Category Archives: Developmental Education

Heading Home to Winthrop

This January, I’ll be headed back to my alma mater, Winthrop University to present at their annual Teaching & Learning Conference. My presentation is entitled “Creating a More Successful Maiden Voyage: Increasing First-Year Success for Under-resourced Students.”


The first-year of college is much like the maiden voyage of the Titanic. It’s exciting—new and different—a one-of-a-kind opportunity, full of promise. It’s also a little scary. And, sadly, for many students it can end in disaster. The odds of survival for first-time college students in many ways mirrors the experience of passengers on the Titanic:  62% of the first class passengers survived; 43% of 2nd class passengers made it; and only 25% of 3rd class passengers ever saw dry land again.[1] Much like the Titanic’s passengers, students from less advantaged backgrounds are at a greater risk of “sinking” in the sometimes rough waters they experience on their maiden voyage into post-secondary education. Today we see more and more underprepared and under-resourced students in our classrooms.  They lack not just the academic background to thrive but also the financial, personal, and support system resources that make all the difference in student success.  This session focuses on what we can do to help improve our under-resourced students’ odds of survival.


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Filed under Community College, Developmental Education, Higher Ed, My Life, Teaching & Learning

The Plight of the Adjuncts: Office Space (Part 1)

Stop! Have you read my Disclaimer?

Nationwide, contingent faculty (aka adjuncts)  teach 58 percent of community college courses, according to a new report from the Center for Community College Student Engagement. Part-time faculty teach more than half (53 percent) of students at two-year institutions. 75% of developmental education students (those most likely to struggle academically) are taught by adjunct faculty. In one division of our college nearly 70% of classes are taught by adjunct faculty.  In some areas, adjunct faculty are actually serving as program coordinators–bearing nearly all the responsibility for running their respective programs–something for which they are not compensated any more than other adjunct faculty.

Although they teach the majority of our classes and the majority of our students depend on their instruction, adjunct faculty are often treated as second-class (if not third-class) citizens in the institutions of higher education in which they toil away every day.

In the way they now employ (rely on) adjunct instructors at low wages with no benefits in part-time, temporary positions with no job security, higher education institutions are much like Wal-Mart.  Noam Chomsky makes this comparison, explaining, “It’s a part of a corporate business model designed to reduce labor costs and to increase labor servility.” In short, it’s just one more part of the “corporatization” of the community college (and, no doubt, even our 4-year sister institutions).

I’m not really “business-minded,” so you’ll have to forgive me here: I think that if the majority of our students are being taught by adjunct faculty–faculty who are, in some cases, teaching more classes and even teaching better than full-time faculty–we ought to be providing them with the respect, the compensation, and the support to help them help our students succeed. (As it turns out, deep down somewhere, I still have a little idealism that bubbles up from some unknown place.)

If only.

In reality, although we (collective–not a specific we) know that supporting our adjunct faculty would only increase student success, we continually ignore them in favor of other endeavors to increase student success, retention, persistence (or whatever the word of the day is).

This post is, I hope, one in a series that will become a part of the ongoing dialogue about the role (and the plight) of adjunct faculty in institutions of higher education.  As a Department Head, I rely heavily on adjunct faculty. I also have some of the best adjunct faculty ever. I have dedicated instructors who give their all even when we give them next-to-nothing. I do the best I can by them, but there is only so much I can do.

One thing I can do is lend my voice to their cause–help shed light on the world in which they live–the obstacles they face–the good, hard work they do every day and the impact it has on our students.

So this is part 1: Office Space.

One of the ways in which adjuncts are relegated to second or third-class citizenship is through office space–or, more accurately, the lack thereof.

In preparation for this post, I asked adjuncts via Twitter to send me photos of their “offices” to help illustrate my point.  One adjunct responded, “ I have a pic, but it’s not of an office, because I don’t have an office.” Instead he sent me this picture, which really captures the experience of a large number of adjunct faculty, who work “on the go:”

One adjunct’s “office” picture

This is an example of an adjunct “office” on my own campus. It’s a cart with wheels, filled with student work, files, and even supplies like a stapler, index cards, scissors, and writing utensils. The adjunct rolls it (up a giant hill, over steps) up to the building from his/her car and into the building…and across campus…and from classroom to classroom; then, back to the car and home:




Even when adjuncts are afforded physical office space on campus, it’s seriously inadequate. They don’t have doors that lock, which means they cannot leave anything of consequence when they leave for the day. All books, tests, essays, gradebooks must travel with them. They squeeze into spaces the size of closets; they share that space with 5, 10, 20 of their colleagues. Meeting privately with students to discuss grades, provide one-on-one tutoring, or advising is a joke. They may get one computer to share. Yet, we stress to them how important using technology today is. They better just have their own personal devices to use to do it. They may get some filing cabinets to store things–as long as those things are not confidential–because nothing confidential can be left unlocked–and adjuncts don’t usually get keys–to doors or cabinets.

