Theoretical Perspectives for Developmental Education

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Democratic Theory and Developmental Education

Patrick Bruch, Assistant Professor


In our present circumstances, it is incumbent upon developmental educators to construct alternatives to the privatized democratic theories of knowledge and power that, though once progressive, today propel rollbacks of support for underprepared students and widespread misunderstandings of educational success and failure. This chapter represents a contribution to this project of reimagining the definitions of democratic social relations that provide foundations for any talk of the social purposes of education. I analyze the contemporary impasse of privatized democracy as a theoretical framework for defining and defending developmental education. I discuss how two significant strands of contemporary democratic social theory can expand the current focus on discrimination and inattention to oppression. I conclude with a discussion of how developmental educators might build on the strengths of currently available alternatives to privatized democratic theory.

In 1903, W. E. B. Du Bois predicted that the problem of the twentieth century would be the problem of the color line (Du Bois, 1982, p. xi). For higher education, and most acutely for developmental education programs, the challenge of the twenty-first century will be the challenge of multicultural democracy. The challenge of multicultural democracy is not the same as the problem of the color line. The color line of Du Bois’ time was institutionalized through official discrimination—through practices or policies that intended to either favor or penalize individuals on the basis of social group identification. Discrimination has, since the time of Du Bois’s prediction, become illegal and socially unacceptable. Yet despite the best efforts of reforms, many of the social group hierarchies of Du Bois’ era continue to structure higher education in particular and public life in general.

The new challenge, the challenge of multicultural democracy, demands that those of us within developmental education understand and respond to the obstacles to equality that remain after the implementation of formal nondiscrimination. One difficulty at this point in meeting the challenge of multiculturalism within developmental education is that researchers have not yet deeply examined the implicit conceptions of democratic social relations—the theories of how knowledge and power relate to democracy—that structure research in the field. As a result, developmental education research has largely operated within the broad popular assumption that we can best serve our students by supporting their individualized participation in existing institutions, where participation means fitting in and playing according to the rules of the institutions as they are currently defined. Given this focus, much of our research pursues strategies for helping students to adapt themselves to what Paul Fidler and Margi Godwin (1994) identify as “curricula, student services, and campus environment based on a white [sic] middle class norm” (p. 35). Hunter Boylan (1991) has drawn attention to the complex and contradictory roles that such research plays, commenting that

all programs that work with nontraditional students have one, and only one, bottom line. And that’s to make opportunity a reality rather than an abstraction, a fact rather than a noble fiction, an outcome rather than a piece of legislation. (as quoted in Craig, 1997, p. 23)

Boylan here pinpoints the social motivation of research and teaching in developmental education—making equal opportunity real one person at a time.

In addition to identifying our bottom line, Boylan’s comment points to the frustrating experience of ongoing group inequality despite the erasure of the color line and the implementation of formal nondiscrimination and individualized access. Boylan’s references to equality as an “abstraction,” a “noble fiction,” or an unrealized “piece of legislation,” hints at the need for a new vision of democratic equality. Boylan locates our efforts as struggling against the present condition of having extensive rules about equality but a reality of profound inequality. His comments suggest the need for theoretical discourses that can redefine the rhetoric and reality of equality. We need theories of knowledge and power that can help us to ameliorate the gap that currently exists between individualized strategies on one hand and historically, culturally, and institutionally entrenched relations of group privilege and oppression on the other. But despite the nagging sense that, on its own, “not only is an agenda of socialization insufficient for enfranchisement but…it might be detrimental to enfranchisement” (Prendergast, 1998, p. 50), developmental educators have not pursued a research agenda for redefining educational enfranchisement. Although important as a partial strategy, if pursued exclusively, the currently dominant research agenda ignores how facially neutral knowledge can, in practice, reinforce the power of dominant groups.

In what follows, I examine the relationships between democratic theory and developmental education, highlighting theories of democratic equality that offer more robust foundations for responding to the challenge of multiculturalism. I begin with a discussion of the democratic theory implicit to most contemporary research in developmental education. Here, I draw from the educational theory of David Sehr (1997) to argue that developmental education operates within a theoretical paradigm of privatized democracy. Next, I draw from research within developmental writing to outline the value of privatized democracy as a conceptual tool with which to erase the color line, and the inadequacies of privatized democracy as a conceptual foundation for grappling with the challenges of multicultural democracy. I follow this critical engagement with a discussion of resources available within two significant theories of democratic public life that seek to address the weaknesses of privatized democracy. I conclude with a discussion of how these theories might transform research and practice in developmental education in particular and higher education in general.

