Theoretical Perspectives for Developmental Education

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By constructing her model of the good society through the norms of city life, Young places herself and the definition of democratic society in solidarity with downtrodden social groups who make up the majority of urban residents in many areas. At the current historical juncture, cities signify in the public consciousness non-White cultural spaces. As well, in material fact, from Detroit to Newark, Los Angeles to Miami, non-White cultures, practices, and perspectives exercise more public authority in cities than in any other space. Thus, holding up the city as representative of the social relations that our society should seek inherently denotes the significance of difference to a democratic vision of the future. As a model of a critically compassionate democratic society that not only accommodates difference but that institutionalizes equality across differences, Young’s ideal of city life as a terrain of social group justice is compelling and promising.


The civil rights movement and the cultural upheavals of the 1960s have provided a new vocabulary—the vocabulary of nondiscrimination—for defining and defending developmental education programs. Drawing on this vocabulary, developmental education has extended a legacy of human hope that has historically sustained an interventionist attitude toward the suffering that society produces. In the aftermath of these efforts, new theories of democracy have emerged to make sense of unprecedented social realities and social hopes. The prospect raised by the civil rights struggles was that full participation in all aspects of shared life should not require assimilation to norms and practices that devalue any group’s cultural heritage, perspectives, or practices. The social group movements, in contrast to individualist liberalism, subscribed to positive views of group difference and group solidarity, and thus audaciously hoped for and sought to realize, through thought and action, a public that would do justice to difference. In the aftermath of the privatized democratic civil rights era, theory and practice must continue to challenge cultural genocide as a prerequisite for social equality.

In this chapter, I have discussed theoretical responses to privatized democracy. These theories exhibit strengths and weaknesses for redefining and defending developmental education. In the aftermath of the civil rights era, human suffering has expanded despite the dominant language of equal treatment for all. As Henry Giroux (1997) has argued, in such a context, theory must be understood as an ethical and political undertaking: “Theory should be seen as abstract and anticipatory: abstract in that it makes the self-evident problematic; anticipatory in that it points to a language and project of possibility” (p. 206). Using this definition of theory, we can measure the value of theories of democracy by examining the kinds of hope and insight that the theories can inspire for educators. What aspects of the relations we have do these theories make problematic and what “projects of possibility” do these theories sustain?

Communitarianism hopes for a total transformation of privatized individualist social relations. The participatory democratic community uses appreciation of the rhetorical nature of our relations to place mutuality rather than universality as the measure of the legitimacy of the truths that a community shares. Through commitment to enhancing bonds with others as a way of communicatively enacting democratic citizenship and as a way of maintaining the conditions for democratic decision making, civic literacy uses contingency to define the community. Engagements with others through literacy or other forms of valued knowledge is a process of self transformation in light of the partiality of any singular perspective and in an effort at “understanding individuals not as abstract persons but as citizens, so that commonality and equality rather than separateness are the defining traits of human society” (Barber, 1984, p. 119). As a model of communicatively created mutuality, communitarian theory inspires hope that the human capacities for collaboration can prevail over the logic of privatized competition.

As a foundation for education, the communitarian model argues that “Democracy means above all equal access to language, and strong democracy means widespread and ongoing participation in talk by the entire citizenry” (Barber, 1984, p. 197). In this sense, communitarianism as a theoretical model allies itself with the hope of making good—through participation—on the promise of social equality at the center of education. There is much to value in Barber’s theoretical recognition that democratic principles are only given meaning as they are lived out and transformed by persons. As I have discussed, however, despite the appealing notion of personal change for the public good in communitarianism, the ideal of individual equality through participation and the hope for a social equality that transcends differences of social group perception, history, and practice, ultimately refuses to invest in social group affirmation. Barber ignores the complex obstacles to individualized equality that social group movements have encountered in recent decades. Whether equality among individuals is understood as a truth that precedes participation or as an outcome of participation, equality must be defined in terms of how it will transform the relations of social group injustice that currently exist. By refusing to talk of groups, communitarianism refuses hope for definitions of equality that respond to the claims from unprivileged social groups that inequality is not personal and individual, but a relation of groups.

In contrast to communitarian theory, critical cultural pluralism offers a powerful critique of existing theories and a utopian vision of an alternative society. Critical pluralism sees the hope of democracy in terms of social groups and emphasizes the transformation of institutionalized social group hierarchies as a central feature of an adequate definition of democratic community. It is this ideal of institutionalizing social group equality that most poignantly distinguishes Young’s (1990) cultural pluralism from privatized or communitarian democratic theory. As a resource upon which to ground practice in developmental education, critical pluralism would enable professionals to redefine curriculum around the goal of just relations among competing knowledges and the groups those knowledges represent, and to define and defend developmental programs in terms of the educational mission of group justice.


