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Myriad approaches to developmental ed

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Students in an I-BEST classroom at Central New Mexico Community College work together to solve problems.
​A growing trend among four-year higher education institutions to limit remedial courses is creating more demand for developmental education at community colleges. 

Meanwhile, pressure to increase completion rates is prompting some community colleges to rethink their approach to developmental education, particularly for students at the lowest academic levels.
 
A dozen states have already put some limitations on public four-year colleges’ ability to offer remedial courses, said Bruce Vandal, director of the Getting Past Go initiative at the Education Commission of the States.
 
Tennessee and South Carolina, for example, don’t allow colleges and universities to offer remedial education, he said. Louisiana has a similar restriction, but it hasn’t yet been fully implemented. Other states, such as Colorado, Oklahoma and Nevada, don’t provide funding to four-year institutions for developmental courses.
 
“You’re going to see more students in these states in community colleges” for developmental education, Vandal said. “It’s a concern.”
 
University partners
 
If Ohio adopts a proposal by Higher Education Chancellor Jim Petro to phase out developmental programs at four-year institutions, “that would shift the burden from universities to community colleges,” said Ronald Abrams, president of the Ohio Association of Community Colleges.
 
Developmental education is a huge part of improving students’ ability to stay in college and complete their education, Abrams said. 

“We’re trying to improve the effectiveness of developmental education programs. That is the solution people are looking at—not cutting back on developmental education,” he said.
 
Some of those improvement efforts include more diagnostic placement testing; redefining or reforming course content; summer boot camp programs to help incoming students pass placement tests; and mixing developmental courses with regular coursework, Abrams said.

In several of the states curtailing remedial courses at universities, four-year institutions have contracted with nearby community colleges to provide developmental education for their students. Tennessee allows concurrent enrollment, Vandal noted, so students admitted to a university can take developmental courses at community colleges.
 
In other cases, two-year college faculty teach developmental education on a university campus. Central New Mexico Community College (CNM) sends its instructors to the University of New Mexico to teach basic skills to about 1,700 to 2,000 university students enrolled in “introductory studies” each term, said Pamela Etre-Perez, CNM’s dean of adult and general education. 
 
Basic skills courses are also a priority at CNM, where nearly a third of students are in developmental or adult basic education,  Etre-Perez said. This fall, the college started an accelerated, mastery-based developmental math program using the National Center for Academic Transformation’s Emporium model. It’s a self-paced, computerized program that allows motivated students to complete two courses in one term.
 
CNM is also using the I-BEST (Basic Education and Skills Training) program from the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, which focuses on team teaching to integrate career and technical training with basic skills instruction. This approach “helps with student retention and student success," Etre-Perez said.
 
The most challenging students
 
The most challenging aspect of developmental education is preparing students at the lowest academic levels for college-level work.
 
Among students who start in the lowest level of developmental math at community colleges, only 11 percent complete an algebra course, said Jane Neuburger of Syracuse University (New York) and president of the National Association of Developmental Education (NADE).
 
To improve success rates among low-achieving students, Pima Community College (PCC) in Arizona will shift students who test below the seventh-grade level on placement tests to a new remedial bridge program, beginning in March, until they can pass developmental education courses.
 
PCC implemented this new policy because data showed that students who tested below the seventh-grade level—in reading, writing or math—have a one-in-20 chance of completing a college-level course, said C.J. Karamargin, PCC vice chancellor for public information and government relations. 
 
“It’s unfair to them and to the college to accept students who couldn’t do college-level work,” he said.
 
Karamargin estimates that about 2,300 students at PCC’s six campuses, which have a total of enrollment of 35,000, would be redirected to the new Foundations Academy. The remedial courses will be non-credit and won’t be eligible for financial aid, but they will be inexpensive—$30 for a 10-week course—and students will be able to repeat a course at no charge.
 
In Texas, San Jacinto College’s (SJC) commitment to developmental education is reflected in its strategic plan and internal policies, said Rebecca Goosen, associate vice chancellor for college preparatory and president-elect of NADE. Students who test below a certain level in reading must complete a three-course development sequence before they can take a regular course. 
 
“Reading is essential for everything. If they can’t read, they can’t do math,” Goosen said.
 
All SJC students in development education and all students attending college for the first time—which is just about everyone—must take a student success course.
 
And all staff—“everybody from the chancellor on down to administrative assistants"—go through a three-day training program in student success, Goosen said. 
 
“We want everyone to understand the language so we’re all on the same page," she said.
 
According to Goosen, 64 percent of recent high school graduates need at least one remedial course in reading, writing or math. In many cases, students have learned the material, but “there are pieces missing,” she said, so SJC is exploring ways to fill the gap when students might not need the whole course.
 
The “college-going culture” in Texas is a positive step in improving access to higher education, Goosen said. However, she added that community colleges “don’t have the resources necessary to address the needs of increasing numbers of students not on the traditional path, including those with severe dyslexia or other learning disabilities, or high school graduates who can’t read at the fourth-grade level.”
 
Goosen advises college leaders to consider the challenges students in developmental education face. Many of them are working long hours and have families. 
 
“It’s not just about test scores. We have to look at the whole human being,” she said. “When you put a face to the student, the conversation changes.”
 
Effective approaches

Intentional Connections, a new program started at SJC last semester with 25 students, creates pathways for students in developmental education while providing support services, such as child care, referral to social service agencies, tutors and access to math and writing labs.
 
The college is also working on a program to provide an “on ramp” for its technical programs, Goosen said. For students in the lowest rungs of developmental education, there’s no way they will get a registered nursing (RN) degree in two years, for example. But if they continue to work on their basic skills, they can become a certified nursing assistant, then work toward an RN credential.
 
“They need to understand there are intermediate steps so they can actually see their way out of the tunnel,” she said.

Neuburger urges colleges to tailor developmental instruction in math to areas where an individual student is weak. And she suggested community colleges give students more choices, such as a 16-week, slow-paced course, an accelerated course or a combination of technology and face-to-face instruction.
 
Online learning can work, she said, “but that can be derailed quickly if you put students in front of a computer and leave them to their own devices. You need a teacher there to oversee the instruction.” 
 
Money spent on additional teachers would pay off if it means fewer students have to repeat a course or drop out of college, Neuburger added.
 
Other effective approaches in developmental courses include voluntary peer-assisted learning groups that meet regularly to review the material; mandatory study groups; and the “embedded skills” approach, where all faculty are trained to address the needs of  “emerging learners.” For example, an auto mechanics instructor can incorporate reading and writing skills into the content of that course.
 
All higher education institutions should look at the options before nixing or curtailing developmental education programs, Neuburger said.
 
“It’s the only second chance for students who didn’t take a college prep track in high school and for adults who need retraining to earn a living wage,” she said. "We need to put enough time and teachers into development education so students have a real opportunity to earn a degree."
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