The Foundations of Developmental Education in Democratic Theory

In their discussion of the evolving definition of developmental education, Emily Payne and Barbara Lyman (1996) have recently pointed out that “developmental education, perhaps more than most disciplines, has been influenced by trends and issues outside the field” (p. 13). The most recent of these trends and issues have grown out of demands from and responses to social movements for group justice. Primary among the demands have been calls for institutional transformation to enact group equity. A primary response has been a focus on overcoming the legacies of the color line by more vigorously pursuing neutral standards for individual participation and success in powerful institutions like education. Responding to the way that the color line established inequality by defining and treating people as members of groups, the trend has been to define and strive to treat all people as separate individuals, and to support each individual’s efforts to succeed.

Sehr (1997) has called this trend toward nondiscrimination and individualized competition “privatized democracy” (p. 1). For Sehr, privatized democracy refers to visions of democratic public life that emphasize individual self-determination and freedom. This strand of democratic theory has dominated United States social thought and policy to such a degree that it has become an invisible assumption within educational discourse. Thus, as Sehr points out, “behind the current clamor for educational reform, restructuring, privatization, and vouchers, is the assumption that the purpose of public education is to prepare Americans to compete, both as individuals and as a society” (p. 1). Importantly, privatized democracy defines equality as a relationship between individuals, detracting attention from the effects of the social and cultural contexts, the contexts of group relations, within which individuals interact.

This trend toward privatized democracy outside the field has influenced research and practice within developmental education. As suggested by Boylan’s comment about making equality more than a promise, developmental educators have worked within a sort of double consciousness. On one hand, our close contact with marginalized, at-risk, first generation, and minority students has demonstrated to us the structural, social group, roots of our students’ difficulties. These include, as Payne and Lyman (1996) point out, “unequal academic opportunity across socioeconomic levels, unequal funding of K-12 programs, unequal and unfounded academic expectations of students from different racial, linguistic, and ethnic backgrounds, and erroneous and inappropriate student placement and tracking” (p. 15). On the other hand, faced with the reality of classrooms full of individuals who are being held out of educational and other opportunities by their location on the wrong side of facially neutral talk of standards and criteria of excellence, we have dedicated our research efforts to figuring out how best to enable these students to meet these standards of unfairness. Thus, within a context of privatized democracy emphasizing neutrality as a strategy for overcoming past favoritism toward dominant groups, developmental educators have spent less time questioning the possibility of neutrality and more time trying to help students succeed according to existing standards.

The broad and deep commitment to privatized democracy that has emerged as a cultural dominant in the post-civil rights era is a double-edged sword. Through the vigorous pursuit of institutional policies and practices that propose to treat all persons as equal individuals and ignore group dynamics, the categorical mistreatment of some has been fundamentally challenged and, in places, eradicated. This progress is real and has supported economic and social prosperity for some individuals from historically marginalized groups. Although highly successful as a response to institutionalized discrimination, though, privatized democracy has been unable to transform some group level injustices. For example, within developmental writing, Tom Fox (1993) has challenged the “access through language pedagogy” that continues to dominate developmental writing, calling this strategy “an unqualifiable failure” (p. 42) in dealing with the educational disenfranchisement of African American students. Fox documents how, despite official nondiscrimination, skill remediation does little to transform the group level results of past discrimination. As he points out, “If you trace participation in higher education by African Americans in the last two decades, you see an ugly picture of slow, actual decline until 1988, a small increase in the last few years, and an overall picture that no significant change is occurring” (p. 42). Although access through language appears to work for some individuals, it best serves those least in need. Also, by reaffirming the valued position of currently dominant forms of knowledge, narrow access approaches justify the disconfirmation and exclusion of many.

The decades-old dilemma of no significant change for African American and other students at the bottom of academic and socioeconomic ladders translates into data like those collected by Eleanor Agnew and Margaret McLaughlin (1999) who found that “[White] students who were not successfully remediated in one quarter” of basic writing still “have more than twice the success rate in subsequent college courses as black [sic] students who did pass the course” (p. 45). Building on this kind of empirical evidence documenting the weakness of trying to grapple with group level injustice at the individual level, it is incumbent upon educational researchers to reflect upon models of democratic equality that can support meaningful enfranchisement of historically marginalized groups. Within a paradigm of privatized democracy that ignores group relations, the best that can be hoped for is equal access to a fundamentally unjust work and social world. At the present time, the disproportionate lack of success among students from socially oppressed groups pulls practice towards individualized skill remediation that perpetuates the cultural and social exclusion of students from those groups.

Thus far, I have demonstrated that much of the research within developmental education can be understood as implementing privatized democratic theory. I have drawn attention to the limits of this theoretical paradigm for dealing with the group challenges of multicultural democracy. In short, privatized democracy represents a way of responding to the challenges that define developmental education that, in the long run, chronically underserves some of our students. Although it is valuable as a partial response to the challenges we face, it is anemic as a total response.

