Every year, between $1.6-2 billion is spent on developmental education by states, institutions and students, and research has consistently shown that students who start in developmental education have a much harder time completing their degrees. We also know that, while the issues relating to developmental education have taken a spot in the forefront recently due to the fiscal crisis and improving accountability for both K-12 and postsecondary institutions, developmental education has always had a place in higher education. It will continue to be a necessary and important tool to ensuring that students are ready for college-level work and have the skills and knowledge to succeed.
Yet, clearly, reform is needed, and on a huge scale. In late June, we convened representatives from over 30 programs, research organizations, institutions and states working to improve the delivery and success of developmental education, along with five other foundations that are providing resources and leadership around the issue. The result was a series of dynamic conversations, great connections between participants that are already bearing fruit, and improved knowledge of the sheer variety of different efforts taking place to significantly improve student success in developmental and remedial coursework.
The day began with a funders panel, where each discussed their organization’s approach to developmental education work. While the mission is the same, funders are approaching developmental education reform from a variety of perspectives:• Innovation—seeking new solutions through technology, system redesign • College readiness and assessment—breaking down the silos between K-12 and postsecondary • Comprehensive pathways—restructuring the college and developmental education delivery system • Policy—financial and other incentives and using policy to encourage scaling of good ideas • Instruction—encouraging deeper, more meaningful learning experiences to develop higher order thinking skills, acceleration, and faculty professional development
Each participant also had the opportunity to deliver an “elevator speech” describing their work and some of the successes and challenges they’ve experienced. While the array of work is too broad to describe here, what became apparent very quickly was the level of passion and excitement that each participant brings to their work.
The grantees also had suggestions for how to improve the overall environment, particularly relating to the leadership of funding organizations. They emphasized that funders should invest in long-term reform efforts that are targeted, entrepreneurial and innovative, rather than “letting 1,000 flowers bloom.” Funders should be consistent in their priorities, and seek agreement and consensus among themselves, providing key leadership where and when it matters. Grantees emphasized again and again that what needs to happen to improve developmental education is fundamental change—grants should support work that addresses the core areas for reform.
To that end, both funders and grantees see faculty as a major source of both challenges and opportunities when it comes to reforming developmental education. Faculty are the biggest agents for change within postsecondary education, and can be the strongest advocates and innovators. Yet, there appear to be few incentives for faculty to focus on teaching above research and other pursuits, and there are larger macro-trends driving full-time faculty away from developmental courses, which are largely taught by contingent faculty who lack the support and availability that they need to meet students’ needs. Both groups also saw policy as a key lever, and noted that the financing model for higher education is “broken”—there is a significant lack of knowledge on the part of policymakers and the public about the value and importance of developmental education. Efforts by both practitioners and funders need to improve the way that students are placed in, go-through, and emerge from developmental education into college-level coursework while maintaining focus on the great need for it in all its forms on both 2- and 4-year campuses.