Bringing Developmental Education to Scale
Lessons from the Developmental Education Initiative
While over half of all community college students are judged to need developmental (or remedial) reading, composition, and/or mathematics classes, these courses — which students are often required to complete before they can enroll in courses that confer credit toward a degree — typically present major roadblocks to student progress. To address this issue, the Developmental Education Initiative (DEI) was created in 2009. Fifteen highly diverse community colleges that had been early participants in Achieving the Dream, a national community college reform network, each received a three-year grant of $743,000 to scale up existing interventions or establish new ones that would help students progress through developmental courses more quickly and successfully. The colleges typically identified two or three “focal strategies” — most often, student support services and new instructional strategies — for achieving these goals. This second and final report from the evaluation relies on both qualitative and quantitative data to examine the implementation of these focal strategies.
The report finds that, across the colleges, the percentage of incoming developmental students participating in at least one focal strategy more than doubled, rising from 18 percent in fall 2009 to 41 percent in fall 2011. Resource adequacy, communication, engagement, and a departmentwide or institutionwide commitment to a particular instructional practice all facilitated scale-up. At the same time, colleges generally expected to reach many more students with their reforms than they actually did. Factors that worked against greater scale-up sometimes reflected competing values and goals: institutional reluctance to impose mandates about how students should learn and instructors teach, students’ own wishes and priorities, a perceived need to scale back when strategies appeared to be ineffective, and a desire to evaluate the strategies’ apparent effectiveness before moving forward.
A rigorous impact study was not part of the evaluation. Instead, outcomes for focal strategy participants were compared with outcomes for nonparticipants, and outcomes for pre-DEI cohorts of students were compared with outcomes for students who enrolled after the DEI began. While the results cannot be regarded as conclusive, the two different analytic approaches yield similar findings: Most often, there was no statistically significant difference between the two groups being compared. When there was such a difference, students were much more likely to benefit from the DEI strategies than to be harmed by them.
The DEI’s influence on participating colleges extends beyond the focal strategies. The colleges used DEI monies to support policy changes and other programmatic reforms as well as to fund both off-site conference attendance and on-campus professional development on a broad range of topics related to developmental education. The DEI stimulated wider discussions about student success and campus priorities, and some DEI innovations will carry over into future initiatives.