Commentary: Turning the dial on developmental outcomes

Karrin E. Wilks

Karrin E. Wilks

Many of us have been working on developmental education reform for years with frustrating results, achieving incremental improvements, but not truly “turning the dial” in significant ways — until recently.

Improving developmental outcomes remains one of the most pressing issues facing community colleges, particularly in mathematics. Put simply, we will never improve retention and graduation rates without improving developmental outcomes.

At Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) of the City University of New York (CUNY), more than 80 percent of first-time freshmen require remediation in mathematics, reading and/or writing. Of these students, 75 percent require remediation in mathematics.

As at colleges across the country, these students are less likely to be retained and graduate than students without remedial needs, and the longer students stay in remediation, the more detrimental the effects are to their persistence and overall credit accumulation. Further, from an equity perspective, students of color are more likely to be placed in remediation and less likely to get out.  We have a moral imperative to turn the dial.

Multi-partners, multi-layers

Significantly improving remedial outcomes — turning the dial not just tinkering at the edges — will require a multi-faceted, cross-sector approach. Community colleges must work more effectively with feeder high schools and community-based organizations to improve college readiness and reduce the need for remediation. We must improve the placement testing process to better prepare students to take the tests seriously and place out of remediation. We must expand the use of multiple measures — as opposed to using just one test — for placement purposes, and do away with high-stakes exit testing.

We must expand intensive immersion programs with proven effectiveness. And community colleges must redesign developmental education, both from a curricular perspective to reduce course sequences and time spent in remediation, and from a pedagogical perspective to contextualize learning in real-life problem-solving for meaningful and immediate application. Remediation as an instructional specialty must be emphasized and supported.

BMCC is committed to these strategies based on strong evidence of their effectiveness, and has significant multi-faceted activity underway to overhaul developmental education.

Groundwork before college

BMCC is working closely with our affiliated high school, Manhattan Early College for Advertising (MECA), to ensure that students there will be exempt from remediation. BMCC provides supplemental activities to strengthen math skills beginning in the ninth grade, and our matriculating students tutor MECA students in basic skills areas. BMCC is also partnering with additional feeder high schools and community-based organizations with the goal of addressing remedial needs before students apply to college.

BMCC is working to improve communications about and the entire placement testing process. Research suggests that student don’t take placement tests seriously, don’t prepare for them, and don’t understand the consequences of failure. The college is streamlining communications to students about the tests, expanding free test prep workshops, developing plans to strengthen awareness of the nature and impact of the tests in feeder high schools, and working on the instructions given prior to testing, to incorporate positive mindset messaging.

Intensive remedial models in which students focus exclusively on developmental skills for many hours a day have proven effective at BMCC, throughout CUNY and across the country.  BMCC has committed resources to expanding three such models:

  • Summer immersion, an intensive remedial model offered in four- to six-week sessions at no charge to students, has been rigorously studied by CUNY and has proven beneficial to students.
  • CUNY Start is a semester-long remedial intensive during which students defer enrollment in other courses to focus on developmental math, writing and reading; impressive success rates have led to its rapid expansion.
  • Math Start, an intensive developmental math program, has grown from a summer pilot to being offered year-round because of its effectiveness.

Putting it in context

Working to redesign remedial education in “traditional” courses must be high priority as well, using various models. BMCC has implemented mainstreaming in English and math (placing students scoring near the cut-off in college-level courses). We have reduced curricular sequences by combining or eliminating levels of remediation. And we have embedded basic skills instruction in college-level courses.

The college also has instituted Quantway, an alternative to remedial algebra for non-STEM majors, which contextualizes math problem-solving in real-life applications through pedagogy that emphasizes group work and has yielded pass rates consistently higher than in traditional remedial courses.

The challenge, as always, is how to bring models that work to scale. But we are collectively headed in the right direction. For us, the keys for turning the dial are as follows. We have a moral obligation to make this work.

  1. Establish and regularly communicate that improving remedial outcomes is a top institutional priority.
  2. Support and incentivize faculty for curricular and pedagogical redesign, based on proven models.
  3. Expand models that work for targeted groups of students.
  4. Establish key indicators, and relentlessly analyze and report on outcomes data with a sharp focus on equity.
  5. Create a multi-pronged success agenda across units, departments and disciplines within the college and with targeted feeder high schools, community-based organizations and businesses outside the college.

About the Author

Karrin E. Wilks
Karrin E. Wilks is senior vice president and provost at Borough of Manhattan Community College in New York.