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And because these physical space limitations exists, many adjuncts work from their homes, their cars, or on the go:

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Recently, I read this article in which an adjunct faculty member explains how she is both employed by a university and simultaneously homeless.

My Twitter request for pictures yielded this picture:

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Tweeting back to this adjunct yielded this response: “I was sleeping on kind friends’ air mattresses/sofas/spare mattresses/beanbags the night before – good times.”

Glamorous, no? What you think when you think “professor?” Right. But this is the reality for the professors who teach well over half of our classes–well over half of our students.

So think about this: we know that engaging one-on-one with faculty is one of the keys to success. But for over half of our students, engaging one-on-one with faculty (adjuncts) can be next to impossible; after all, they’ve got nowhere to engage with them.


Filed under Community College, Developmental Education, Higher Ed

Florida’s new law & student success

Florida’s new legislation lets students self-select in or out of developmental-level classes.  At Miami-Dade, 60% of students who placed into developmental-level courses elected to enroll in college-level classes.

This creates a predicament for instructors.  As one notes, “A lot of discussion among English faculty is how to keep standards high…Students ask me what a paragraph is now. What’s next? Maybe, what’s a sentence?” Writing paragraphs is not college-level work, but what happens if students aren’t required to take needed developmental coursework while we are simultaneously being pushed to increase completion rates?

It’s a little hard to see how standards could remain the same…

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Reading in SC–Reform?

So this is another one of those educational endeavors created and lauded by non-teachers that will undoubtedly be passed into law and forced upon educators who (and I know this comes as a shock!) might actually have a better idea.

Look–I get it. We need to do a better job with education in this state. And yes (yes, yes yes!) reading is fundamentally important. Should students know how to read by 3rd grade? Ideally. Teachers know that, y’all. For crying out loud, they spend 8 hours a day with these kids. They know who can read and who can’t…and they probably know why better than you–or a bunch of politicians.

What’s particularly maddening about this particular case is that Greenville County already recognized the reading problem and developed a program for fixing it. And their program is outperforming everyone in the state. What they are doing is working. They’ve got research to prove it. But the State would rather have them throw all that good work out the window to adopt some new system that they’ve chosen (a new system that likely requires teachers to fork out an estimated $4800 each to be retrained  while creating a new office within the Department of Education to give oversight to the whole thing–yay! More government!). Further, this system is reactive (if you can’t read by 3rd grade, we’ll keep you back a year and make you do summer school too), whereas the interventions Greenville County has seen success with are proactive and help students before there’s that serious a problem.

It just doesn’t make sense. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, if you’re going to change education, talk to the teachers–ask them what works and what doesn’t–what are they doing and what aren’t they doing–what resources do they need to get their students where they need to be. Ask them. Because they actually know more than you (evidently) give them credit for. And how about let’s stop scrapping programs that work just to say we’re doing something different. If it works, don’t just throw it out.

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Filed under Developmental Education, Ripped from the Headlines

Accepted: My Presentation for the SC Assoc. for Dev. Ed.

My proposal was accepted, and I am officially on the schedule for the 2013 Conference of the South Carolina Association for SCADEDevelopmental Education (SCADE). The theme of the conference is “Reaching for the Stars: Achieving New Heights in Developmental Education.” The focus is, of course, on community college students, and on helping students in transition succeed. If it goes well, I intend to submit a similar presentation to the National Association 2015 Conference. This is the summary and abstract of the presentation:

Title: Creating a More Successful Maiden Voyage: Applying Principles of Student Success to Developmental Classes


Only about 32% of the Titanic’s passengers reached their destination. Community college students don’t fare much better on their maiden voyages: only about 33% of beginning full-time community college students obtain an Associate’s Degree. This session focuses on what we can do to help improve our students’ odds of survival.


If we want to help students “reach for the stars” and “achieve new heights,” we have to help them navigate the voyage there. At 2-year colleges, only 54.1% of students persist from the first year to 2nd, and the drop-out rate at public 2-year colleges is 47.7%. Only 1/3 of beginning full-time community college students obtain an Associate’s Degree; only 39% seeking a bachelor’s degree actually transfer to a 4-year college, and only 8% actually obtain the BA or BS within 5 years. As developmental educators, we know that our students are particularly at-risk of “sinking” in the sometimes rough waters they experience on their maiden voyage into post-secondary education. We can help increase their likelihood of success by encouraging them to embrace the four most powerful research-based principles of college success:
1. Active involvement

2. Use of campus resources

3. Interpersonal interaction and collaboration

4. Personal reflection and self-awareness

At the conclusion of this presentation, participants will be able to identify the four most powerful research-based principles of college success; will understand the importance of purposefully creating activities and assignments to encourage students to embrace those principles; and will have specific examples that illustrate how to create such activities/assignments.


