Effective Policies for Remedial Education. ERIC
by Yamasaki, Erika
Current discussions about postsecondary remedial education reflect differences
in the opinions of legislators, educators, and the public as to the purpose
and effectiveness of higher education. Concerned parties are asking, how
many students need remedial education? Who are they? How much does it cost?
Does it achieve its purpose? While these questions require attention, the
more pressing issue is that of responsibility. Should the burden of remediation
fall on community colleges or four-year institutions? Or should the nation's
high schools be held responsible for adequately preparing their graduates?
In summarizing the volume of New Directions for Community Colleges edited
by Jan M. Ignash (1997), this Digest reviews the role of research in addressing
these policy decisions on remedial education. Effective solutions implemented
by community colleges across the nation also are highlighted.
The data cited by Ignash (1997) indicate a high demand for remedial
education. A fall 1995 survey conducted by the National Center for Education
Statistics (NCES) found that 29 percent of first-time freshmen enrolled
in public institutions of higher education took remedial courses in reading,
writing, or math. At community colleges, which provide the bulk of postsecondary
remediation, the figure was 41 percent. Despite such evident need, the
response of some states has been to ban or restrict remedial course offerings.
In 1994, the Trustees of the California State University (CSU) system proposed
to shift 90 percent of its remedial education to the community colleges
by the year 2007. Strong opposition from community colleges and other groups
in California has forced CSU officials to postpone this plan. Meanwhile,
Florida legislators have been successful in prohibiting public universities
from offering remedial courses.
Much of the opposition to remedial education is due to its costs. Often,
however, the cost of remedial education seems astronomical because figures
are provided outside the context of all instructional costs. For example,
in Illinois, the total dollar amount devoted to remedial education provided
in community colleges was $23.4 million, yet this was only 6.5 percent
of all direct faculty salary costs (Ignash, 1997).
While cost invariably bears on state and institutional policy, effective
solutions consider a broader base of information including student demographics,
characteristics of successful programs, and program evaluations. Data on
students' age, race/ethnicity, extent of necessary remediation, and English
as a Second Language (ESL) needs can assist policy makers in allocating
their scarce dollars where they are needed most (Ignash, 1997).
According to McMillan, Parke, and Lanning (1997), a number of studies
document a high level of correlation between student success and the following
* required entry-level testing,
* mandatory placement in basic skills courses,
* continuous evaluation,
* interface between remedial and college-level courses, and
* using technology to offer remediation through alternative instructional
A well-designed assessment of programs also can inform the process of
allocating public funds and increase accountability. Weissman, Bulakowski,
and Jumisko (1997) recommend measuring four aspects of program effectiveness:
* course completion success rate, which is the percentage of students
earning grades of C or better,
* movement of students from remedial to college-level courses,
* successful completion of college-level coursework, and
* student persistence over a three-year period.
Specific policy areas suggested for review include mandatory student
placement into remedial courses, enrollment in remedial courses upon initial
entry to the college, and concurrent enrollment in remedial and college-level
Both research and current practice support the use of structured assessment
and placement of students in remedial courses. Based on the philosophy
of structured open access, the "systematic use of academic standards linked
with additional approaches to assist students to reach their educational
objectives," this type of proactive institutional strategy has been more
successful than an open-door, laissez-faire approach that allows students
to enroll in any course regardless of prerequisites (Fonte, 1997, p. 45).
Rather than limiting student achievement, such intervention builds connections
among students, counselors, and faculty.
South Suburban College in Illinois adopted a structured model in the
early 1990s that demonstrates that intrusive procedures need not be punitive
and can actually foster a caring environment for students with remedial
needs (Fonte, 1997). Samples of the 14 policies of the model include:
* Mandatory placement testing for full-time and part-time students who
have taken six credit hours.
* Developmental (remedial) courses are mandatory beginning with the
student's first semester.
* Students on academic warning or probation status are required to develop
an action plan to improve their academic standing.
The San Diego Community College District recently instituted mandatory
enforcement of all course prerequisites, including recommended levels of
English and math skills (Berger, 1997). Previously, the district did not
insist on the use of prerequisites and students often enrolled in courses
inappropriate for their ability levels. Although this system has not been
in place long enough to evaluate results, some positive outcomes are evident.
Berger (1997) notes increases in instructional research conducted by faculty
as well as interaction among colleagues across the district. Increases
in student success rates, however, remain to be seen.
Collaborative partnerships between community colleges and their feeder
high schools are effective means of reducing the need for postsecondary
remedial education (Richey, Mathern, O'Shea, & Pierce, 1997). By developing
a secondary school writing curriculum and an assessment system that relies
heavily upon portfolios that follow students throughout high school and
to the community college, faculty from the two educational segments can
make significant strides in promoting student success. Such a model also
addresses growing public concerns that remedial courses in higher education
are simply repeating what students should have learned in high school.
THE CASE OF ESL
While the demand for remedial education in general is on the rise, ESL
programs have experienced a tremendous influx of students as a result of
the recent immigration wave (Kurzet, 1997). When challenged by the perennial
dilemma of quality versus quantity, the ESL department at Portland Community
College in Oregon decided it could provide both. Its successful action
plan focused on meeting faculty development needs and overcoming three
major impediments facing many ESL programs in community colleges: 1) lack
of understanding of who ESL students are and what they need, 2) outdated
assumptions about ESL instruction and student services, and 3) scarce public
funding (Kurzet, 1997). Clarifying the needs of ESL students as well as
the purpose and structure of the program has far reaching implications
for students' financial aid status as well (Goldstein, 1997). Aid policies
constructed to protect the integrity of public funds do place limits on
the uses of these dollars for remediation. College officials can craft
effective programs that allow ESL students and those in remedial/developmental
programs to legally benefit from financial aid, but they must be aware
of the restrictions that apply (Goldstein, 1997).
The upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act will heighten
the existing debate over postsecondary remedial education. Cost undoubtedly
figures into all public policy, and this issue will not be an exception.
However, the bottom line should not be the sole criterion for educational
reform. Conducting research on remedial education, especially in the form
of evaluating currently successful programs, can help facilitate the development
of successful policy. By taking this approach, the core issues of responsibility
and accountability can be addressed.
This Digest is drawn from New Directions for Community Colleges, Number
100, edited by Jan M. Ignash, published in Winter 1997: "Implementing Effective
Policies for Remedial and Developmental Education."
The cited articles include:
"Mandatory Assessment and Placement: The View from an English Department,"
by Dorothy M. Berger.
"Structured Versus Laissez-Faire Open Access: Implementation of a Proactive
Strategy," by Richard Fonte.
"Financial Aid and the Developmental Student," by Michael B. Goldstein.
"Who Should Provide Postsecondary Remedial Developmental Education?"
by Jan M. Ignash.
"Quality Versus Quantity in the Delivery of Developmental Programs for
ESL Students," by Reuel Kurzet.
"Remedial/Developmental Education Approaches for the Current Community
College Environment," by Virginia K. McMillan, Scott J. Parke, and Carol
"Community College/High School Feedback and Collaboration: Preventive
Measures," by Deborah K. Richey, Jeanette Mathern, Carol S. O'Shea, and
Shelby J. Pierce.
"Using Research to Evaluate Developmental Education Programs and Policies,"
by Julie Weissman, Carole Bulakowski, and Marci K. Jumisko.