Unlocking the Gate: What We Know About Improving Developmental Education

This analysis focuses on four different types of interventions for improving students’ progress through remedial education and into college-level courses, including (1) strategies that help students avoid developmental education by shoring up their skills before they enter college; (2) interventions that accelerate students’ progress through developmental education by shortening the timing or content of their courses; (3) programs that provide contextualized basic skills together with occupational or college-content coursework; and (4) programs that enhance the supports for developmental level learners, such as advising or tutoring.
Resource URL:
Author(s): 
Elizabeth Zachry Rutschow
Emily Schneider
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation: 
MDRC
Published: 
2011
Number of Pages: 
77
Product Type: 
Abstract: 

One of the greatest challenges that community colleges face in their efforts to increase graduation
rates is improving the success of students in their developmental, or remedial, education
programs — the courses that students without adequate academic preparation must take before
they can enroll in courses for college credit. Emphasizing results from experimental and quasiexperimental
studies, this literature review identifies the most promising approaches for revising
the structure, curriculum, or delivery of developmental education and suggests areas for future
innovations in developmental education practice and research. This analysis focuses on four
different types of interventions for improving students’ progress through remedial education
and into college-level courses, including (1) strategies that help students avoid developmental
education by shoring up their skills before they enter college; (2) interventions that accelerate
students’ progress through developmental education by shortening the timing or content of their
courses; (3) programs that provide contextualized basic skills together with occupational or
college-content coursework; and (4) programs that enhance the supports for developmentallevel
learners, such as advising or tutoring.


While research on best practices in developmental education abounds, little rigorous research
exists to demonstrate the effects of these reforms on students’ achievement. Programs that show
the greatest benefits with relatively rigorous documentation either mainstream developmental
students into college-level courses with additional supports, provide modularized or compressed
courses to allow remedial students to more quickly complete their developmental work, or offer
contextualized remedial education within occupational and vocational programs. These strategies
show the most promise for educators and policymakers who must act now, but they should
also continue to receive attention from researchers. Many of the strategies have not yet been
evaluated using more rigorous and reliable research methods, and/or early promising results
have not been replicated in other settings.


This literature review also notes several promising reforms that merit further study: technologyaided
approaches, improved alignment between secondary and postsecondary education, and
curricular redesign that reconsiders the key skills that academically underprepared students will
need in their careers. Finally, it flags two generic issues — placement assessments and faculty
support — that will likely need to be addressed for community colleges to see large-scale
changes in their developmental-level students’ achievement.

What the Experts Say: 

This is a clearly-written, well-organized and useful literature review. Although it was published in 2011 and therefore does not contain the newest evidence, it is believed to remain relevant to adult education.

The publication is particularly relevant to states where community colleges host the adult education delivery system. However, even in states with disparate fiscal agents, the article is pertinent to adult education providers in that it provides insights on how adult education providers can afford students supports and participate with partners in models that can facilitate either students avoidance of developmental education or increase their chances of persisting through developmental education. Considering the limited evidence-based research in this field, the literature review appears comprehensive and a reliable springboard to further research/investigation of promising practices. A plethora of good information that may be extended to adult education and their partnerships to facilitate students' achievement through interventions, accelerated programming, and supports.

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