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Why College Developmental Education Is Failing America

Apr 10, 2013 by

Barry E. Stern, Ph. D. Senior Adviser, Haberman Educational Foundation

By Barry E. Stern, Ph. D.
Senior Adviser, Haberman Educational Foundation

Despite educational reform efforts to raise standards, develop better tests and improve teaching, most conclude that the majority of high school graduates are still not ready for college. That said, the Nation is generally proud of its community college system that provides among other things a second chance for many. For those who left high school without the skills to succeed in college, or whose skills have atrophied over time, colleges provide remedial courses to help them catch up and eventually qualify for college credit courses.

Unfortunately, college remedial or developmental courses don’t help much. We spend over $2 billion a year on these courses for the over half of community college entrants whose reading, writing and/or math skills are insufficient to qualify for credit-bearing courses. Yet only 10 to 20 percent of completers of developmental courses (grade C or better) ever earn a college degree or certificate within 8-10 years.

Well, if developmental students don’t persist long enough to earn a credential, do they at least learn enough to qualify for college courses? The track record here is also poor. On average 60-70 percent pass developmental reading, but only 30-40 percent pass developmental math. In today’s knowledge economy where unskilled jobs have all but disappeared, how do those who don’t make the cut ever earn a family wage, let alone the ones who never completed high school? People’s lives depend on acquiring these fundamental skills!

Dissatisfaction with developmental education has prompted a cottage industry of studies that parse every aspect of these courses and have spawned dozens of pilot projects. One popular variant lets participants take a developmental course while enrolled in a regular college course. Although such pilots yield marginal gains, most fail because they are still in the business of correcting deficits rather building better people. Here’s why college remedial courses fail so many of their enrollees and what colleges could do to improve them:

  1. Remedial courses are neither long enough nor intensive enough. Six hours a week aren’t enough to build competence and confidence among those who never mastered the basics in high school. They need at least 16-20 hours a week of intensive instruction. Ask any athlete what it takes to make significant improvement in fundamentals. Why do sports teams have intensive pre-seasons lasting several weeks to annually refresh them? The fundamentals of college and the workplace are reading, writing and math. You do them every day. One cannot be too good at fundamentals.

Such time commitment is not convenient for those with heavy work and family responsibilities, which characterizes many community college students. Clearly, considerable sacrifice and commitment would be required to pursue an immersion-type program. But that’s what it takes to gain the skills that are needed. Remedial courses of only a few hours a week tend to waste students’ time and tuition.

2. Colleges teach remedial reading, math and writing as separate courses. Wrong! Better to integrate these fundamentals in gradually more complex combinations to solve increasingly more difficult problems like those encountered in the workplace. Moreover, courses ought to build on student strengths in the course of overcoming weaknesses. Otherwise, students get bored or demoralized.

3.Although computers and personal digital assistants are the paper and pencil of the 21st Century, few college remedial programs teach computer application skills along with reading, writing and math. Too bad. You can teach a lot of reading and writing through word processing; math through spreadsheets, and presentation skills through graphics programs. Students like using these tools particularly when they can see their progress accelerating. And when students feel they are in an accelerated program not a remedial one, their self-confidence grows and learning speeds.

4. Remedial courses tend to rely on lecture-discussion methods, homework and quizzes. Boring!! And not terribly effective! People remember only 5 percent of what they learn from lectures, 10 percent from directed reading, 20 percent from audio-visual, and 50 percent from participating in discussions (IF they participate). Yet we retain 90 percent of what we learn through Explaining and Experiencing with Others. So why not try a curriculum that is highly experiential, team-oriented, and project-based, and which integrates soft skills like teamwork, customer service, time management and conflict resolution into the teaching of academic skills? These features motivate students, engage long-term memory and thus prevent forgetting.

5. College remedial programs ignore the social aspects of learning. Yet individuals perform better when part of a group with a higher purpose and winning mission. Orchestras, sports teams, astronauts and Navy Seals know this. Teaming with others to control obesity, drinking and smoking has been proven to be far more effective than individuals trying to go it alone. So how could developmental education draw on the natural preference of humans to work in groups or teams, in this case to improve academic performance? One way would be to replace the traditional one teacher for one class format with one that requires a cross-disciplinary group of instructors to team teach basic skills to the same group of students for several hours a day. Instructors with different specialties in effect would serve as “position coaches,” but all would be well-versed in the fundamentals of their craft. As they do with sports teams, coaches would continually communicate with one another to improve the performance of both individuals and the entire team/class.

Thus, the new developmental program would upgrade reading, math, writing, communication, computer and employability skills all at the same time. All 2-4 instructors with different specialties would stay with the same group of 25-50 students for most/all of the instructional day, modeling the kinds of teamwork and collaboration seen in the best companies. This accelerated 4-8 hours-a-day model that molds instructors and students into a high performance team actually exists. It is called Fast Break. Students work to not only get themselves over the bar but their classmates as well. Results are outstanding:  2-3 grade level gains in reading and math in only 8-12 weeks. This social or team approach is not only faster but cheaper than the narrow skill building approach of most developmental courses.

