Uplifting Key Voices in DE Reform

By DeShawn Preston, Strong Start to Finish Advisory Board Member

Over the past decade, various approaches to developmental education reform have been tested and adopted.  Low developmental education rates sparked the initial overhaul. Colleges and policymakers sought to improve these low rates by developing policies that would increase college English and math completion. They focused their efforts on institutional policies and course structures.  Through this wave of reforms, colleges and states began adopting practices focusing on acceleration and placement. These practices aimed to support students in completing developmental education or avoid it altogether. But these efforts were not without error. 

Although many states saw improvement in placement and completion among students, many still struggled. Unfortunately, the initial developmental education reform efforts lacked an equity focus. Many Black (57%), Hispanic (58%), and low income (39%) students continued struggling to complete their gateway courses. These reforms failed to eliminate existing disparities in experiences and outcomes. The less than desirable outcomes for historically underserved populations ushered in a new phase of developmental education reform. Key stakeholders began to intentionally focus on equity to improve the outcomes of students of color taking developmental education courses. 

Some colleges and policymakers included the lived experiences of both faculty and students, especially students of color, to incorporate equity. More recently, researchers and even some states have become more intentional about including faculty and student voices in decisions concerning developmental education. This year’s Strong Start to Finish Learning Network Convening featured a panel of students who shared their lived experiences. The students also shared recommendations for how colleges and states should approach developmental education reform. 

Students have firsthand insight into the process, and their knowledge can introduce innovative ways to address the barriers in developmental education, the developmental education process and their knowledge can introduce innovative ways to address the barriers. They tend to raise personal concerns that trace back to policies and procedures, provide insight into barriers and biases that might not exist, especially as it pertains to students of color and those from low-income backgrounds. The discoveries are incredibly valuable for developing solutions that lead to positive outcomes. 

Like the students, dedicated instructors and department chairs provide a broader perspective that is more inclusive of students and the institutional perspective. Instructors are often in tune with the common areas where students struggle. They also have insight into what interventions would benefit students the most. Faculty of color are especially insightful for best resources and approaches to supporting students of color. They play a major role in helping students of color complete their developmental education courses successfully.  

Colleges and policymakers should build off current research and practices that incorporate the voices of students and faculty to strengthen their approaches to developmental education reform. They should consider consistently meeting with groups of students and instructors to learn about their experiences. They can hear recommendations to improve developmental education from these students and instructors. Additionally, an annual survey could provide the perspective of the larger student population affected by developmental education. Many colleges and states are establishing faculty and department chair committees to help shape developmental education reforms. Some colleges are beginning to have student representatives on decision-making committees. Colleges should go through process mapping exercises to understand the student experience from placement to completing gateway courses. The exercises may provide insight into where students might experience barriers and where innovation is needed. 

As developmental education reform progresses, it has become evident that multiple voices are present during the decision-making processes. What was once a reform focused primarily on policy changes has now turned into a reform that includes wrap-around services for students, encouraging a more culturally responsive pedagogy, and other practices that better support the student populations most affected by developmental education. Hopefully, as more states and colleges include the voices of faculty and students, we will see even more innovative strategies towards developmental education reform.