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A national public policy initiative to improve developmental studies in postsecondary education

What are the Principles of Remedial Education Reform?

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I just came from a meeting of funders and developmental education leaders hosted by the Lumina Foundation where we shared our work and explored where the movement to reform developmental education is going. It is clear that there are many amazing things happening in the field at the institutional, system and state level.  In addition, the research on what is working and what the problems are is clearer than ever thanks to the efforts of the Community College Research Center, MDRC and our partners PRePARE. There is no question that the movement has gained a great deal of momentum.

Despite the wide range of participants, I was pleasantly surprised at the level of consensus there was about what the problems and solutions are with regard to the developmental education. In fact, it was suggested by Michael Collins from JFF and the Developmental Education Initiative that we should be able to identify a set of core principles for developmental education reform that we should profess to all those who seek to participate in the movement.  In an effort to get the conversation going, here are just a few that I would like to throw out for discussion.

  • Identify the specific academic competencies in math, writing and reading students need to be successful in their academic programs of choice.
  • Redesign the assessment and placement process through the use of alternative and diagnostic assessments that more effectively identify students who can be successful in college-level courses and precisely identify academic deficiencies that students need to improve to succeed college-level courses.
  • Enroll students who are assessed just below college-level directly into college-level courses and provide them additional academic support to ensure that they pass the college-level course.
  • Accelerate student completion of remedial content by modularizing the curriculum and delivering instruction in a competency based manner that allows students to only take the remedial content they need and to move more rapidly through their content.
  • Contextualize remedial instruction and deliver it as part of academic programs, rather than as a standalone separate enterprise on college campuses.
  • Conduct early assessment of students in high schools, deliver instruction and demonstrate college-readiness by the time students complete high school.
  • Incorporate remedial education success benchmarks into state and system accountability systems, to include performance based funding models.
  • Implement data driven, continuous improvement models that empower faculty to adapt instruction and utilize the latest evidence based instructional models.
  • Gather comprehensive, state wide data on who enrolls in remedial education and how effectively they complete remediation, enroll in college-level courses and complete a postsecondary credential.

Do you agree with these principles, how would you improve them, which would you add?


  1. Good suggestions. In reviewing this posting and several from previous months, the concept of “students assessed just below the cut score” is often referred to. While I fully support many of the recommendations for reforming developmental education listed above, this latter phrase is confusing at best and disturbing at worst. This phrase implies some hard and fast standard that if reached, a student is “ready” for the next highest level of education (whether dev ed or college level). This concept ignores the unreliability of a single score on a single test. Better understanding of the standard error of measurement or SEM would provide guidance on this. The use of multiple variables by appropriately trained counselors and/or advisors is essential in accurate placement. Otherwise, students just below the cut score, or just above the cut score (with essentially the same level of skills), could be misplaced.

  2. Two additional principles:
    1) Employ an inverted model of instruction, moving knowledge aquisition through readings, recorded lectures and other resources out of the class time to allow for higher levels of learning (i.e. application, evaluation, synthesis, and so forth) during class time. This allows for more one-on-one interaction between the instructor and the students and makes better use of the instructor’s time as a facilitator of the learning activities that students need to reach the intended learning outcomes. It’s been labeled an “inversion” because what has traditionally been thought of as homework (application, group work) is brought in the class; and the lecture or demonstration moves outside the class.
    2) Use cohort models and learning communities to increase peer support and to improve retention and student success.

    • Noreen,

      Love the idea of the inverted model. Just learned about this from Mark Milliron at the SHEEO meeting this week. Very interesting. Any evidence of it’s effectiveness out there.