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Developmental Instruction: At the Core of Equity in Education

by Mike Butcaris - February 02, 2022

In colleges that prioritize equitable access to quality education, accelerated approaches may not be the answer for adult learners trying to balance school with work and family responsibilities. While exploring the popular trend toward co-requisite solutions, community colleges must continue to support learning options that allow sufficient time for adult students to develop the reading, writing, and critical thinking skills that form the foundation for lifelong learning.

Approximately 60% of students entering community colleges require at least one remedial course.  Typically, these courses must be completed before students are able to enroll in college-level courses, often lengthening the time until degree attainment, and thus a major factor contributing to the low completion rates among community college students. An increasingly popular strategy for addressing this conundrum is to create a co-requisite structure where despite demonstrating remedial needs, a student enrolls in a college level course with supplemental instruction. As with any intervention, co-requisite courses may solve some of the equity issues that it seeks to do, but at the same time may create unanticipated problems that require attention as this strategy gains traction. These commentaries focus on how institutions are addressing this problem and suggest an optimal pathway based on how faculty traverse these challenges.  

- Robin G. Isserles and David Levinson

I have been asked to write about the issue of equity as it pertains to developmental instruction in community colleges. To be up front, I am troubled by recent trends to discredit the value of developmental coursework to support students who graduate from high school without the reading, writing, and/or math skills to be successful in the college programs they choose to pursue. You see, Ive worked with hundreds of these students over the past 40 years, and Ive seen so many of them succeedwith the right support. When I started working as a student tutor in the late 1970s at an open-door community college in Connecticut, there was a somewhat popular mindset among college educators known as freedom to fail. This perspective went something like: Students should be free to sign up for any courses they choose and accept the consequences of their choices. Without much guidance or support, many students coming from low-income families with no history of college repeatedly registered for courses that required skills beyond their abilities and failed them until their enthusiasm or financial aid ran out. Clearly, failure was not free for these students.

Fortunately, the freedom-to-fail mentality did not last long in the schools where I worked. Administrators and faculty could no longer ignore the inequitable situation that it had created, and they realized they had a duty to provide effective support for students who could access higher education through open-door colleges but were unprepared to complete the types of reading and writing assignments that make college coursework effective at preparing students for good jobs and rewarding careers. Two supportive measures were introduced around this time to facilitate student success: placement testing and developmental coursework. The use of placement testing upon admission gave students information about their own academic strengths and weaknesses so they could make informed choices about which courses to take initially. No students were turned away, but some were advised to take developmental coursework to improve their reading, writing, and math skills. In the early days, placement testing and enrollment in developmental coursework were encouraged but optional at most schools. Some freedom-to-fail advocates complained about using institutional funds to support students who werent college material, but most schools offered at least some developmental instruction.

As community college enrollments grew, annual assessments of Connecticuts public schools revealed the nations widest achievement gap in reading and math competency between students from city schools and those attending schools in the wealthier suburbs. Because graduates from city high schools were more likely to choose the affordable option of their local community college, the percentage of entering students who demonstrated a need to improve their academic skills increased. In response to this growing demand, many colleges made placement testing mandatory and required students to follow their placement recommendations. Colleges committed increasing shares of their limited resources to provide these students with the additional support they needed. To provide individualized attention, sections of developmental courses typically had lower student-to-faculty ratios than college-level sections. Faculty who taught developmental courses became advocates for their students and worked to remove unnecessary barriers to their success. Community colleges took pride in the substantial resources they invested to make good on their commitment to improve equity for all students.

Despite numerous success stories of students who began their college studies with grade-school reading skills but achieved academic success through developmental instruction and support services, these resources were not equally effective for all. Students who worked full time or were single parents often struggled to access support services or even attend classes regularly. While a clear path to success had been established for those who could attend class regularly and make time to use support services, colleges continued to explore ways to support somewhat older students with competing prioritiesand it became increasingly clear that time was an important factor for their success. Often, the progress of these students depended on access to a more gradual path that allowed them time to adjust to the pace of college learning and steadily develop academic skills essential for success.

Around 2011, attacks on the value and efficacy of developmental instruction in college began to grow (Fain, 2012). Complete College America, an organization that seems to view student learning as an obstacle to improving graduation rates, began promoting the narrative that developmental education courses themselvesnot the lack of reading, writing, and math skills combined with the effects of povertywere preventing students from being successful (Complete College America, 2012). At first, community college faculty and staff who worked with at-risk students and witnessed their need for effective support on a day-to-day basis could not take this claim seriously, but state legislators and, subsequently, system administrators would.


