even though you were placed into remedial education, there’s a good chance you could have passed college-level classes with a grade of B or better.

You don’t have to imagine these scenarios—they occur every day at virtually every institution in the country, at four-year universities as well as community colleges. And the consequences are disastrous, for students, for institutions and for our nation.

So, what is the solution? It is not simply to end developmental education without providing an alternative, as some budget-minded states have done. That is irresponsible and unethical. But so are our current practices, which increase dropout rates, time to graduation for those who do persist, and disproportionately affect first generation and students of color.

We should not be satisfied with simply tweaking the current model of developmental education. Yes, the problem is complex and has many causes, inertia, misalignment between K-12 and college curricula, and over-reliance on a single measure of “preparedness” chief among them. But there is another culprit that does not receive enough attention: the time-bound, credit- and course-driven model of conventional higher education itself.

Courses and credits are the building blocks of most college educations, but credits are poor proxies for learning and courses are simply containers that are often too large and bulky for what students actually need.

The morass of developmental education will not end unless academic institutions stop thinking in terms of courses and instead focus on what students need to know and be able to do—in other words, to identify and clearly communicate the competencies required to earn a credential, not the smorgasbord of available courses.

Competency-based transparency is transformative, enabling institutions to label skills, not students. The remedial label itself, whatever euphemism it goes by, not only destroys morale; it also creates a pernicious and false distinction between “prepared” and “unprepared” students. Why not assume that every student arrives at college with both strengths and areas to develop? The task is to provide all learners with access to targeted, actionable academic assistance, not only those students labeled “remedial.”

Instead of focusing on courses or content coverage, competency-based transparency enables us to look at what students actually need to know and be able to do. This may require ignoring our own self-interest. Do all students actually need the full math sequence, or rather do they need to develop specific quantitative literacies to achieve their academic and career goals?

Powerful work by the Dana Center at the University of Texas notes that a “growing body of evidence identifies traditional postsecondary mathematics as a primary barrier to degree completion and equitable outcomes for millions of students”—and the pre-college sequence compounds the problem. In many cases, what students need is not a one-size-fits all course of study but rather a math pathway tied to academic, career and personal goals.

Competency-based transparency enables access to on-demand, targeted assistance when students need it, not years earlier. Concurrent models of developmental education have shown promise—but they are difficult to implement, hampered by the scheduling difficulties inherent in a course-based system, especially for non-full-time students (i.e. the majority).

It is important to stress that competency-based learning does not mean disembodied skills, divorced from content or the purpose to which they are put. In fact, it means the opposite: contextualizing knowledge and skills, so that students can see the real-world applications of what they are learning. This is the antithesis of the “drill and kill” approach beloved of many adaptive learning platforms, which train students to pass math quizzes, not use math to solve real problems.

At College for America (CfA) at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), I had the opportunity to apply these principles, thanks to a First in the World grant for which I served as the initial project director. We named our approach to helping students develop core academic and career competencies JUICE (for “just-in-time, contextualized and empowering” academic assistance). While it piggybacked on CfA’s competency-based model, it has far greater application and has been piloted successfully at a non-CBE institution. The results of the randomized control trial conducted under the grant are not yet finalized, but non-official feedback indicates that learners who used JUICE persisted and graduated at higher rates than students without access to JUICE. Of course, this is one study and one model. There are others.

But these principles apply in many contexts and undergird the mission of Volta Learning Group, which helps a wide variety of organizations create competency-based pathways that support credentials, whether those credentials are academic or industry-based.

Exciting work is occurring in the worlds of both competency-based learning and developmental ed reform. But for the most part, these worlds do not yet intersect. It’s high time they did.

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