In recent years, developmental education has been the focus of much research and scrutiny, especially given the Obama administration's mandate that community colleges graduate five million more students by 2020 and the number of students who need remedial courses before they can tackle the course work required for a degree.
On Thursday, the challenge of how to improve developmental education was the focus of a large gathering of scholars here where they shared the latest research on remedial education as part of the National Center for Postsecondary Research Conference at Columbia University.
Martha J. Kanter, the U.S. under secretary of education and the conference's keynote speaker, demonstrated the urgency of the problem by laying out a string of grim college-pipeline statistics. Fourth-grade reading scores, which have been linked to future educational success, have been stagnant for the last 40 years, she said, and only 75 percent of high-school students earn a diploma. In some parts of the country, the proportion of high-school students who graduate is closer to 50 percent, she said.
In addition, there are currently 93 million low-skilled adults in the United States. That's 45 percent of the nation's adult population Ms. Kanter said. Education research has an important role to play in improving that situation, she said.
"You are the brain trust," she said to the gathered scholars. "You are the people who can say, 'We are not going to do this to the next generation.'"
With the increasing squeeze on state budgets, the cost of remedial education is becoming a political issue. Some states, such as Connecticut and Tennessee, have passed laws eliminating or restricting remedial courses at public colleges.
Rather than abolish remedial education, Ms. Kanter implored the scholars to continue their work to reform and improve it.
She also said it was important for education researchers to showcase their work more broadly in the postsecondary arena. "Historically, that has been lacking," she said. "We need a lot of people to become spokespersons for what is happening in developmental education and why it matters."
Improving remedial education is crucial, given the varying background of students who attend community colleges. Ms. Kanter said there is a disconnect in higher education because "we have such a tremendous amount of variation on the input side, but we want consistency on the output side."
"It's a huge problem in this country," she said. That is why we need "your best ideas on how we can construct a continuous improvement model" that meets students where they are, but also helps them move along the college path.
"That is the challenge before us," she said.
And it may be more daunting than she and others realize. Research discussed at the conference found that remedial intervention models, such as learning communities and summer bridge programs, have only a minimal effect on student outcomes.
One bright spot in the research is the acceleration model, which includes fast-track courses, modularized instruction, and mainstreaming students into college-level classes with additional support. The research shows more students passing their courses and also bumps in college credits, transfer and graduation numbers.
The topsy-turvy nature of the research results on various models shows how much more work needs to be done on how to improve remedial education. There is no one right model because when one works at one community college it may not work at another.
But one thing is certain, she said: The change "won't happen in Washington, but it can happen on your campuses."