In 2012, Connecticuts state legislature passed PA12-40 to accelerate students through gateway course completion. One of the bills requirements was that embedded support or corequisite coursework in English and math be made available to students whose placement results were somewhat below the college-level cutoff. In response, faculty and administrators collaborated to develop an embedded curriculum, provide new types of support for students at all levels of readiness, and expand the measures used to place students in initial coursework. In 2015, the changes went into effect, and four years later, we reported on the progress of students who began college under this new model of support.

The report found a significant increase in the number of students who passed college-level English and math in their first semester by taking corequisite courses. Faculty reported that for some students, but not all, the corequisite approach was indeed effective for achieving initial college success. One concern, however, was that the research did not find improvement in the number of credits these students completed over the next three years. The reports recommendations included exploring the careful expansion of corequisite instruction while maintaining the availability of developmental coursework for students whose initial skills assessment indicated they were unlikely to benefit from the accelerated corequisite approach. To our disappointment, the following fall, system leadership hired out-of-state consultants to eliminate all developmental coursework.

System-level administratorsmany of whom were recently promoted to work on consolidating the states community colleges and who had little to no experience with developmental educationwere now undermining the colleges ability to deliver effective support for our most vulnerable students. After attending a conference or two, these experts confidently proclaimed that the practices of carefully assessing students skills and offering them developmental instruction were responsible for creating a barrier for students from racial and ethnic minority backgrounds. Despite claims that they were dutifully following the data, these administrators could not comprehend that poverty and inadequate public-school preparation were confounding variables in research identifying developmental instruction as the cause of student failure. They refused to acknowledge that graduates from the poorest performing schools were more likely to demonstrate need for additional supportnot because of their race or ethnic background, but because a disproportionate percentage of these graduates experienced financial hardship and did not receive sufficient academic support from their public schools. Some administrators even attempted to shut down further discussion of supporting students by claiming that faculty who expressed concerns that accelerated approaches might not meet the needs of the most vulnerable students revealed their deficit mentality toward these students, thereby exacerbating barriers to educational equity.

Those of us who work regularly with many students who have benefitted from developmental coursework are very concerned that in its quest to consolidate colleges and save money, our system is abandoning its long-standing commitment to serve the students who most need our support by returning to the old freedom-to-fail mindset of the 1970s. As educators, we believe that you address problems related to academic need by providing differentiated instruction and support to the extent resources allow, not by pretending that differences in preparation dont exist. Our current developmental curriculum gives experienced faculty the ability to offer students differentiated learning experiences to meet their individual needs. For many students, sufficient time to develop their skills can mean the difference between success and failure. Our faculty are willing to design curriculum that expands corequisite instruction for more students, but they cannot support the total elimination of developmental instruction. Corequisite support is only effective if students have time to participate in additional support services offered concurrently with instruction. This all-at-once approach can be a barrier for many students who are trying to balance schoolwork with the demands of employers and families. Acceleration can easily lead to frustration for these individuals, so we need to promote equity by offering them instruction that meets their needs and circumstances. The freedom-to-fail approach failed students miserably in the past. Denying future students the benefits of multiple options for support that have made a positive difference for so many successful graduates may be appealing as a quick fix to the complex problem of equity in the short term, but a one-size-fits-all corequisite approach will fail our most vulnerable students in the long run and ultimately undermine our institutions long-standing efforts to promote equitable access to the benefits of a college education.


Complete College America. (2012). Higher educations bridge to nowhere

Fain, P. (2012, June 19). Overkill on remediation? Inside Higher Education. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/06/19/complete-college-america-declares-war-remediation


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 02, 2022
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23976, Date Accessed: 2/8/2022 10:36:51 AM

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About the Author
  • Mike Butcaris
    Norwalk Community College
    E-mail Author
    MIKE BUTCARIS began working in Connecticut’s community colleges over 40 years ago as a student tutor at Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport, CT. Later, he became a counselor in HCC’s TRIO program. In 1990, Mike left Housatonic to become a TRIO program director at Norwalk Community College (NCC) in Norwalk, CT. At Norwalk, he has been a professor in the college’s Developmental Studies Division, and he served as chief academic officer from 2016 to 2020. Currently, he teaches writing and psychology at NCC.
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