06/05/2013 09:46 am ET Updated Aug 05, 2013

Seeking Remediation for the Debate on Remedial Education

Roxanne is a former student of mine who is all too familiar with the negative consequences of remediation policy. As a freshman, she was required to enroll in both remedial math and remedial English at her 4-year state college. Unlike some institutions, she was able to enroll in credit bearing courses while satisfying her remediation requirements; but the knowledge that she had only one year to pass those remedial courses weighed heavily on her shoulders. At the end of her first year, Roxanne received As and Bs in her credit bearing courses and succeeded in passing remedial English but she struggled all year long with math and was not able to pass the sequence of courses she was required to take. Given the policy of her institution that places a strict one-year time limit to remedial coursetaking, Roxanne was asked to leave the college and go to a community college, where ostensibly, she would receive the kind of instruction that would help her succeed.

And succeed she did as Roxanne passed remedial math and was allowed to return to her college. Still, the toll on her was great during that tumultuous second year where she found herself enrolling in three different courses at three different institutions to try and pass the required remedial math sequence. After two failed attempts to pass Math 031 at two different institutions, she enrolled directly in Math 051 and received a solid B in the course. Though she had to resort to a bit of subterfuge and a great deal of audacity to get into the class (convincing the professor to allow her to remain even though she could not technically enroll without having received a passing grade in Math 031), Roxanne did what she needed to do to get back to the college she first enrolled in as a freshman. She recalls that time as a frustrating year of hurdles and barriers, all the time wondering, "Does it have to be this hard?"

Today, Roxanne is a graduate of one of the most prestigious schools of education in the country, having received her Doctorate in Education Leadership in 2012. But her experiences during her first two years of college are a painful reminder of the unfairness and rigidity of policy for students identified as "underprepared." While Roxanne was not surprised by her initial placement in remedial courses, acknowledging that she was not the greatest student in high school, she nonetheless welcomed the "second chance" to turn things around. In time she soon grew confident in her capacity as a student given the high marks she received in her credit-bearing courses. When she was asked to leave due to her continued struggles in math, she was shocked by the lack of flexibility of policy. After all, she was doing well in all her other courses - couldn't there be an exception to the rule?
Remedial education is a controversial subject - even calling this course of study "remedial" is contentious. Over several decades, courses across the country that were once labeled "remedial" are now identified as "developmental," perhaps a move towards being more politically correct or simply a way to evade the damaging stigma linked to the term. But this in my opinion, only serves as a band aid as "remedial education" (and its corresponding connotation) continues to be the de facto term used in policy and the lens through which "underpreparation" is viewed. Rather than being seen as a "second chance" opportunity for students with varying abilities, aptitudes and degrees of preparation to access higher education, the most prominent viewpoint held by policymakers is that this course of study forces institutions to expend precious dollars on subject matter that should not have to be taught in a college setting.

Equally damaging are those courses identified as "developmental" but which are a far cry from the stated definition and do very little to "develop" competent college students. In these classes, discrete skill development takes precedence over critical thinking, leaving many students at a disadvantage when faced with the demands of college courses. In contrast, a true developmental education program is a highly complex endeavor, aiming to provide a comprehensive array of services, of which the remediation of skill deficiencies is just one of many. The most successful developmental education programs are those that seek to build content skill mastery through the development of critical thinking and analytical skills. In addition, they provide the necessary resources and personnel to support the noncognitive development of students so that they become more than just successfully "remediated" students (to use the language of policy), but fully prepared and successful college graduates.

"Development" implies a process of growth and progress over time; the opportunity to grow, mature and evolve. When defined in this way, the negative stigma of developmental education is erased as it becomes clear that "developmental education" is not solely about remediating past academic deficiencies, but is a process of integrating the essential academic and support services recommended by the principles of adult development. As a professor and as a researcher I have seen and heard of too many students with the academic know-how who simply do not have the self-regulation, self-efficacy and/or the communication skills to survive past the first year. These students do not come to college academically underprepared, but they need "developmental" education just as much as those that do. Thus, I would argue, all students entering college - whether they are recent high school graduates or returning adult learners - need some form of "developmental" education. Becoming a successful college student involves more than just academic prowess in English and math. What is needed is a combination of social, emotional and intellectual savvy to navigate the college environment - vital skills that do not magically appear during the first year of enrollment but are taught by the very best of developmental education programs.

Unfortunately, policymakers and their outdated definition of "remediation" stubbornly cling to a perception that does not fully account for the issue's complexity. Rather than asking the question, "What does it take to successfully serve students considered underprepared?" policymakers are more inclined to ask "What does it take to make remedial education programs most efficient?" In doing so, policies emerging from this imprudent focus do not make allowances for the "development" of students as learners and impose arbitrary timelines and restrictions for the mastery of knowledge. Moreover, the subtle yet significant difference in questions - student success vs. institutional success - determines what is valued and how funds are invested. In California, for example, nearly 40,000 students have been dis-enrolled for failing to meet stringent remediation requirements, my former student among them. While Roxanne managed to return from exile, I can't help but wonder about those who were not equally successful. In our quest for greater efficiency and managing costs, are we paying too high a price in lost potential? How many other doctors, lawyers, teachers, and engineers are among those 40,000? How many have we lost?

We have a vested interest in having the most educated citizenry in the world and can ill afford to pick and choose who has access and still expect to meet this objective. The debate surrounding remedial education needs to be remediated. The debate needs to stop blaming students solely for their lack of preparation and instead scrutinize the system as a whole to remedy pervasive system failures that yield underpreparation. Developmental education programs featuring real-world instruction, critical and analytical thinking, and targeted support services do exist, moving students from remediation to success in the academic program of choice. It's time to stop devising and enforcing policies that are reactionary to negative perspectives and do nothing but curtail access and opportunity. Developmental education, done right, will help us reach our college completion goals. This is a value proposition that no one can argue with.

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