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Giordano and Hassel. Developmental Reform and the Two-Year College. TETYC, May 2016. Posted 07/25/2016.

Giordano, Joanne Baird, and Holly Hassel. “Unpredictable Journeys: Academically At-Risk Students, Developmental Education Reform, and the Two-Year College.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College 43.4 (2016): 371-90. Web. 11 July 2016.

Joanne Baird Giordano and Holly Hassel report on a study of thirty-eight underprepared students negotiating the curriculum at a “small midwestern campus” that is part of a “statewide two-year liberal arts institution” (372). The study assessed the placement process, the support systems in place, and the efforts to “accelerate” students from developmental coursework to credit-bearing courses (374). The institution, an open-access venue, accepted 100 percent of applicants in 2014 (372).

Giordano and Hassel position their study in an ongoing conversation about how best to speed up students’ progress through college and improve graduation rates—the “college completion agenda” (371). Expressing concern that some policy decisions involved in these efforts might result from what Martha E. Casazza and Sharon L. Silverman designate as “misunderstood studies of ‘remedial’ student programs” (371), Giordano and Hassel present their study as reinforcing the importance of a robust developmental curriculum within an open-access environment and the necessity for ongoing support outside of regular classwork. They also focus on the degree to which placement procedures, even those using multiple measures, often fail to predict long-term student trajectories (371, 377).

The researchers characterize their institution as offering a “rigorous general-education curriculum” designed to facilitate student transfer to the four-year institutions within the state (372). They note that the two-year institution’s focus on access and its comprehensive placement process, which allows faculty to consider a range of factors such as high school grades, writing samples, and high-school coursework (375), mean that its developmental writing program is more likely to serve underprepared students than is the case at colleges that rely on less varied placement measures such as standardized tests (374). The thirty-eight students in the study all had test scores that would have placed them in multiple developmental sections at many institutions (374).

The institution’s goal is to reduce the amount of time such students spend in developmental curricula while supporting the transition to credit-bearing coursework (373). The writing program offers only one developmental course; after completing this course, students move to a two-course credit-bearing sequence, the second component of which fulfills the core writing requirement for four-year institutions within the state (373-74). A curriculum that features “integrated reading and writing” and a small-group “variable-credit, nondegree studio writing course” that students can take multiple times support students’ progress (373).

Examination of student work in the courses in which they were placed indicates that students were generally placed appropriately (375). Over the next two years, the researchers assessed how well the students’ written work met course outcomes and interviewed instructors about student readiness to move forward. Giordano and Hassel then collected data about the students’ progress in the program over a four-year period (375).

Noting that 74% of the students studied remained in good academic standing after their first year, Giordano and Hassel point out that test scores bore no visible relation to academic success (377). Eighteen of the students completed the second-semester writing course. Acknowledging that this percentage was lower than it would be for students whose test scores did not direct them into developmental classes, the authors argue that this level of success illustrates the value of the developmental coursework they undertook. Whereas policy makers often cite developmental work as an impediment to college completion, Giordano and Hassel argue that this coursework was essential in helping the underprepared students progress; they contend that what prevents many such students from moving more quickly and successfully through college is not having to complete extra coursework but instead “the gradual layering of academic and nonacademic challenges” that confronts these students (377).

The authors present a case study to argue that with ongoing support, a student whose scores predict failure can in fact succeed at college-level work (378-79). More problematic, however, are the outcomes for students who place into more than one developmental course, for example, both writing and math.

For example, only three of twenty-one students placing into more than one developmental section “completed a state system degree of any kind,” but some students in this category did earn credits during the four years of the study (380). The authors conclude from data such as these that the single developmental section of writing along with the studio course allowed the students to succeed where they would ordinarily have failed, but that much more support of different kinds is needed to help them progress into the core curriculum (381).