Agnew, E., & McLaughlin, M. (1999). Basic writing class of ’93 five years later: How the academic paths of Blacks and Whites diverged. Journal of Basic Writing, 18, 40-54.

Barber, B. (1984). Strong democracy: Participatory politics for the modern age. Berkeley, CA: University of California.

Boylan, H. (1991, June). Opening remarks: Address to the opening session of the 1991 Summer Kellogg Institute. Paper presented at the Summer Kellogg Institute of the National Center for Developmental Education, Appalachian State University, Boone, NC.

Craig, C. (1997). Empowering nontraditional students. In J. L. Higbee & P. L. Dwinell (Eds.), Developmental education: Enhancing student retention (pp. 19-24). Carol Stream, IL: National Association for Developmental Education.

Du Bois, W. E. B. (1982). The souls of Black folk. New York, NY: New American Library.

Fidler, P. P., & Godwin, M. (1994). Retaining African American students through the freshman seminar. Journal of Developmental Education, 17, 34-6, 38, 40.

Fox, T. (1993). Standards and access. Journal of Basic Writing, 12 (1), 37-44.

Giroux, H. (1997). Pedagogy and the politics of hope: Theory, culture, schooling. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Lundell, D. B., & Collins, T. (1999). Toward a theory of developmental education: The centrality of “Discourse.” In J. L. Higbee & P. L. Dwinell (Eds.), The expanding role of developmental education (pp. 3-20). Morrow, GA: National Association for Developmental Education.

Payne, E. M., & Lyman, B. (1996). Issues affecting the definition of developmental education. In J. L. Higbee & P. L. Dwinell (Eds.), Defining developmental education: Theory, research, and pedagogy (pp. 11-20). Carol Stream, IL: National Association for Developmental Education.

Prendergast, C. (1998). Race: The absent presence in composition studies. College Composition and Communication, 50, 36-53.

Sehr, D. (1997). Education for public democracy. Albany, NY: State University of New York.

Young, I. M. (1990). Justice and the politics of difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University.

Toward a Theory of Developmental Education:The Centrality of “Discourse”

Dana Britt Lundell, Director


Terence Collins, Director of Academic Affairs and Professor

Writing and Literature

This chapter is reprinted with permission. It was originally published in J. L. Higbee and P.L. Dwinnell (Eds.), The Expanding Role of Developmental Education. Postsecondary developmental education encompasses a wide range of practices in a number of disciplines. The purposes and practices of developmental education have undergone a variety of historical transformations. Indeed, the term “developmental education” itself has emerged only recently to identify educational approaches or a set of practices which deliberately and holistically address students’ educational needs and diverse backgrounds. Shifting demographics and social imperatives have influenced these developments. Educators have identified the need and demanded recognition for programmatic models that assist students in their educational transitions, specifically those students whose backgrounds may not include experiences and discourses valued in higher education. Terms such as “remedial,” “special,” and “developmental” have consequently evolved to define both the population served and the educational paradigm through which such students enter higher education, with “developmental education” being the current term of choice.

Much of the published literature in developmental education lacks a theoretical base through which the motives and goals of seemingly disparate practices might be understood as constituting a unified core of disciplines. This is perhaps a symptom of the energetically pragmatic purposes which drive this body of research and practice. Much of the research we produce remains at an applied or assessment level, lacking a connection across the wide variety of subject areas and socio-cultural contexts that our practices seem to assume and which our disciplinary approaches seem to have in common. We propose a closer examination of the assumptions which, though unarticulated, seem to shape the research in developmental education, and we seek the creation of integrated models that are thoughtful in naming such prior assumptions. The purpose of this discussion is to identify common assumptions made by developmental educators in current published research and to challenge these assumptions constructively with the goal of expanding our definitions and theories. We propose to do so, though not out of any disdain for the committed practice of our colleagues who, like us, struggle with very pragmatic concerns at the level of practice day in and day out. Rather, we assert the need for such an enterprise for two closely related reasons:

First, work in developmental education has matured intellectually to the point where we must be overt in theorizing our enterprise so that our research and curriculum studies can compete with each other for credibility in full view of the assumptions that are their intellectual foundation;

Second, attacks on developmental education are very easy to mount when the grounds for discussion are subject to redefinition at the whim of every legislator or academic vice-president who questions the value of our practice. That is, we need to know why we do what we do, and we need to say these things aloud.


