Strong Developmental Education Is Critical to Students and Society

By Peter Adams

Students sit at desks in class

A few years ago, I was teaching a traditional developmental writing class of 20 students at Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC). Two of my students were suffering from PTSD, one had epileptic seizures several times during the semester, and one had a brother who was killed just a month into the semester. Sixteen were working at least 30 hours a week. Four had graduated from high school without ever having read a complete book or written an essay. One was living in his car. Three had trouble applying for financial aid because their parents wouldn’t provide the tax return required to apply. Their parents didn’t want them to go to college; they thought their children should go to work to support the family.

For these students, my class was part of their only hope for escaping poverty, of achieving a middle-class life. If they didn’t pass my class, they couldn’t take English 101, and if they didn’t pass English 101, they couldn’t graduate from college. Developmental writing was, or at least should have been, a life changer. I felt a tremendous responsibility to do all I could for my students, but too often my efforts were not enough. In a typical semester, half dropped out by Thanksgiving. Two thirds never passed English 101.

In 2009, the Community College Research Center found similar results in an analysis of student progression at colleges participating in Achieving the Dream. Of students in this study, 79 percent enrolled in a developmental math course and 67 percent enrolled in a developmental reading course. Only 20 percent of the math students and 37 percent of the reading students passed the credit-level course for which they were being “developed.”

Discovering that the low success rates we were experiencing at CCBC were typical was little comfort. While my efforts affected just 20 students, these low national success rates meant that hundreds of thousands of students—disproportionately those from low-income backgrounds—were not succeeding in college, which often means not achieving any college degree and accumulating heavy student debt.

Our lack of success with developmental education is disastrous for the students involved. It’s also extremely damaging to the well-being of our society. Instead of helping to close income and wealth gaps, higher education is widening them.

Unfortunately, developmental education is not a top priority in higher education. Many universities no longer offer it, instead directing students who need it to community colleges. Graduate programs in English seldom include courses in how to teach developmental writing. Several of the major accrediting agencies have ruled that the only credential required to teach developmental courses is a bachelor’s degree. And in many English departments at community colleges, full-time faculty only teach higher level courses. As a result, the most at-risk students are being taught by the most marginalized faculty at the most underfunded institutions.

Higher education needs to recognize how critical it is that our developmental programs are successful and to make developmental education one of its highest priorities. To do this, here is a list of places we could start:

  • Many colleges and even entire states have adopted, and in some cases mandated, a corequisite model of developmental education. While those doing the mandating recognize that corequisite courses can double the percentage of students who pass English 101, they have provided few resources to help faculty transition to the significantly different teaching model used in these courses.
  • Many colleges and some states have also integrated their developmental reading and writing courses. This means faculty are being asked to teach in disciplines they have no preparation in. Support for faculty development is badly needed.
  • Class size in these critical courses must be reduced. Class rosters all too often include 20 to 30 students. In corequisite courses, we recommend a class size no greater than 12.
  • Universities must offer courses to prepare their graduate students to teach developmental education courses.
  • The minimum credential to teach developmental courses should be a master’s degree—the same credential required to teach college-level courses such as first-year composition or algebra.
  • The practice of having the most experienced faculty teach upper-level courses and staffing developmental courses with part-time faculty needs to end. We should be assigning our strongest faculty to teach developmental courses.
Peter Adams ( is a professor emeritus at the Community College of Baltimore County, the author of The Hub: A Place for Reading and Writing (Macmillan Learning), and the founder of ALP (Accelerated Learning Program).