The authors examined the twenty students who did not complete the core requirement to understand how they “got stuck” in their progress (381). Some students repeatedly attempted the initial credit-bearing course; others avoided taking the core courses, and others could not manage the second, required writing course (382-83). The authors offer “speculat[ion]” that second-language issues may have intervened; they also note that the students did not take the accompanying studio option and their instructors chose a “high-stakes, single-grade essay submission” process rather than requiring a portfolio (382).

In addition, the authors contend, many students struggled with credit-bearing work in all their courses, not just writing and reading (383). Giordano and Hassel argue that more discipline-specific support is needed if students are to transition successfully to the analytical thinking, reading, and writing demanded by credit-bearing courses. They note that one successful strategy undertaken by some students involved “register[ing] in gradually increasing numbers of reading-intensive credits” (384), thus protecting their academic standing while building their skills.

Another case study of a student who successfully negotiated developmental and lower-level credit-bearing work but struggled at higher levels leads Giordano and Hassel to argue that, even though this student ultimately faced suspension, the chance to attend college and acquire credits exemplified the “tremendous growth as a reader, writer, and student” open access permits (384).

The study, the authors maintain, supports the conclusion, first, that the demand from policy-making bodies that the institutions and faculty who serve underprepared students be held accountable for the outcomes of their efforts neglects the fact that these institutions and educators have “the fewest resources and voices of influence in higher education and in the policy-making process” (384). Second, they report data showing that policies that discourage students from taking advantage of developmental work so they can move through coursework more quickly result in higher failure rates (387). Third, Giordano and Hassel argue that directed self-placement is not appropriate for populations like the one served by their institution (387). Finally, they reiterate that the value of attending college cannot be measured strictly by graduation rates; the personal growth such experiences offer should be an essential component of any evaluation (387-88).

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Coleman et al. Risky Equity Work. TETYC, May 2016. Posted 06/07/2016.

Coleman, Taiyon J., Renee DeLong, Kathleen Sheerin DeVore, Shannon Gibney, and Michael C. Kuhne. “The Risky Business of Engaging Racial Equity in Writing Instruction: A Tragedy in Five Acts.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College 43.4 (2016): 347-70. Web. 27 May 2016.

Taiyon J. Coleman, Renee DeLong, Kathleen Sheerin DeVore, Shannon Gibney, and Michael C. Kuhne recount their experiences attempting to deal with equity issues at Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC) between 2005 and 2015 (348, 353). They argue that white dominance is entrenched in higher education and that faculty, administrations, and institutions must recognize and act on the material and emotional consequences of this dominance.

The article grows out of a presentation at CCCC in Tampa in 2015. It is structured as “Five Acts”; each author presents personal perspectives illustrating the struggles involved in making the curriculum of MCTC more responsive to the students it serves.

Michael C. Kuhne recounts his participation in curriculum changes designed to restructure the English department and its developmental writing program so that they no longer mirrored the pedagogical assumptions of the older white male faculty (348) but rather more nearly met the needs of an increasingly diverse student population. Of special concern in this shift was improving low retention and graduation rates, particularly among African American men and Native American students (349). The developmental sequence shifted from a “formal, structural approach” built around paragraph structure and timed tests to a portfolio system and then to the Accelerated Learning model in which developmental students enroll in regular first-year writing but participate in additional class time with their instructors (349-50).

These changes led to some success, and Kuhne was among the faculty instrumental in changing hiring practices to bring the faculty make-up more in line with student demographics (352). But Kuhne contends that because of his “naïveté and white privilege,” he “was not able to see that simply hiring faculty of color without changing the culture within the department and institution would not move equity forward” (352).

DeVore follows with a history of changes at the college that, she writes, show “How We Broke” (352). Central to her account is the effort to include a request in the hiring language that new hires exhibit “an awareness of Critical Race Theory [CRT] and a demonstrated connection to communities of color” (Position Description, qtd. in Coleman et al. 354). DeVore offers definitions of Critical Race Theory, including one from Tara J. Yosso: “A critical race curriculum exposes the white privilege supported by traditional curriculum structures and challenges schools to dismantle them” (qtd. in Coleman et al. 354). DeVore argues that the new hiring language “simply referred to the need for applicants who understand that we live and teach in a nation with a raced social order” (354).

