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

This week, Denver will be hosting the National Association for Developmental Education Conference.  This organization is made up of thousands of members who are dedicated to helping students who come to college without the skills required to enroll in a college-level course in math, reading or writing. 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.1

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.2 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 1.3  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.

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in partnership with Carnegie Corporation of New York, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Lumina Foundation and The Kresge Foundation are asking the developmental community to rethink how developmental math is taught, and they have an ambitious  goal to increase the percent of developmental students who earn credit for a college-level math class from 5 to 50 percent. The Carnegie Foundation knows that students who have a history of struggling in math classes will most likely continue to fail in math classes that mirror their past experiences of failure. That’s why they created two math improvement communities at the college-level: Statway and Quantway.

Statway is a one-year program designed for students transferring to degrees in humanities or social sciences which culminates to a college-level statistics class. Quantway similarly is a one-year course that culminates to a college-level quantitative math course. This course is different than your typical developmental math course in that it “will motivate and engage students with an innovative quantitative reasoning focus in which students use mathematics and numerical reasoning to make sense of the world around them.” The goal is to have students become “quantitatively literate students,” opposed to memorization machines.4

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.5 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 students taking remedial courses in a concurrent enrollment program grew 39.2 percent between the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school year.6 Concurrent enrollment programs are being used as a strategy to prepare more high school students with the basic skills they need before moving on to college. Though there is no argument that we need to prepare students to enter college while they’re still in high school, why isn’t there a focus on preparing students for college-level courses when they are in elementary, middle, and high school? 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?

While concurrent enrollment is a good idea for students who want to pursue the trades—careers in welding, auto mechanics, refrigeration, etc—it is a grave concern to me on other levels:

  1. Where are the emotional and social skills that students need to mature so that they can succeed and thrive when they are in college?  If they are spending all of their time on college academics while they are in high school, what is the point of the community college?  How will they ever get the experience and maturity that they need to succeed personally and professionally?
  2. The majority of concurrent enrollment classes take place at high schools, not on college campuses. Taking a college course down the hall from other high school courses fails to introduce students to college culture and expectations. Which is not to imply that more classes should be taught on college campuses. I’m all for high school students being on a college campus, but why not for summer enrichment, summer reading programs with experts or even college mentors and role models who can inspire and direct students?
  3. Community colleges can barely keep up with the demand of returning students and displaced workers.  Now we are setting up a structure to engorge that system even further with high school students?
  4. Why can’t we make high school more effective?  Why can’t we have more reading requirements, more activities that students join to build their professional skills, more ways to make high school a time where students prepare for the rigor and complexities of college, career and life?

Are we overemphasizing analytical and academic skills at the expense of the “soft” skills and experiences that students actually need 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?  If so, what is the short and long term cost?    Marching students through all of these courses does little to address the issues that they really struggle with on a personal level which, unadrressed,  absolutely stands in the way of their academic, personal, and professional success.

More than a decade ago, I went to the NADE 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 we were doing our best to help these students who were beginning behind the eight ball, when really we should have been helping them since middle school. 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 each of these basic areas compared with other developed nations.  For this reason, I started LifeBound to focus on how 5th-12th graders could develop academically, emotionally, and socially to develop not only learning skills, but professional skills employers want but many students lack.

We’ve still got a lot of work to do to tackle what it means to be prepared, educated, and workforce worthy.  I look forward to joining my colleagues this week from around the country and from the policy seats within Colorado to not only continue the conversation, but commit 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 thinking skills to carefully weigh the pros and cons of the various options on the table.


1Complete College “America. Remediation: Higher Education’s Bridge to Nowhere.” April 2012: 3. PDF. <>.
2“Experts: Remedial College Classes Need Fixing.” The Associated Press. <>
3“All Student Dimension.” University of Northern Iowa. <>
4 The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. <>
5“More High Schoolers Taking College Courses.” Colorado Public Radio. <|More_High_Schoolers_Taking_College_Classes>
6“Annual Report on Concurrent Enrollment: 2011-2012 School Year.” Colorado Department of Higher Education.

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