To get at an understanding of what the profession’s common assumptions and what the extant of unarticulated theories might be, we surveyed representative articles in developmental education. These articles varied in topic and purpose, including broad historical overviews, emerging definitions, and emphases on specific disciplinary areas such as math and writing. The primary source for the publications surveyed was the National Center for Developmental Education’s recent Annotated Research Bibliographies in Developmental Education, Volumes 1 and 2 (1997, 1998), which identifies articles in seven content domains, including articles from major field journals and research reports. That is, we took inclusion in the annotated bibliographies to be an indication that the piece under consideration had achieved credible status in the developmental education canon. In selecting articles and research reports for our overview, we focused on items that reported significant findings or that proposed curricular practices based on research. In each disciplinary domain, this included identifying popular debates and targeting articles that addressed these issues. The study also focused on key historical overviews, articles, and research reports exploring developmental education’s definitions or foundations.

Our methodology in this literature survey included the identification, selective review, and meta-analysis of these works. We focused on the selection of approximately 20 articles from each of the seven major research and practice categories from Volume 1 (assessment and placement, critical thinking, developmental reading, developmental writing, developmental math, minority student retention, and tutoring). To identify “representative” articles from each category, we reviewed both abstracts and articles by prominent authors in each discipline (who had more than one article included in the volume), and we marked recurring themes or issues being discussed in the literature drawn from a thematic reading of the abstracts. Additionally, we surveyed approximately 25 more articles reflecting new categories in Volume 2 which re-organized the previous seven categories into 48 subheadings, including new areas of emphasis such as program evaluation, legislation, program management, and instructional design. Focusing on this representative sample, we then examined these to identify major themes, research topics, primary assumptions, and articulations of theory related to developmental education and/or disciplinary-based or broader educational foundations.

Our purpose in this overview was to identify and examine the underlying assumptions of published research in developmental education. It was our hypothesis that this body of research and practice lacks thoughtfully articulated theories or definitions of practices that adequately describe the range of student backgrounds and socio-cultural activities reflected in developmental educational programs. Furthermore, we speculated that a survey of representative articles and reports would reveal these gaps in our collective articulation of our theory. Research and practice in developmental education continues to evolve at an important time at the national level, and an ongoing exploration of these assumptions and definitions within and across the disciplines is key to strengthening programmatic foundations and addressing student needs.

Definitions of Developmental Education

A first finding grew from a cluster of articles with a focus on definition. The term “developmental education” is a fairly recent evolution from past terms and politics, suggesting an increasing awareness of the diversity of student educational needs and personal backgrounds served in the range of sites which form our field. Terminology is important, for in our successive attempts to name ourselves are found traces of unarticulated theory which have given rise to our practice. Primarily, this work has emphasized issues relevant to students’ transitions between high school and college at sites such as community colleges and preparatory programs within four-year institutions.

Payne and Lyman (1996) outline the history and shifts in political climate that mark the progressive changes in terminology used to describe students thought to be underprepared for higher education. These changes are intricately linked to national economic trends and an ongoing examination of the larger role of education in American society. Developmental educators debate among themselves over the vocabulary used to describe their programs, students, and pedagogies, and recently have pointed to “an identity problem, if not an identity crisis” within these disciplines, suggesting that “developmental educators consider renaming themselves” in response to outside criticisms (Payne & Lyman, 1996, p. 13). This call for a re-examination of the foundations of developmental education marks an important moment in the history of this expanding body of research and practice. Although it may appear to be a time of crisis, it also creates an opportunity for self-reflection, constructive critique, and a further articulation of basic definitions and guiding principles.

In recent monographs, The National Association for Developmental Education (NADE) has established a working definition for “developmental education” which includes a holistic focus on cognitive and affective development of students, acknowledges a spectrum of learning styles and needs, and promotes an interdisciplinary range of approaches and student services. Higbee (1991) further examines this definition within the context of cultural pluralism, emphasizing a more positive framework for viewing students in their full complexities, not as “deficient” as past terms such as “remedial” have traditionally implied. These terms have created definitional and programmatic “myths” (p. 74) which Higbee challenges, acknowledging the barriers and stereotypes that arise amidst this confusion over terminology. These challenges and current definitions represent the most recent efforts to examine foundations and create a critical agenda for the future of developmental theory and practice. But at the same time, the recurring nature of the definitional argument actually discloses the first tacit theory: it appears that as a profession, we operate from an assumption that students or their home environments must be “fixed,” that the students served in our programs or their families or their neighborhood are in some way pathological when seen against an imagined “healthy” norm.

Tomlinson’s (1989) report also identified the complex, shifting definitions during the past century, noting definition ambiguities and challenges facing developmental educators. She traces the history of terms used to label underprepared students which primarily have emphasized models of deficiency. Again, the evolution toward the currently preferred term “developmental” shifts away from these notions of students as “lacking” as individuals or in their backgrounds, to a model which focuses on how “to bring something into being as if for the first time” (p. 7). This term has called for the shifting of discussions about these students and their programs away from deficit theory to more ability-based definitions and assumptions. Even this more broad-based definitional shift exposes a theory some might find problematic: if the goal of developmental education is “to bring something into being as if for the first time,” the tacit theory must include the notion that what is already “in being” about the student is to be devalued as unfit for the new environment.

