USA Funds Symposium: What Do We Really Know About the Path to Student Success in Developmental Education?
Based on research, some higher education experts have concluded that developmental education, often referred to as remedial education, is ineffective. Other experts maintain the jury is still out. Still others point to evidence that certain developmental education programs are not only highly effective, but make a significant contribution to student success in higher education.

Two scholars in the field attempted to shed light on the topic during the 2013 USA Funds® Symposium.

James Minor, program director for the Atlanta-based Southern Education Foundation, introduced the issue as “one of the most pressing topics facing institutions in this room.” He noted that 70 to 90 percent of the incoming freshmen at minority-serving institutions with which the Southern Education Foundation works require at least one developmental education course.

Minor reported that the issue is clouded by the very limited data on the effectiveness of developmental education programs. “We have lots of information about what doesn’t work, but far less about what does work,” he reported.

The Southern Education Foundation is working with a consortium of six MSIs to identify developmental education programs and models that are the most promising.

Minor posed a series of key questions to his co-presenter, Hunter Boylan, director of the National Center for Developmental Education, and professor of higher education at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C.

Aggregate data concerns
Boylan agreed that the quality of the data on the effectiveness of developmental education programs does little to inform the discussion of the issue. One problem, according to Boylan, is that successful programs get lost in the aggregation of the data across multiple colleges and universities.

“If you average someone who’s getting 80 percent of his students through with someone who is getting 0 percent through, you come up with 40 percent,” Boylan said.  "What we should be doing is looking at those people who are getting 80 percent of their students through. All that gets lost in aggregate data.”

Boylan complained that failing to disaggregate data for programs at individual institutions also is a problem.

“We don’t know how these interventions affect specific groups of students. That’s a real failing in our data,” he said. “We don’t look and see what the really good programs are doing and why they work. We don’t look and see who profits most from particular interventions.”

He also bemoaned the lack of data on specific developmental education programs at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, which, Boylan said, have been delivering such programs better and longer than any other institutions.

Understanding developmental education
Another challenge, according to Boylan, is the lack of understanding about what developmental education is. According to a long-standing definition, he said, developmental education is the integration of academic courses and support services, governed by the principles of adult development and learning.

If you follow that definition, Boylan said, “We don’t know if developmental education works or not yet. We haven’t really tried it.”

Boylan said models of effective developmental education programs are grounded in courses, connect those courses with support services of various kinds, and require student participation in those support services.

Promising practices include compressed courses, for example, offering developmental English in an intensive eight-week program. Boylan also cited programs that place a small percentage of developmental students in college-level courses with college-ready students and also supplement the course work with study skills for the developmental students.

He emphasized that the integration of developmental courses with support services is the key. Unfortunately, Boylan said, the organization of many postsecondary institutions doesn’t facilitate that integration. “In most institutions, student services is over here, and academic affairs is over here, and never the twain shall meet. We have to change that,” he suggested.

Another issue, according to Boylan, is that inferior instruction can sabotage potentially effective models of developmental education. He cited recent research at a group of California community colleges that found the level of instruction in developmental courses was “pretty awful.”

“Our current model is to take students who score below a certain cut point on a test and stockpile them in developmental courses,” Boylan said. “And have 70 percent of those courses taught by adjunct faculty, who don’t have a connection with the institution, who are not taught anything about the students they’re teaching or anything about how to teach the students they’re teaching. People are saying that model isn’t working. What do they expect?”

Assessment and placement
An additional area that needs reform in the developmental education arena, according to Boylan, is the assessment and placement process. He complained that relying on a single assessment score for placement decisions means “making high stakes decisions with minimal information.” He reported that most placement decisions fail to take into consideration noncognitive factors like information about student study habits and organization skills and the likelihood a student will seek help.

Boylan noted improvements in developmental education results could come from greater collaboration between developmental education, adult education and the regular college curriculum.

“Right now, those are three separate starting and stopping points,” he said. “We need to see more of a seamless system.” Boylan also cited the potential to do a better job of tapping community-based social services to meet developmental students’ needs, for example, to find day care services and deal with financial problems.

Key to completion
He concluded by noting that doing a better job to support weaker students is key to achieving the nation’s college completion goal.

“All the middle class students who want to go to college are going to college,” Boylan said. “The only way to produce more graduates is to dig deeper into the pool. That’s the only place where more college students are coming.”

Download a copy of Minor and Boylan’s presentation from the USA Funds website.