Published on 2012/08/13

Is Developmental Education on Community College Campuses the Answer?

Students in remedial courses have different needs than those taking developmental classes, despite the shared goal of building a foundation of knowledge with which to succeed in college. Photo by Bertold Werkmann.

When we think of having developmental education courses on community college campuses in hopes of helping more adults obtain an Associate’s degree, we must consider the commitment this task requires. On average, vocational college textbooks read at grade 9-13 level and entry-level college textbooks at slightly higher than that. Community college remedial classes begin at about 6th grade reading level, providing a review of reading comprehension, grammar, essay writing, mathematics, algebra, and study skills. However, I believe we must make a certain distinction for developmental education.

Whereas remedial education provides a remedy by improving upon the basic skills that, to some degree, already exist, developmental education may focus more on building foundational literacy skills the adult learner may be missing completely. Developmental education, therefore, may need to be designed for adult learners with literacy as low as 2nd grade. What a journey that lies ahead for these students as well as their academic coaches.

I say academic coach, as opposed to instructor, for three main reasons:

First, low literacy adult learners need an indefinable amount of time to acquire the needed skills. Their skills gaps will be different, their aptitude to learn, retain, and make relevant use of new knowledge will vary, and the amount of time each can commit to studying will also vary. The academic coach must oversee a scheduled learning plan with defined promotion indicators for each student, while making considerations for these variances.

Secondly, low literacy adult learners will generally likewise be employed in low-skilled jobs such as retail, fast food service, assembly work, janitorial, or housekeeping. These low-skill jobs can be physically demanding and often require employees to accept a variety of work schedules. The academic coach must help each student stay focused on his/her academic goals while also creating connections between the student’s academic and work-related demands.

Lastly, research shows that adult learners generally persist better in collaborative, community-learning environments. In these environments, often times students who are slightly higher academically rely on their less academically solid team member’s problem-solving abilities. The academic coach recognizes the strengths and weaknesses of each student, groups them appropriately, and then fosters collaborative relationships to create community-learning environments.

Keeping all of this in mind, I want to address the question asked of me: “If community colleges offer developmental education courses to adult students will the amount of ‘review’ material discourage them, or will it help secure adult students on their path to an Associate’s degree?”

My response is this; whether the adult learner is at the developmental stage, the remedial stage, or ready for college-level work, educators must make a connection to the student’s personal goals and, wherever possible, select curriculum and deliver instruction in such a way that it organically responds to the student’s question, “Why do I need to know this?” When adult students can connect the dots they’re more likely to stay in the game. We know that with adult students ‘life happens’, and sometimes students have to stop-out. But if their goals are clear and the journey is too, most will return when life allows.

I can’t say I’m sold on the idea that developmental education fits well in the community college system because of the time commitment, the cost, the use of taxpayer dollars, and the risk of using a student’s limited financial federal aid too early on in his/her educational journey. I can however see the benefit of having a separately governed developmental education program housed on, and working in partnership with, the local community college.

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Readers Comments

Kevin O'Connor 2012/08/16 at 12:05 pm

Thanks fro raising this interesting question. your article envisions a “separately governed developmental education program,” and there is such a system in place: the (largely) WIA-funded Adult Basic Education system (ABE) serves these learners who need to develop foundational skills. While some ABE programs are housed on, or even run by, community colleges, many are part of Local Ed Agency K-12 systems, or community Based organizations.

As part of an LEA-based ABE program providing adult ESOL, ABE, and GED classes, I wanted to respond. You are right to ask whether developmental courses belong in the CC. There is a certain relation with the student and community that can be hard to establish within the structure and culture of community colleges (I also work with the CC here). Our students stay with us for years, and need a sense of relation with the program and their cohort of learners. Community colleges do their job well, but the modular nature of their student-institution interactions doesn’t allow the sort of longitudinal relationship we get to have with our students. There is a lot more hand-holding than the bootstrapping college model is geared to provide. We have one main office, and it is one stop shopping for registration, admissions, counseling, etc. We centralize student placement (for 700 student a semester) to ensure that they end up in the right class, and that they know who their teacher is and where their class meets.

That being said, there is a big gap between our highest level ESOL class and the lowest developmental courses the colleges can provide. Students often get stuck in that gap, unless they happen to find/be directed to a well-established transitions program. In Massachusetts, many of the CCs have Transitions programs, also funded by federal and state money to provide learners with a free year of developmental courses. There are good people in each of these systems (ABE, Transistions, CC) but this patchwork is far from the “seamless pipeline” that many of us NCTN members would like to see.

Charles Moorer 2012/08/19 at 3:24 pm

There is a distinct difference between Developmental Education and Remedial Education. “Developmental education can be defined as an organized system for delivering instruction, academic support, and personal development activities to students assessed as having potential for success if appropriate educational opportunities are provided” (Rubin, 1991). Remedial Education: “Remedial education refers to programs, courses, or activities designed specifically for college students who have basic deficiencies in
college-level reading, written or oral communication, mathematics, or other skills as defined by the institution” (Maryland Higher Education Commission, 1996). Remedial Education: “Remedial courses refer to courses in reading,writing, and mathematics for college students lacking those skills necessary to perform college-level work at the level required by the institution” (Lewis & Farris,1996). Remedial Education: “Remedial education is defined as those courses in reading, writing, or mathematics offered to students lacking the necessary academic skills to perform college-level work. The definition does not include Adult Basic Education” (ABE) or English as a Second Language (ESL) programs(Jenkins & Boswell, 2002). For those college that are truly intersted in seeing their students get ahead the engage in Developmental Education. What you suggest in your article is someone who is an adult who should be in an Adult Basic Education class, not remedial or developmental education. Most community colleges use sophisticiated testing system that would approriately place students based on skill level. May I humbly suggest that you get a clear definition of developmental and remedical education and how they are used in colleges, not just community colleges.

Michelle Walker-Wade 2012/08/20 at 7:32 pm

Charles, thank you for your feedback and for the classic definition of Developmental Ed. You are correct in saying what I have described is more ABE. I’m finding that as funding sources dry up, and students’ overall college readiness continues to decline, my description of developmental shows how things may be panning out – particularly in California.

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