Filed under Developmental Education, Higher Ed, Uncategorized

Completing But Failing

Remember last week when I wrote about students’ lack of critical thinking skills and then again about their struggles to think creatively? Remember how I argued we need to make sure that at the college level we are encouraging both critical and creative thinking?

Well, as it turns out, I’m not alone: This article by Jeff Selingo of The Chronicle of Higher Education argues that “…colleges—and in turn their graduates—have shortchanged the valuable skills that employers seek: communication (writing and oral), creativity, adaptability, and critical thinking.”

Shame on us.


And it’s not just us educators saying this; it’s the employers hiring our graduates. According to a recent survey of the Society for Human Resource Management, “forty-nine percent of human resource officials polled by the professional organization said this year’s college graduates lack basic English skills in grammar and spelling” [emphasis mine]. They also identify poor basic math/computational skills and poor reading comprehension as areas in which recent graduates leave a lot to be desired.

So students are coming into college underprepared and they’re leaving underprepared. They are failing to acquire the foundational skills needed to succeed. Meanwhile, across the country, people (I’m looking at you Bill & Melinda Gates!) continue advocating for the reduction or elimination (rather than just the reform) of developmental education programs that seek to help underprepared students prepare, prepared students advance, and advanced students excel in those foundational skill areas.

This makes perfect sense to me. How about you?

Further, I have to wonder what effect the Community College Completion Agenda is having on our ability to provide students with these important life skills. After all, we all know what happens when the focus becomes quantity, right? And many states have already started tying college funds to graduation rates–and the rest are either already in the process of doing so or seriously considering it. Yet, we need only look to the K-12 system to see how well tying funding directly to graduation rates works. Heck, we need only look at the waves of underprepared students entering our colleges post-high school graduation to see how well that has worked.

So…following in that system’s footsteps also makes perfect sense. Right? Wrong.

At the college-level, we must take care not to rely too heavily on on-time completion as a measure of our effectiveness. After all, if our students graduate on time but cannot write, speak, or think clearly, we are failures. Sure, we may be able to boast about our high graduation rates. And we may secure appropriations tied to completion.

But make no mistake: we will have failed at achieving our mission. We cannot focus on quantity at the expense of quality. Period.

As always, I point you to my disclaimer lest you think these words reflect anyone’s opinions other than my own.

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Filed under Community College, Developmental Education, Higher Ed, My Opinion

The Smarter Move

Somebody sent me this post this morning: it explains how Florida has passed legislation making developmental education in college voluntary (where previously it was mandatory).

I worry for Florida. But more than that, I worry for us–and hope that we (South Carolina) are not heading in this direction.

Here’s (part of the reason) why:

ACT’s most recently published (2010) What Works in Student Retention (WWISR) data for community colleges rates the following as the top three practices making the greatest contribution to retention:

  1. Mandated placement of students in courses based on test courses
  2. Tutoring
  3. Remedial/developmental coursework (required).

Other research supports this, finding developmental education to be a significant predictor of retention. For example, Highbee, Arendale, and Lundell (2005) point to estimates that two million students would drop out of college every year without the benefit of developmental education.

Still other research tells us this:

  1. Passing developmental writing is a predictor of fall-to-fall retention.
  2. Passing a developmental reading class has been shown to be the greatest predictor of retention.
  3. Passing developmental mathematics courses is an indicator of both fall-to-spring and fall-to-fall retention.

When student retention and student success are our goals, it makes you wonder, doesn’t it, whether moving from mandatory to voluntary placement in developmental coursework like Florida is really in students’ best interests…or if revamping developmental education to increase its effectiveness, as we are doing, is really the smarter move.

I’m sure you can guess where I stand on the issue.

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Filed under Community College, Developmental Education, Higher Ed, My Opinion, Ripped from the Headlines

They’re Not All Ready

“What do you think the subject of a sentence is? Don’t worry about getting the answer right or wrong.  This is completely anonymous. If you can’t think of a definition or how to word it, that’s ok. Just  write down the following sentence and underline what you think the subject is: The dog eats bones. Again, don’t worry about whether your answer is right or wrong.”

