03/13/2013 05:40 pm ET Updated May 13, 2013

The Changing Face of Developmental Education: So Goes Colorado, So Goes the Nation

As many as 1.7 million first-year students entering both two-year and four-year colleges will take a remedial course to learn the skills they need to enroll in a college-level course. Less than one-quarter of students attending a two-year college who take a remedial course will complete a college-level English or math class.

More than a decade ago, I attended my first NADE (National Association of Developmental Education) conference and realized how many students were on developmental tracks -- not ready for college, but holding high school degrees. It was clear to me that our higher education institutions were doing triage, when really an effort should have been made toward ensuring these remediated students mastered basic skills much earlier. In the United States, American students hold their own against their foreign counterparts until middle school. At that point, we begin to lose ground in reading, writing, and math compared with other developed nations.

For many students who need to take remedial courses, they will be required to take up to three remedial courses per discipline before qualifying to enroll in a credit-earning class. Remedial classes quickly become costly in time and money, which are just a few reasons why retaining and passing students in a remedial course is a major concern. In some states, like Colorado, change is afoot. Instead of offering three classes in math and three in English and reading, these classes will be collapsed into one class for each discipline. Much of the learning will be self-paced at community colleges where the student to advisor ratio is 1500 to 1. Students will need to take initiative for their own learning, work with staff when they have questions they need answered and be accountable for their own personal improvement plans. These steps will provide a successful on ramp to other classes that are more challenging and require more rigor, self-discipline and collaboration with classmates once these basic requirements are met.

In Colorado, 1 in 5 students are in concurrent enrollment programs that allow the student to earn a high school diploma, while simultaneously earning an Associate's Degree. Concurrent enrollment programs are appealing because they pay for two years of a student's college education; encourage students to pursue 4-year degrees after graduation; and give high school students an opportunity to take remedial courses before moving on to college. On the other hand, a new report shows that the number of high school students taking remedial college courses in a concurrent enrollment program grew 39.2 percent between the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school year. There is no argument that high school is the place for students to get prepared for college. But shouldn't students be mastering high school classes in high school to prepare them for college courses, not mastering remedial college math courses while they're still in high school?

Are we overemphasizing analytical and academic skills at the expense of the "soft" skills and experiences that students actually need to get to know themselves, understand what they are good at, be able to overcome challenges, think critically and creatively, and determine what makes them unique in the world? Marching students through high school and college courses does little to address the issues that they really struggle with on a personal level which stands in the way of their academic, personal, and professional success.

We've still got a lot of work to do before we define what it means to be prepared, educated, and workforce ready. I look forward to not only to continuing the conversation, but to committing to actions that will move us to a more productive workforce that can go toe-to-toe with anyone else on the global stage. The choices about developmental education happening in Colorado are happening in every state around the country. It is a time for a great sea change, but we need the strategic thinking skills to weigh the pros and cons of the various options on the table in the short run and the long run. As Thomas Friedman likes to say, "Average is over."