Monday, March 18, 2013

Let's Talk about Developmental College Classes

Last week, I published a survey asking for feedback on the public view of remedial/developmental education at the college level. I got a lot of excellent responses (thank you all for your feedback!) and want to spend a little time sorting through them.

Obviously, I have some personal motivation behind doing such a survey. I teach developmental writing classes. When I first started graduate school, I knew that I wanted to work with adults, but the more involved I got in education, the more drawn I was to developmental education. I am (mock me if you must) a true, perhaps hopelessly naive, believer in education as a driving force for equality, and I believe that every person deserves the opportunity to seek an education. As much as I have appreciated and personally grown within institutions with cut-off scores and minimum GPA standards, I knew that my personal teaching philosophy was taking me toward open admissions. I believe everyone should have the opportunity to learn, and I wanted to be in a place that put that belief into action.

After working in a series of positions that were designed to help underprepared students get ready for undergraduate classes, I am now working full-time as a community college English instructor teaching developmental writing. This means that students whose test scores indicate they are not ready for college-level composition have to take one or two (depending on the score) classes before they can take a class that gets them college credit. There are similar classes for reading and math. Most students who test into one developmental course also test into others in different subjects. There are a lot of students whose first year or two are devoted solely to these "catch-up" classes.

Notebook Rings (for June 1, 2010) [75/365]

I love my job. 

There's no "but" or qualifier to the end of that. I truly love it. I love seeing students grow as writers and become more confident in their abilities. I love the way that they surprise and inform me. I love the stories they write and the perspectives they bring to the table during class discussion. I love that every single day is new and interesting and that my work feels rewarding and tangible. I feel blessed to have this opportunity, and I look forward to doing it for quite some time. 

What I didn't realize as I got into this career, though, was the way that developmental (also called "remedial") education is viewed by the public. I have had many people assume that I am using this job as a "stepping stone" to work in a "real" college (seriously, they use those words). I have been told that I'm doing "God's work" as if I am stepping into a war zone every day. I have had people (even some within the field) tell me that I will get burnt out, and I hear them and listen because there are some emotional challenges to doing this work that take a real toll. More than anything, though, I've heard and read and seen people write these students off. The statistics for success from this group are grim, especially when viewed through the most common lens: number of students who graduate. If you read about developmental education in the news, it is usually linked to the word "crisis."

Some Facts

To make sure we're all starting on the same page, I'd like to kick us off with some facts about developmental education. 
  • For the 2007-2008 academic year, 20% of first-year college students took developmental courses. These numbers vary dramatically by race (19.9% of white students, 30.2% of African American students, 29% of Hispanic students, 22.5% of Pacific Islander students, and 27.5% of students of two or more races). (Source: National Journal)
  • More than a third (37%) of first- and second-year college students took developmental courses in 2008, including 47.3% of African American students, 45.1% of Hispanics, and 43.9% of Native Americans. (Source: National Journal)
  • Many states restrict admission and funding for students needing developmental education. Some states do not allow students testing as needing even one remedial course to enroll in state four-year schools. Other states are phasing out these courses or considering proposals to charge the public high school systems for every student who needs remedial coursework. (Sources: Times-Picayune, The Review of Higher Education)
  • One state considering charging high schools for under-prepreared students is Florida, where the cost of developmental education is on the rise and 54% of students are testing as unprepared by the state's college placement exam. (Source: State Impact)
  • Fewer than 50% of students who test into these courses finish developmental coursework. Fewer than 25% of them go on to complete a certificate or degree within eight years. (Source: NCSL)

Survey Overview

  • Responses: 35 people responded after I sent it out on this blog, over my personal and blog Facebook pages, and my blog Twitter account. 
  • The split was almost 50-50 between people who had experience with developmental education as a student, teacher, or administrator (18) and those who had not (17). 
  • On a scale of 1 (negative) to 10 (positive), the average view of developmental education was a 6.46 with little difference between those who had experience (6.78) and those who did not (6.12). 
  • The majority of respondents (27, 77%) think that students testing into developmental-level education should receive the help they need to succeed. Four respondents (11%) believe remediation should take place before a student enrolls in college. Four respondents (11%)  believe that too many students are currently labeled as "remedial." 