This is how I started one of my developmental English classes within the last year.  I distributed index cards and gave the students similar instructions for the term “verb.”  In our lowest level developmental class, this is where we start: the simple sentence, so I wanted to get an idea of where my students were with regards to the components of a simple sentence. I collected the index cards and reviewed them after class.  Less than ½ of the students could correctly define or identify the subject or verb of a simple sentence, and some of their risk-free guesses were way off base.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while and/or you’re in higher education, you know that there is a movement to eradicate developmental coursework in colleges (I’ve written about it a few times before). The theory is that if you put a student into a college-level class, he’ll perform at college-level, regardless of placement scores.  As for placement scores, many people have been arguing they’re ineffective, shouldn’t be mandatory, and should also be eradicated.

Clearly, these people are not in our classrooms.

I teach English at all levels—from developmental to college-level composition. And I can tell you that there is no way the students in that developmental English class would ever have survived a freshman composition class. No way. At all. No matter how much tutoring or support we gave them, they would have failed. Miserably. Because you can’t write a college essay if you can’t write a sentence. Period.

The same is true of math.  At our lowest level, math begins with adding whole numbers. No, I’m not kidding.  We work our way up to fractions and ratios and multi-step problems. Do you really think that students lacking these basic skills will ever survive a college-level algebra class? Or even a Quantitative Reasoning Class? Probability and Statistics? If you think they can, you’re…well, quite possibly delusional. You can argue for more support—more tutoring—labs—supplemental instruction all day long. But the fact is this: students need instruction in basic skills to succeed.

It is easy enough to say “If we just put them in the introductory freshman classes, they’ll make it” when you haven’t taken a look at one of the short paragraphs written in a developmental English class.  It’s easy when you haven’t seen a student fail a test on 4th-grade-level math skills. It’s easy when you haven’t spent 45 minutes showing a student how to turn on a computer and open Microsoft Word to begin typing a paragraph.  It’s easy when you haven’t watched a student struggle to read a college-level textbook, stumbling over 8th-grade-level vocabulary. Easy enough when you haven’t heard a frustrated student vent in your office about how hard he’s trying but still not “getting it.” Easy enough when he’s not in your office, defeated, declaring, “I’m just not smart enough! I just can’t do it!”  It’s easy enough when you’re not the one burdened with challenging them, supporting them, encouraging them—all while trying to get them the knowledge and skills they need to succeed. Easy enough.

And so to those who argue in favor of eliminating developmental education, I say this: Come visit us—our classroom doors are open.

Come and join us—sit in on a class—and then tell me you’re ready to push these kids on through (as they’ve been pushed through their entire lives). Tell me they’re ready. But be prepared to watch them fail. Or be prepared to start lowering our academic standards. Because if you want them to succeed (and if you define that as passing grades that lead to retention), you’re going to have to. Because they’re not all ready. And that’s why developmental education exists: we get them ready.

PS: Have you read my disclaimer?

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Filed under Community College, Developmental Education, Higher Ed, My Opinion

Meeting Them Where They Are

The other day I read another article asserting community college’s have low academic standards…but pointing out that “Raising community college standards would mean failing a huge percentage of students…”.

Meanwhile, we continue to whittle away at and demolish developmental education programs designed to get community college students up to speed–because getting them up to speed takes too long.

I already wrote about this problem once in this post “Setting the Bar Too Low?“. But everybody in Higher Ed is still talking about the recent report released by the National Center on Education and the Economy, so I’m still talking about it too. And I think we all know that’s because something about it is eating at me. Don’t worry–I’ll tell you what it is.

But first, some background: In short, the report suggests the community colleges are not producing work-ready graduates because we do not provide students with the rigor to be work-ready. But that’s because high schools aren’t preparing students for college in the first place. And because community colleges are facing increasing pressure courtesy of the completion agenda, they’ve no choice but to lower academic standards–not doing so would make it impossible to meet the (possibly unrealistic) demands set forth by the completion agenda.

So here’s the thing: you can’t have it both ways.  You cannot ask community colleges to produce work-ready students and insist they reduce time spent remediating those who are under-prepared just so they can finish their education in a shorter period of time. That’s akin to asking for a miracle. We’re either going to spend the time getting them where they need to be to be work-ready OR we’re going to send under-prepared graduates into the workforce just to say we did it–and quickly!

In the article I first referenced, Marc Tucker of the NCEE is quoted: “Many 12th graders go to community college to do 8th- or 9th-grade work.”

