Another Lousy ‘Reform’ Idea: Eliminating Remedial Education

In states including Florida, Tennessee, Georgia, and Connecticut, lawmakers think they have the answer for students who need extra time and support when they get to college: Take it away.

These policymakers have promoted the idea that developmental or remedial education—those extra reading and math classes that students must take when they fail college-readiness exams—is failing, and that somehow its removal will make less successful students more successful. But college educators agree it is the wrong answer.

When Susan Williams Brown’s husband lost his job as a steel worker, 23 years after leaving high school, he returned to college to learn new skills for today’s workplace. “Needless to say, he did not remember his 9th-grade algebra,” said Williams Brown, chair of Gadsden State Community College’s math division, to the NEA Representative Assembly last July. “He did have to take a remedial algebra class to refresh his math skills.”

But Gene Brown’s success in that developmental math course led to his earning his Associate’s degree, which led to… a new job.

Gene Brown isn’t the only first-year college student who has needed extra help to meet the demands of a college curriculum. About 20 percent of first-year college students enrolled in non-credit developmental reading and/or math courses in 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES). Within “open admission” four-year public institutions, the average rate was 25.6 percent; at community colleges, it was 24 percent.

Federal statistics also show it’s more likely for non-traditional college students, low-income students, and students of color to need extra support. For example, 30 percent of Black students and 29 percent of Hispanic students took developmental courses in 2008, as did 25 percent of students whose parents didn’t attend college.

Of course, as the nation becomes more diverse, these are exactly the students that we must educate to meet the demands of the modern workplace, notes NEA’s Mark F. Smith, higher education policy analyst. “Students enter higher education from a wide variety of experiences, and many will need these programs regardless of the quality of local elementary and secondary institutions. Educators need to work to prepare students for success under all circumstances.”

The War on Remediation

Last year, Florida Gov. Rick Scott made remedial or developmental courses optional for any community college student who has recently earned a standard Florida high school diploma. And “optional” means most young adults likely will not receive that extra help or support, said Dianne Ruggiero, an English as a Second Language (ESL) instructor at Broward College in Florida.

Older students still must take a college readiness exam, but if they fail the colleges may no longer place them in stand-alone, non-credit developmental courses. Instead they’ll be encouraged to take an online “co-requisite” course in reading or math, at the same time that they take college-level algebra or English composition. (This despite much research showing that students who need the most support do worst in online developmental courses… and the fact that math is an aggressively cumulative subject. With gaps in knowledge, it becomes impossible for students to move forward, Brown pointed out.)

Remediation Rate (Click to Enlarge)

Remediation Rate (Click to Enlarge)

Many other states also have new restrictions: In Connecticut, a 2012 law limited students to a single semester of non-credit remedial work. In Colorado, a 2012 law ordered colleges to move students into “co-requisite” classes. And, in Tennessee, a 2010 law eliminated developmental education from four-year public colleges, and new programs also have encouraged high-school students to take remedial math online, before they get to college. Meanwhile, Ohio, West Virginia, and several other states also have new limits on remedial education.

The experts at the National Association for Developmental Education (NADE) are not unaware of this trend. Some of these new initiatives may be based on research and hold promise for improving the progress of underperforming students, NADE notes, while others are poorly conceived, poorly initiated, and not at all related to sound research or policy principles. “These will not only fail to improve student progress but may also contribute to unanticipated negative outcomes, particularly for minorities and the poor,” wrote Hunter Boylan, director of the National Center for Developmental Education.

“This is all generated by state legislators — they look at the dollars and say we’re spending too much,” said Ruggiero. “But they don’t talk to educators or the people who are actually teaching the class, and they don’t consider the students who may be moving at their own pace.”

In July, Brown and Ruggiero brought the issue to an attentive NEA Representative Assembly: “These courses are a vital link to a college education,” Brown told NEA delegates, who voted to support adequate funding of remedial and developmental education and raise awareness of the issues.

Moving Forward

Opponents of remediation or developmental education, led by a political advocacy group called College Completion America, call the classes a tar pit where students’ dreams get stuck and die. Too few students go on from remediation to graduate, they say. But a 2006 study showed that students who take remediation courses are more likely to graduate than equivalent students who don’t take those courses.

In any case, “channeling unprepared students into college coursework without providing them with an academic safety net is no formula for higher completion rates,” pointed out William Tierney, University of Southern California professor of higher education, in a recent Inside Higher Ed editorial. In fact, simply shutting down programs will likely harm the students who most need help, he suggested.

Before rushing into ill-advised “reform,” NADE suggests that trained professionals identify what works, that states pilot innovations before mandating them, and that everybody recognize that there are no simple solutions.

For its part, NEA agrees: Noting the growing divide between rich and poor in the U.S., and the “erosion of opportunities” for access to higher education, NEA’s policy brief on remediation in higher education calls on K-12 and higher education to coordinate curriculum. It also calls on colleges to task teaching personnel (key word: teaching personnel!) with the development, implementation, and evaluation of remediation programs. Importantly, those programs should be fully funded and staffed by faculty with expertise in developmental education.

Students need “meaningful access and support” to reach graduation and enter the workforce, according to NADE—and plenty of public colleges are doing it right. For example, at Iowa Lakes Community College (ILCC), which won NADE certification last year, students in developmental reading “made almost two grade levels of improvement in one semester—basically from a 9th grade reading level to an 11th grade level,” reported ILCC’s Success Center professor Lynn Dodge.

At New York’s Kingsborough Community College, which Tierney praised for its “learning communities,” low-scoring students in those learning communities are taking and passing more college courses. And, last year, Excelencia in Education honored NEA Higher Ed members at LaGuardia Community College, also in New York, for their success in supporting non-traditional, immigrant students with individualized social-work services.

“They come here because they’re hoping to have a better life and often they see education as the door to a better life,” said David Housel, an assistant director at LaGuardia, who coordinates the support of social workers for students. “They know you need a degree or a certificate to get a job. They understand that… But sometimes they need support to fulfill those motivations.”