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Accelerating developmental education reforms during the pandemic


This guest commentary comes from Strong Start to Finish, an initiative at Education Commission of the States that aims to help colleges and universities increase the number and proportion of students from low-income households, students of color and returning adults who succeed in college math and English. Christopher M. Mullin serves as director of the Strong Start to Finish initiative. 

The current pandemic, with its cascade of economic and health impacts, has put education leaders in an unprecedented maelstrom of uncertainty that touches nearly every facet of higher education. It would be easier right now to pull back on ambitious developmental education reforms until the storm passes.

But the easy thing is not always the right thing, especially when students’ college success is at stake.

This is why Strong Start to Finish (SSTF) continues to push through these difficult times to advance developmental education and support the 4.8 million students that this work now impacts.

Strong Start to Finish just announced a significant new investment that will further support states, institutions, students and its collective understanding of what works in developmental education. Thirteen systems of higher education in 12 states were awarded a total of $5.3 million from The Kresge Foundation and two other funders — Ascendium Education Group and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — to achieve very clear and explicit goals.

For example, in New York the State University of New York will develop recommendations for implementation of new multiple-measures placement guidelines at both the system and institutional level; in Georgia, the University System of Georgia will developed a scaled statistics pathway available to every student; in Oregon, colleges and universities will develop co-requisite courses for STEM and non-STEM math pathways that will be transferable to institutions statewide; and in Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education will develop evidence-based and faculty-driven guidelines for co-requisite math instruction that will be adopted for implementation beginning Fall 2021.

Says Donna F. Wilson, PhD, Vice Chancellor and Chief Academic Officer for Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education: “Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education is deeply committed to access and educational attainment for all Pennsylvanians, including those students who need development support in math. We are pleased to partner with Education Commission of the States to conduct a multi-university study of co-requisite models for developmental math, leading to guidelines informed by national best practices and the work of our own faculty experts that will be adopted by a majority of the universities in the system.  We look forward to future generations of students benefitting from this important work.”

Indeed, work with generational impact does not come easy nor fast. And that’s why taking our foot off the gas now would shortchange so many students who depend on this work.

“As a scaling site since 2018, the University System of Georgia (USG) has been able to use support from Strong Start to Finish to implement the Momentum Year, a comprehensive systemwide student success strategy that has transformed developmental education and advising. We are grateful for this additional award from SSTF, which will help faculty develop and implement a new Statistics Pathway that gives USG students greater access to the mathematics most pertinent to their area of study,” said Dr. Tristan Denley, Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Chief Academic Officer for USG.

These newest reform efforts provide clear guidance for state leaders looking to improve their state’s educational attainment rates, for institutions looking to increase their retention and completion rates, and most importantly for students who dream of becoming college graduates.

At the same time, 17 organizations have come together as a network to support systems as they undertake reforms. One new project is a toolkit focus on corequisite reform models led by the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas–Austin in partnership with Carnegie Math Pathways and Bruce Vandal Consulting. Recognizing the shifting learning environment, they will offer a free four-part interactive webinar series on the design and delivery of online corequisite math courses starting in late July and running through early August.

“Along with our partners, we recognized the importance of providing online support to faculty who teach co-requisites.  This spring faculty made the pivot to virtual teaching and learning as a temporary, emergency solution.  As faculty face online learning continuing this fall, they are eager to learn how to virtually engage each student and provide supports needed for successful learning and course completion,” said Martha Ellis, Interim Managing Director of the Charles A. Dana Center.

We will see many pivots this fall, as colleges and universities grapple with the “new normal.” But we must, through this initiative, stay focused on our founding commitment to advancing research that helps scale up necessary developmental education reforms.

Frankly, we have come too far to slow down. Reforming developmental education has been a multi-year effort to build an evidence base from the ideas and efforts of countless contributors – including system leaders, policymakers and faculty. Earlier this year the “Core Principles” guiding our efforts were further strengthened through research, learning and leadership.

Now, by seeding the innovations of these 13 systems and 17 support organizations, we hope to catalyze scalable reforms that help more students graduate college – in spite of the storms upon us.