Including these qualifications resulted in new hires, several of color, changing the department makeup. However, a white male adjunct who had not been hired brought discrimination charges against four members of the hiring committee (355). After a “yearlong investigation,” the committee members were cleared but were required to strike the CRT language from the hiring language (355).

Meanwhile, a new hire of color acquired funding for series of workshops with Tim Lensmire of the University of Minnesota (356). After the first workshop meeting, DeVore reports, “a majority of faculty of color asked to caucus out into two groups, one for faculty of color, one for white faculty, as levels of experience, awareness, and understanding of white racial identity formation and white privilege were painfully low in the combined session” (356). DeVore states that this practice was “a common move in racial equity work,” but in her view, it led to a drop in workshop participation; subsequently, the new hire resigned (356). DeVore recounts a final department meeting dominated by emotions as faculty of color expressed their frustrations with the department (356). According to DeVore, the program has not been able to return to constructive equity work in the three years since (357).

Shannon Gibney adds her account of returning to the mass communications classroom after a personal health and emotional trauma and attempting to begin a discussion of “the legacy of ongoing racism in American life” (357). A “small group of students” exhibited what Gibney describes as “animosity at this black female body in front of them” (357); their reactions led to a reprimand from the college vice president that cast Gibney’s “tone as ‘defensive, angry, and disrespectful'” (358). She was ordered to attend training sessions to “learn to model ‘civility'” (358). She reports being the only faculty member of the 172 who had faced student complaints to be “disciplined” (358). After two appeals, as her case was about to enter arbitration that would make the case documents public, the president removed a letter of reprimand from her file (358). She reports being “offered ‘a blank check’ to leave MCTC altogether” (359).

Gibney argues that her willingness to speak up led to the unease with which administrators and colleagues regarded her. In her view, institutional pressures generated within a white-supremacist system act to silence those who would critique the status quo (360).

Renee DeLong, a “white, child-free lesbian,” was moved to protest the establishment of a creative-writing associates’ degree because she sees such courses as invested in white privilege. However, she found her role in the discussion “just erased” in favor of the voices of the black women faculty (362). This experience, in her view, suggests the need for victims of oppression to recognize their interconnectedness, as called for in the 1977 Combahee River Collective’s Manifesto (363). She urges attention to black LBGT women (362) “through the lenses of both critical race theory and queer theory” (363). White faculty, she maintains, must move beyond making claims about their love for students of color to recognize that their motives, in her description, are born of a sense of themselves as students’ “white savior[s]” (363). She deplores “this grandiose vision of pedagogical prowess” as “damaging [to] the health and lives of colleagues and students of color alike” (364).

Taiyon J. Colman discusses the degree to which she contends most educators see dominantly white institutions and classrooms as “normal” (365). She draws on her own experience as a marginalized student to suggest that a context in which the majority of faculty and the bulk of the administration are “institutionally constructed as white” (366) cannot serve student populations that are largely non-white (365). She argues that racial constructions of the type she describes deliver a message to black students that they are “not supposed to be there”:

If I am not supposed to be there through the continued normalization of racially constructed and dominantly white spaces, places, and teaching positions, then who, too, is still not socially, historically, and institutionally constructed to be in the writing or literature classrooms? (366)

She agrees with Gibney that efforts to address this problem result in the derogation of those who speak up (366). She offers eight preliminary steps for addressing equity issues (367), focusing on rejection of “silence” and “rationalization”; attention to institutional and systemic accountability for the development of equity (367-68); and recognition by privileged faculty of their own responsibility for these changes (367). She emphasizes the importance of “moving forward collectively” because “achieving equity benefits all members of the institution and the communities that we serve” (368; emphasis original).