Next Generation Developmental Reform at Colleges Large and Small, Urban and Rural

By Elizabeth Ganga

Images of the five interviewees

Discussions with faculty at November’s CAPR conference made one thing perfectly clear: Now is no time to rest.

Faculty from colleges at all different stages of developmental education reform were considering what they could do next to help more students thrive. Several came from colleges that had already moved to a corequisite remediation model and begun using measures beyond placement exams to put entering students into math and English courses. Even so, they were continuing to uncover barriers to student success and looking for ways to address them.

We interviewed several faculty at the conference to get a snapshot of the reform picture at their colleges.

Refining Math Reforms at Cuyamaca College

Cuyamaca College in El Cajon, California has nearly eliminated standalone developmental education courses, said Tammi Marshall, a faculty member and math department chairwoman. In the last four years, Cuyamaca has added corequisite courses and adopted multiple measures placement. Any student can now take transfer-level statistics or quantitative reasoning with corequisite support.

“If we kept the courses, students were going to put themselves in those courses,” Marshall said. “So by eliminating them we’re essentially telling the students, ‘You can do this work. You can be successful.’”

Faculty and administrators’ attitude in undertaking these reforms, Marshall said, was that they don’t know how to design a perfect developmental education program, but they know it’s going to be better than the college’s traditional approach.

Their latest improvement is in the approach to math placement. The college still offers intermediate algebra as a prerequisite for STEM students who didn’t complete algebra II in high school, but some students who didn’t need the course were enrolling in it. Now, Marshall said, advisors take a guided-pathways approach: They find out what program students plan to pursue and recommend an appropriate math course.

“I think a huge part to our success is we really believe—I mean, I believe with my whole heart, my whole body, my whole soul—that every student who stands in front of me can be successful,” she said.

Leading the Region at Butler Community College

Butler Community College in El Dorado, Kansas scaled up corequisite English in fall 2016. Then in 2018, the college implemented multiple measures placement. Butler’s corequisite English program is in the improvement stage, said Kathy McCoskey, an English professor and lead faculty member for developmental English.

While all students can take corequisite English, Butler still offers a few sections of the standalone Fundamentals of English course for students who need to take a light courseload. McCoskey said they’re still trying to figure out the best solution for those students. McCoskey is also thinking hard about how to build students’ belief in their ability to succeed in English.

“The hardest nut to crack, I think, is motivation,” she said. “What is it that we can do to help people? And maybe it’s a confidence or trust level.”

Though Butler is still refining its approach to supporting students, the college has taken a leadership role in its region by hosting an annual conference for college personnel from surrounding states. The Great Plains Conference on Acceleration is one way the college is working to spread the latest ideas on developmental reform.

Changing Mindsets About Students

Motivation, confidence, and stereotype threat are concerns for Anisha Clarke, a math lecturer at Queens College, a four-year college in the City University of New York. Clarke teaches algebra, precalculus, and sometimes calculus to students embarking on a STEM pathway and works in the college’s SEEK program, which provides academic and financial support for its students. She has also dedicated herself to mentoring students who want to be math majors but have, for various reasons, landed in developmental math courses.

“I had a student, maybe about six years ago, who I thought would be the best math major ever,” Clarke said. “And then I saw her at graduation, and she said she’s an accounting major. And I said, ‘what happened?’ and she said, ‘I just didn’t think I could do it.’ So that made me very sad.”

While some of her students may have been misplaced into algebra, others have a keen interest in math but nonetheless ended up in developmental math. Some have lost motivation after having to repeat algebra or gotten the message that math isn’t for them. Financial struggles, homelessness, or family issues, are just a few issues that could also be getting in the way.

To counter these obstacles, faculty need to get the message that everyone is entitled to equitable access to education, Clarke said. And rather taking a color-blind approach, educators should be race-conscious and cognizant of who their students are as people, and the struggles that they encounter because of who they are.

“It changes what your practices look like when you start thinking about your classroom as a space where people are not just math robots, right?” Clarke said. “They’re people who have real lives.”

Serving Rural Students at Bluefield State College

Vincent Mateescu, an assistant professor of mathematics, teaches all the developmental math courses at his small historically Black college in West Virginia. Bluefield State College draws from a large, rural area in the southern part of the state and offers associate and bachelor’s degrees. His students face some of the same issues as Clarke’s in Queens, including financial and family concerns. Added to those are the struggles of living in a rural area.

“If they’re traveling from McDowell County, they live an hour away by car, and it’s just a two-lane highway to travel to campus,” Mateescu said. “We are one of the closest schools, if not the closest.”

Bluefield offers corequisite lab support courses for both college algebra and math for liberal arts majors. Students placed in corequisite support also take a college skills course. And, guided by Complete College America, the college is working on creating meta-majors—clusters of connected majors—to help students narrow their program choices, pick the right courses, and shorten the time to graduation.

To support its rural student body, Bluefield is also developing more online courses so that students who can’t drive an hour to campus can have better access to education, Mateescu said.

Creating New Models for Developmental Reading

Florida State College at Jacksonville (FSCJ) had already compressed its developmental English and reading courses when the state legislature passed Senate Bill 1720 in 2013. But the law—which exempted many students from placement tests and mandated that colleges reform their developmental courses—spurred additional efforts at FSCJ to improve success rates in developmental courses.

The college further compressed developmental reading into seven-week courses and created a 12-week, five-credit course that combined two levels of developmental reading.

As FSCJ got further into its reforms, the administration asked Betsy Stoutmorrill, a developmental reading professor, to investigate how other Florida colleges were responding to SB1720. Now, she is exploring how FSCJ can implement multiple measures placement and bring corequisite developmental courses to its campuses. As a reading professor, she is thinking hard about how the corequisite approach could be applied to reading courses. After all, there are no college-level reading courses for the developmental course to mirror so they need to figure out another way to design the supports.

“I don’t think reading is going away,” Stoutmorrill said. “I think it is changing.”

Elizabeth Ganga is the communications manager at CCRC.