6. Remedial courses tend to leave out career development and emotional intelligence, thus perpetuating the reductionist, assembly-line, industrial era mentality that characterizes the very high schools that failed these remedial course-takers in the first place. Let’s take these one at a time.

a. Career development. Along with basic skills, developmental courses should help students develop or refine their career plans, defend them in front of others and then begin to carry them out. This develops several skill sets: Internet and library research, writing resumes, practicing interviews, filling out job and college applications, public speaking (career speech), etc. Such career planning activities actually improve English and communication skills and help students understand the reasons for what they are learning. It’s a virtuous circle –once students feel themselves becoming more proficient, they tend to raise their career aspirations and gain a deeper appreciation of how their skills can someday translate into earnings.

b. Thinking styles and emotional intelligence. As adjuncts or part-timers college remedial instructors are told their job is to teach subjects. Thus, they tend to ignore other aspects of human capital (social, moral, cultural, aspirational and cognitive). And they wonder why so many fail. An ideal course in basic skills would help students apply knowledge of thinking-styles to accelerate learning, understand others and build effective teams. Moreover, armed with such knowledge instructors could differentiate instruction by teaching students to use their preferred thinking style in the course of strengthening non-preferred styles that might be essential to solve a problem– that is, to build on strengths in the course of overcoming weaknesses. Students also learn needs-based communication strategies to improve interpersonal relations and de-escalate/ resolve conflicts. Such emotional intelligence training improves the social climate (respect and cooperation) in the classroom which translates into improved academic performance.

7. Most students work to afford college. Why shouldn’t developmental education help with both? Imagine how powerful a message it would be for instructors to say, “We don’t care if you go to work or college after this program; our role is to help you succeed in whatever you do next. When you are ready to earn a post-secondary credential in order to earn more, colleges will be ready for you.”

To summarize, most college remedial courses fall short because they are insufficiently intensive, integrated, demanding and attuned to the desire of most students to become part of a group with a higher purpose. Moreover, these courses tend to ignore socio-emotional and career development although they powerfully support academic development. For greater success in helping students become college ready, remedial programs must transition to a holistic approach that is highly concentrated, applied, experiential, computer-assisted, cross-disciplinary and team taught. This new model is more cost-effective than current remedial courses and much more aligned with what today’s students value, how they learn and like to be treated.

The exhibit below summarizes the differences between traditional remedial programs and the Fast Break accelerated learning program that represents the holistic approach:


Traditional College
Remedial Course

Fast Break accelerated learning


Meets 3 days/week for 50-90 minutes Meets 5 days/week for 5-8 hours/day


16 weeks for each course (math, reading, writing, etc.) Average 72 hours/course 8-12 weeks, 5-8 hours a day for total of 300 hours.

Course content

Reading, Math, Writing at different remedial levels – all taught separately. Assumes students should only take subjects in which they need remediation Bundles/integrates Reading, Writing, Math, computer applications (e.g. Word, Excel), employability & generic work skills (inter-personal skills, teamwork, customer service, etc).  Competence in one skill area assists acquiring skills in other areas (build on strengths to overcome weaknesses).

Class organization

One teacher for one class. Class size = 10-20 students Team taught –2-4 instructors with different specialties remain with same group of 25-50 students for most/all of instructional day, Instructors become cross- trained in course of helping one another.

Teaching methods

Lecture-discussion, homework, quizzes and tests. Highly experiential, team-oriented, and project-based. Integrates soft skills like teamwork, customer service, time management and conflict resolution into teaching of academic skills. Frequent quizzes embedded in computer courseware.

Courseware and other software

Courseware sometimes used to facilitate practice in basic skills. Off-the-shelf courseware supplements class instruction to accelerate reading and math achievement. Other software used to build work habits, manage time, select careers, conduct job search.

Computer application skills

(e.g. Word, Excel)


Word processing assists reading + writing. Spreadsheets assist math learning. Presentation skills aided by graphics programs (e.g. PowerPoint). Some progress enough to earn employable certificates (e.g. MOUS certif)

Thinking Styles


Students and instructors apply knowledge of thinking-styles to accelerate learning, understand others and build effective teams. Helps instructors differentiate instruction by helping students build on strengths in the course of overcoming weaknesses.

Emotional Intelligence


Needs-based communication and teamwork strategies improve interpersonal relations,
de-escalate/resolve conflicts, improve social climate (respect) which translates into higher class morale and student achievement.

Career Planning and Development

Colleges provide career counseling outside of remedial courses

Career planning integrated with reading, math, oral and written communications. 10-minute career speech to defend written career plan in front of faculty and peers. Requires Internet and library research, resumes, interviews, job and college applications, etc. Students act on career plan before completing program.

Community Service


Students develop own service projects, sometimes with small group or entire class. Reading, writing, math, and oral presentation assignments for each service project. Graduates speak to current classes (and sometimes high schools) about job/college experiences following Fast Break.


* 10-20% of remedial completers earn degree or credential within 8-10 years;* 60-70% pass reading;
* 30-40% pass math.Passing = Grade C or better
* 2+ grade-level gains in math and reading
in only 8-12 weeks;* 80% graduates obtain career track jobs or enter college not needing remedial courses.* 80% complete all the following standards:10thgrade math and reading skill or betterAt least one grade-level gain from starting pointNo more than 3 unexcused absences or tardiesPass computer literacy testAcceptable career speech in which student orally defends career plan before peers & facultyRemains drug free (random testing)

Follow up

Counselors encourage completion of developmental courses and then a credential or degree. Instructional staff spends 1-2 days per month visiting graduates and their work supervisor or college counselor to assist graduate’s success. Staff surveys graduates every six months to learn job/college status, wage rate, etc.

For more information about Fast Break, write Barry Stern at or Bill Stierle at, or contact the Haberman Educational Foundation ( .

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