Reforming Developmental Education Reforms

Author: Maxine Roberts

This blog post was originally published on the Center for the Analysis of Postsecondary Readiness website. 

Marcus, an African American college student who successfully completed developmental math classes, shared with me in an interview a compelling recommendation for instructors who want to ensure students pass their courses and have positive classroom experiences: “Instructors should show they care. If students see that, it’s gonna encourage them to do better.”

Marcus’s comment rings true, and it is important for two reasons:

  • Current reforms that address developmental education often focus on structural changes, not engagement with students.
  • Research shows that faculty who use classroom engagement practices starting in the first year of study support learner success.

These reasons prompted me to reimagine how we can reform developmental education reforms. One way that we can do this is by incorporating engagements, such as validation practices, into developmental education reform efforts.


What Is Missing When We Focus Solely on Structural Reforms

The reforms most often deemed effective in developmental education are those that replace traditional structures with new ones — such as replacing assessment tests with a multiple measures placement system or replacing prerequisite remedial-level math, reading and writing courses with accelerated course models. While these structural changes have value, they are often the only ones included in reform efforts, and unfortunately, their implementation results in college-level course access and pass rates that still differ by race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status. In part, this is because these reforms, designed to address the needs of “all students,” miss the important task of attending to barriers that impede the success of students who are Black and Brown, and those with low incomes. Tackling this issue requires that reforms address these learners, including their specific needs, goals and aspirations. One intriguing remedy — albeit in its nascent stages — involves combining structural changes, such as corequisite courses with practices that address engagement between students and their instructors.


Academic and Interpersonal Validation for Black and Brown Students and Students with Low Incomes

Demonstrations of care are integral to the success of Black and Brown students and students with low incomes; they also go beyond “nice” gestures that leave instructors, advisors and administrators feeling good about themselves. Rather, using explicit and ongoing validation practices instead of “one and done” engagements has been proven to support students’ academic and social development, especially for students who are racially minoritized and those with low incomes. Scholars suggest that college faculty and staff should start using validation practices in students’ first year of study and use them with those enrolled in developmental education courses. Validation practices may be especially valuable in reform-focused classrooms. These practices include:

  1. Encouraging students to self-reflect about earlier moments of invalidation in math, reading or writing courses: Provide opportunities for students to reflect and challenge their experiences with academic invalidation, and confront educational inequities and deficit narratives about the intelligence of racially minoritized students. For example: Use in-class or homework journal writing assignments about prior invalidating experiences, offering students opportunities to share their stories with the instructor and with classmates in small groups.
  2.  Learning about students’ educational aspirations and providing opportunities to help them improve their academic confidence: Validate students’ goals, challenge them with the expectations that they will succeed, and provide constructive feedback to improve their writing and math skills. For example: Offer students opportunities to demonstrate knowledge by designating dates at the start of the school year when they will present course concepts they have mastered. Prior to the assigned date, meet with them to help refine the presentation and ensure they are prepared for the discussion.
  3. Acknowledging students’ social identities/positionalities as a source of strength: Allow students to explore and reflect on their own resiliency and determination in their lives and in academic settings. For example: Using the concept of community cultural wealth, create opportunities for students to identify strengths they bring to the classroom and how they use their identities to navigate academic and societal challenges.
  4. Implementing a culturally relevant and social justice-focused curriculum: Develop a curriculum that includes historical materials and culturally relevant examples. Use instructional practices that align with a social justice lens and avoid deficit framing. For example: A lesson on percentages can address the average differences between mortgage rates that Black and Latinx homeowners pay compared to white and Asian homeowners. In addition to teaching math, this lesson expands students’ knowledge of historical and contemporary issues of racial and social injustice.


What About Scaling?

Often, when I suggest incorporating validation practices into developmental education reforms, someone says, “That’s great, but that can’t be scaled.” I suggest we reevaluate which efforts we focus on scaling and where we put our resources. Current developmental education reforms prioritize the scaling of structures over investing in the faculty, advisors and administrators who engage with students and the practices they use in and out of the classroom. Higher education system leaders, philanthropists and policymakers would benefit from broadening their focus to include the scaling of training for instructors and advisors in relational engagement, the validation of the students they encounter, and associated teaching and advising practices. This expansion would incorporate effective practices into the collection of developmental education reforms and address outcome differences between racial/ethnic and socioeconomic groups in ways not achieved to date using structural changes alone.