I’m not sure if Marc Tucker knows this or not, but community colleges are open-door institutions (at least around here), meaning we take any and everyone. Well, technically, according to the State of South Carolina, we take anyone with a basic 8th grade education–we refer those without back to Adult Ed before they start their coursework with us.  We have placement testing–not admissions testing. And our placement testing determines who needs Adult Education. Anyone with at least a 37 on the COMPASS reading test can begin classes at our institution.  That score of 37 is supposed to represent an 8th grade reading level (and by default and 8th grade education). But other institutions set that number much higher.  In reality, the 37 is more likely indicative of a 4th grade reading level.  Students with scores of 1, 2, or 14 on the writing and mathematics portion of the test can enroll in our lowest level developmental courses.

So yeah–many students come to us to do 8th and 9th-grade work. But we don’t–as many of the articles about this report seem to suggest–simply lower our academic standards.  Rather, we provide them with developmental coursework to fill in the gaps in their knowledge. We offer them support services designed to help them catch up academically. If we just threw them into College Algebra or English Composition I, they’d sink like the Titanic. And they’d never have the opportunity to be work-ready, never earn a certificate, a diploma, or a degree. And so we offer them developmental coursework to bring them up to speed on the basic math, reading, and writing they need to be prepared to do college level work. Does that make their paths to completion/graduation longer? Absolutely. But we’ve been diligently working on ways to make their journeys as smooth and efficient as possible.

Look, we’re not Harvard or Princeton over here–we don’t subscribe to the “sink or swim” philosophy of Higher Education that more prestigious schools do. Our job as a community college is to meet our students where they are and get them where they need to be–for work, for college transfer, for life.  And that can’t always be done in 1 or 2 years–particularly when we’re faced with so many under-prepared students.

So how about let’s lay off the whole “community colleges lack rigor” thing. We have plenty of rigor (as I explained before). We’re not less than our 4-year counterparts. We’re just different and so are our students. Sometimes we need to do a little prep work, so our students can successfully handle that rigor. And that’s exactly why we should be supporting developmental education and making it better–not trying to make it go away. It’s the only way we’ll truly be able to reach all of our students and prepare them for the future.

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Filed under Community College, Developmental Education

The Pell Grant and the American Dream

Just the other day I wrote about how allowing students to pay more for high-demand classes is contrary to the mission of the community college (Slamming Shut the Door). Then I said, “allowing those with money to skip ahead of those without is wrong; it isn’t fair. It’s downright un-American. And it certainly isn’t what community colleges should do. It’s not who we are.”

Access to education and the opportunity for upward mobility is the American Dream. Which is why limiting access to post-secondary education based on money is wrong. So not only is the California bill I previously mentioned wrong but so is this idea proposing that Pell Grants shouldn’t be offered to students who need remediation.

Actually, this idea has so many problems I don’t even know where to begin.

Developmental (also sometimes referred to as remedial) educational has been getting a lot of flak lately. Complete College America keeps telling everybody how much it doesn’t work. Of course, their ideal solution is to axe it entirely. Any college instructor who has recently read the essay of a developmental English  student–or attempted to explain simple pre-Algebra (like converting inches to centimeters) knows that getting rid of remedial coursework is out of the question. Students are coming to us unprepared. Yes, some of those students are coming from right out of high school. And yeah, that’s unacceptable. But as the kids say now, it is what it is. Denying Pell Grants to academically under-prepared students is not going to fix all the problems with our ineffective K-12 system. And we can’t punish those students because the system–the one for which we are responsible–failed them.

And then there are all the students who are not coming straight out of high school. They are people who’ve been out of school for 5, 10, 15 years–and are back to gain employment, earn more money, get a promotion, start a new career–get their American Dream started. Sure, they have some catching up to do–but does that mean we turn them away? No. Yet, that’s exactly what denying them Pell funds would be: no money, need remediation? Tough stuff.

As an educator working in a system where student success is more and more often being measured by graduation rates, I oppose this idea because I know what the inevitable effect will be: lowering academic standards to ensure completion. And this is exactly the reason those high school graduates need remediation in the first place!

Finally, what everyone keeps calling “remediation” is so much more: developmental education is about promoting the cognitive and affective growth of students.  It’s about effectively transitioning students into the world of college. Because most of the students we see don’t just have academic weaknesses. They lack not just the knowledge but the attitudes and behaviors necessary to succeed. In developmental education, we focus on the holistic needs of students: the intellectual, social, and emotional growth and development of all learners, at all levels of the learning continuum.   And our students should not be denied that because they cannot afford the cost of that learning experience. They should have equal access to Financial Aid, equal access to education, and equal access to the opportunity for the American Dream.

Please be advised, as always, that this is just my one lonely opinion as explained in the disclaimer.


Filed under Community College, Developmental Education, Higher Ed, My Opinion, Social Problems