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6 states aim to reform remedial programs at community colleges
Updated 4/14/2010 1:29 PM ET
Six states that are trying to revamp remedial education are focusing as much on what happens outside of the classroom — in state policies — as inside. Among the targets for change include state funding formulas and individual course rules.

The Developmental Education Initiative, a three-year project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation for Education, recently unveiled the state policy framework and strategies that its six participating state partners plan to implement so that they can dramatically increase the number of students who complete college preparatory work and move on to complete college-level work. The six states –Connecticut, Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas and Virginia– were selected for this project because of their prior commitment to community college reform; institutions from these states were first-round participants in Achieving the Dream, a multi-year and -state initiative to improve the success of two-year college students.

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Michael Lawrence Collins, who is program director at Jobs for the Future and helped frame the policy goals of the initiative, said the time has come for states to take ownership of their role in reforming remedial education. He admitted that some state officials do not see it as their responsibility to organize and reward innovation in curricular design, preferring to leave this role to the philanthropic sector. Still, he argued that is incumbent upon states to create the conditions in their policy frameworks that can foster this type of institutional creativity.

"Most institutions are trying to innovate [their remedial programs]," Collins said. "But, here's the thing: they can't do it inside their current funding formula. We're saying, 'You've got the data metrics; give your institutions some resources. Remove the policy barriers to let them try to remediate students in different ways.' It's almost like [research and development]. That'll point us to what works and augment what is a weak evidence-based system."

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Collins said he would like to see states move remove "rigid census dates and seat-time requirements," which he argued hinder innovation in remedial coursework design. For instance, as most states fund courses for a 16-week or semester-long model, those remedial courses or methods which do not equate to this do not receive money. Collins argued that this derails "accelerated delivery" methods such as short refresher courses that only last a few sessions and cover only the specifics areas in which students are deficient, a strategy which, he noted, has achieved success in research. The reason this is important is that many studies have found that students who take a long time to reach college credit courses are likely never to do so, while the refresher approach lets new students start in right away on college-level work.

"We're not necessarily after separate funds for developmental education, but support for institutions to do things differently if it helps students," Collins said. "If it's a line item in a budget, fantastic. If it's an augmented funding formula to weigh developmental education delivery, that's also great. They can do it any way they want. We just want states to behind to change their minds about how they fund developmental education. That'll very from state to state."

Though changing funding mechanisms is the primary point of the initiative, there are a number of other "policy levers" the participants are suggesting that their state lawmakers can use to improve the delivery of developmental education. Some of the other suggestions include aligning college entrance criteria with the exit requirements of high school, redesigning curriculums to help students avoid remedial courses whenever possible and making data on student success more easily sharable and available.

Following up on the broad policy framework put forth by Jobs for the Future, education officials from the six states participating in the initiative will soon release detailed plans showing how they hope to implement reforms to developmental education. These officials have already released a set of policy priorities, hinting at major changes in their states, and took time to talk to Inside Higher Ed about their potential impact of their work.

"We think funding is the biggest barrier for our institutions to stretch their wings," said Cynthia Ferrell, developmental education consultant to the Texas Association of Community Colleges. "They way they're funded locks them into doing things they way they've always done them. This limits them being innovative and the pace of remediation when it's tied to a 16-week course. If there are non-course based services or other methods, they haven't been funded by the state."

Though Ferrell said the state would like to eventually move to an outcomes-based funding system – appropriating dollars to institutions based on how many students complete courses instead of enroll in them – she noted that the state has already adopted some separate funding mechanisms for remedial coursework at community colleges.

"The state has funded innovation grants to provide money outside of regular funding for the piloting of development course redesigns, case management systems for students and combining student services," Ferrell explained. "Also, the state is providing some funding for non-semester links [or refresher] courses."

Texas plans to support the scaling of "promising innovations and redesigns."

Back east, the Virginia Community College System is the process of redesigning its English, mathematics and reading developmental education programs. Eventually, it will "develop mechanisms and methodologies to hold colleges accountable for the success of developmental education." An annual institution tracking system is planned to be in place by July. Though the details of this accountability system remain vague for the moment, as they are still being finalized, state officials agree that the conversation surrounding remedial education has changed substantially in recent years.

"It's been a culture change for Virginia," said Gretchen Schmidt, the community college system's director of education policy. "Talking about developmental education within our Department of Education is a shift. Just like we talk about student success all the time, we're now talking about college readiness and developmental education all the time at meetings. It's not like Achieving the Dream, where some colleges are participating and some are not. When the statewide recommendations come out [for the redesign] and they're proofed by the presidents, everyone will be on board. We've really built an internal culture of evidence."

Officials in Florida are hoping to reduce the need for remediation at community colleges through "early intervention" techniques in the state's high schools. John Hughes, association vice chancellor for evaluation at the Florida Department of Education's Division of Community Colleges, noted that the state is in the process of procuring a customized college placement test that judges a student's understanding of the material outlined in the Common Core Standards Initiative, which Florida's K-12 institutions recently adopted.

Florida plans to provide "an opportunity for college placement testing and remediation while in high school." Officials believe more high school students will eventually have to take remedial courses before they graduate. Given the funding difficulties in Florida, community college officials welcome the help from their secondary school colleagues.

"It's been difficult to support developmental education in the past," said Judy Bilsky, executive vice chancellor of the department's Division of Community Colleges. "That's one of the reasons why we've been so interested, in Florida, in sharing the responsibility of college readiness with the [K-12] school districts. We're hoping to move most of developmental education to the 12th grade. … That'll free up funding to go to the next level of courses [at the community colleges]."

Even if Florida's efforts to align high school completion requirements with college entrance requirements, officials say there will still be room for remedial courses. They will just be more useful for adult students returning to education instead of traditional-age college students, Hughes said.

Posted 4/14/2010 12:59 PM ET
Updated 4/14/2010 1:29 PM ET