Though historically dominant, privatized democracy has always been challenged by alternative views of democracy that have emphasized participation and redefinition of social institutions as essential democratic activities. Sehr (1997) calls these theories of public democracy. Extending the intellectual traditions of Thomas Jefferson and John Dewey, these theories emphasize the importance of relationships, participation, and common good over private gain. Where privatized democracy offers a universal vision of individuals as possessed of rights that should not be violated, public democracy expands the notion of citizenship beyond individualized access to existing institutions to include equitable participation in institutions and active, continuous redefinition of those institutions.

Dana Lundell and Terence Collins (1999) have recently begun pushing developmental education research towards a critical examination of the theoretical assumptions about knowledge, power, and democracy that underlie currently dominant practices. Specifically Lundell and Collins investigate “assumptions which, though unarticulated, seem to shape the research in developmental education” highlighting a strong need for “integrated models that are thoughtful in naming [the] prior assumptions” (p. 7) that motivate practice in the field. They conclude that, because it is primarily dedicated to enabling student assimilation to what are assumed to be inherently valuable (i.e., because institutionally valued) forms of knowledge, “research in developmental education primarily focuses on individual deficit and its remediation, even though the rhetorical emphasis is on serving diverse or non-traditional populations of students” (p. 7).

As an alternative that is practically as well as rhetorically committed to serving diverse or nontraditional students, Lundell and Collins propose a broad reconceptualization of developmental education that would focus on expanding discourse participation rather than discrete skill remediation. For Lundell and Collins, success in higher education involves learning to participate in communicative, affective, intellectual, cultural, and social norms and patterns that are distant from and potentially at odds with the norms and patterns that many students bring with them to schooling. In order to really serve these students, developmental education programs must create contexts in which the discourses of higher education can be selectively adopted while not being uncritically overvalued.

As Lundell and Collins suggest, the challenge of responding to group oppression is to come up with new ways of formulating the relationships between knowledge and equality that resist the trap of seeing knowledge as neutral and equality as dependent on individualized assimilation to an inherently valuable norm. Their theory of discourse is important because it invites reconsideration of the role of developmental education and the democratic purposes of schooling.

Lundell and Collins have initiated a necessary reexamination of the foundational assumptions shaping work in developmental education. In what follows, I undertake further work needed for discourse theory to constructively challenge the dominant framework of developmental education research. Recognizing that higher education is a discourse—a social construction that defines and distributes power—does not necessarily challenge developmental educators to rethink the assumption that exclusively redistributing currently valued academic discourses to more individuals can provide a ground for equal participation and opportunity. Nor does discourse theory necessarily invite critical reflection on how expanding access to privileged ways of being and knowing might unintentionally extend and reinforce the institutional privileges of currently dominant groups via those groups’ preferred discourses even as it enables some individuals limited access to some of the privileges enjoyed by those groups. In other words, Lundell and Collins’ presentation of discourse theory assumes the foundational insights of a critical theory of democracy and difference currently absent from developmental education. Without making these foundations explicit, discourse theory might not, in practice, engage the relational hierarchies that pit some discourses against others so that adopting one is to disconfirm and silence the other.

In order to make opportunity a fact and a reality, the reconceptualization of academic participation that Lundell and Collins propose will need to be rooted in a vision of knowledge and power that interprets and addresses the shortcomings of the currently dominant emphasis on nondiscrimination. Such theories provide a framework for redefining the inequalities we need to address in schools and other institutions, emphasizing the importance of transforming as well as distributing privileged discourses and providing a picture of what necessary transformations might look like. In the following sections, I outline the major tenets of two significant theories of public democracy and discuss the ramifications that each might have for developmental education. These theories provide rationale and criteria for critically challenging currently dominant discourses or forms of knowledge in the academy. In order to make my discussion of these theories manageable, I concentrate on the implications that these theories have for rethinking our definitions of literacy.

Communitarian Democracy: Literacy and Mutuality

I begin my discussion of theories of public democracy with the communitarian model. Many political theorists look to a more robust community as the theoretical alternative to the individualism that they understand as the rip tide undermining social solidarity and group equality within privatized democracy. The most influential discussion of communitarian democracy as an antidote to the negative effect of privatized democracy is Benjamin Barber’s Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for the Modern Age (1984). In what follows I discuss specific contributions that the communitarian perspective makes towards reformulating the democratic prospects of literacy. These contributions include the foundational principle that literacy and other forms of knowledge are social constructions that should enable persons to participate in making and being made by history, and the connected notion that rather than a stable set of skills, literacy is a flexible practice of continuously redefining and enacting just relations among persons—communicative relations that enable all to participate meaningfully in creating a shared truth.

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