How Do We View the Students?

  • Twenty-nine respondents (83%) view the students as poorly prepared by previous education. 
  • Just under half (46%) of respondents view the students as hard working, and that number is steady between those who have experience with developmental education and those who do not. 
  • Half of those who have had experience with developmental education said they viewed the students as brave. Only 35% of those without experience saw them as brave. 
  • None of the respondents believes that these students should not be in college

How Do We View the Teachers?

  • 77% of respondents (27) believe that developmental education teachers have a difficult job
  • 69% of respondents (24) believe that developmental education teachers provide an important educational service
  • None of the respondents believe that developmental education teachers have an easy job
  • 66% of respondents (23) believe that developmental education teachers are dedicated to student success
  • 20% of respondents (7) believe that these teachers will get burnt out
  • 20% of respondents (7) believe that these teachers have a rewarding job
  • 17% of respondents (6) believe these teachers are using the job as a step toward a better position. 

My favorite part of the survey responses has been reading the written portions where people were able to share their experiences and views. This week, I'll be using a combination of my own experiences, outside research, and these responses to do some further reflection on these topics. I'm particularly interested in looking at the following:
  • How do we place blame in developmental education, and should we be placing blame at all?
  • What's the risk of framing teaching developmental education as "difficult"? (Hint: I'll probably repeat a lot of the themes from this post about why motherhood shouldn't be called the hardest job in the world).
  • Who decides what a successful student looks like? 
Thank you so much for your responses to the survey, and I hope you'll leave some comments on this and the posts that are coming up this week! 

Photo: Brenderous


  1. Wonderful article. I taught Developmental English/Writing for the best ten years of my life. Some look down on #DevEd teachers as well as the students. Once upon a time, a critic claimed that my whole course was "Find the subject and verb." Therefore, I gave her a copy of my article published at Connexions of Rice University, "Applying Psychological Type Theory to Writing."

  2. I find this discussion really interesting, especially because these issues are not ones I've really seen anyone address.

    I find it really encouraging that so many people do think these students have a right to be in college, and that they all are aware that developmental ed teachers have a challenging job.

    It's sad that so many don't see it as a rewarding job. I can't remember how I answered that on the survey, but I know it's a job I think of as being unrewarding mostly in the way that society doesn't give the position as much respect as that of other teachers. If a person is always being told that their job isn't important or useful or is somehow lesser than jobs of the same type, well... I think that can ruin a lot of people's enjoyment/fulfillment in their job.

  3. Absolutely. I also think that it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle. If people don't see the job as rewarding, they continue to see the people doing it as less fulfilled, which in turn makes the public perception worse, making the job less rewarding.

  4. Can you give us a list of developmental courses for first year students. Thank you for sharing this to us. I hope I can read more information in about developmental courses for freshman. Thank you very much.

  5. Hi. Thanks for your post. I found it while searching for info. on teaching Developmental English. I am winding down my doctoral studies in English Education, and was quite discouraged by the current state of U.S. Education until I came upon a job posting for the Prison University Project. Although I did not get that job, it lit a fire in my belly, reminded me of why I began this journey. This lead me to realize that work in Developmental English would provide me with the opportunity to work with a similar population: people who wish to advance their human potential, but whom have not been blessed with the privilege of middle class connections. I am determined to find work in this arena, and for the very reason I hear you promote: Education is Social Justice. Thanks for confirming my instincts about the path ahead.

  6. Hi, and thanks for reading!

    I definitely think that teaching developmental courses pushes the social justice aspect of education to the forefront. And there are definitely moments where I feel more like a social worker than an English teacher (and I've started keeping numbers for social services on hand in my office). The thing that's struck me the most the longer I've been teaching in this field, though, is how truly complex and sophisticated my students' rhetorical practices are and how most of my job is teaching them to channel that into ways that get recognized by mainstream cultural norms.

    I still love this job, and it challenges and inspires me every day. I hope it does the same for you!