Despite recent critical assessment of foundational terminology, however, developmental educational research and practice, and its definitions, remain in a state of flux and are subject to both external and internal challenges as many items in the literature indicate. This may simply be the result of the wide range of local conditions and shifting demographics that influence definitions, student populations, and programmatic structures (Tomlinson, 1989), or it may indeed disclose a lack of professional consensus on key issues of theory, on key issues of how we construct intellectual frameworks for practice.

Primary Assumptions

Beyond the basic definitions offered in recent literature, there are many unstated assumptions informing most research studies and program models. Even as programs fall within the general scope of “developmental education,” they vary widely, and within this variation is the measure of our lack of a coherent theory, or rationalization, for what we do. Our unexamined practice and unarticulated theory—in a domain which is already marginalized in higher education research—places our enterprise further into a subordinate position. Despite a pattern of recurring calls for thoughtful self-definition, noted above, the primary body of literature in developmental education remains focused on under-theorized curricular practice and traditional disciplinary-based models for students and programs. The literature discloses several patterns:

1. Disciplinary-specific models and definitions of developmental educational practice which emphasize practical, pedagogical issues are the norm in the research.

2. Articulated assumptions about developmental education focus on attitudinal, psychological, and affective dimensions, primarily at the level of the individual and related mostly to behavioral and skills-based issues and needs.

3. 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.

4. The bulk of articles reflecting more broadly on national and historical issues relevant to developmental education tend to focus primarily on assessment tools and paradigms, reinforcing dichotomized “insider/outsider” categories for students in terms of barriers and educational hierarchies.

5. Few programs have articulated and presented their own models to a broader audience, specifically as they relate to relevant educational theories informing their conception and relationship to current definitions of developmental education.

Despite recent efforts to expand the definitions of developmental education, it is apparent that popular conversations which place students into simplistic, assessment-based categories prevail. The predominant orientation of these five patterns indicates a primary emphasis in the field on issues of pedagogy, and a tendency to reflect or borrow existing theoretical models, primarily in the field of psychology and from assessment measures. The majority of these models prioritize definitions and theories of students pitted against an imagined societal norm, discounting their prior knowledge, strengths, and home cultures. In our assessment of the literature, this theoretical stance appears to be adopted mostly by accident, through our cumulative lack of attention to the primary theoretical foundations and philosophies of our local practices in developmental education. We propose that these conversations will need to shift in the future toward an examination of these five assumptions as they will challenge current perceptions of our field, and as they will more thoughtfully contribute to our position as a theory-making entity within higher education. Our conversation begins with an exploration of how these patterns are mapped out specifically within the primary research canons in developmental education.

Evidence in the Literature

To uncover these assumptions, we reviewed our representative literature sample carefully to identify basic definitions, foundations, and stances toward research and practice in developmental education. Each domain we examined in the annotated bibliographies reveals a productive contribution to the field in terms of research publications that address practical and theoretical issues within specific disciplines. Yet as developmental education encompasses many disciplines, interdisciplinary links in information about theory and practice which cut across these areas have not been as widely produced. Individual, discipline-specific articles emphasizing pedagogical issues prevail over broad-based examinations of educational and developmental theories. It was our primary assumption that this reflects a historically constructed stance and ethos in developmental education which future conversations need to interrogate. While this position certainly reflects a richness in our commitments to classroom practice and to our students, it is an approach that has not led to expanded theoretical conceptions that can effectively articulate our primary contributions and foundations within higher education.

To test this first assumption, we sampled the content areas and categories in the literature for evidence of how the canon currently reflects this primary pedagogical orientation. The areas of reading and writing, for example, provide a thoughtful representation of this history in developmental education research. Articles in these content areas address issues in meta-cognitive development (Applegate & Quinn, 1994; Flower, 1989; Hodge, 1993), learning theory and classroom methods (Davis, 1992; Easley, 1989), process-based instructional paradigms (Commander & Gibson, 1994; Williamson, 1988), motivation (Mealey, 1990), support services like tutoring (Hartman, 1990), and assessment-related issues such as grammar and English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction (Diaz, 1995; Doyle & Fueger, 1995; Sedgwick, 1989). Dominant theories in the fields of education and composition also inform developmental reading and writing research, including areas such as socio-cultural issues related to theories of remediation in basic reading and writing (Hull & Rose, 1989) and histories of theoretical changes in these fields (Goodman, 1984; Quinn, 1995; Williamson, 1987). Although discipline-specific theories offer the possibility of connecting more broadly toward definitions of developmental education practice across the disciplines, the information typically remains rather pedagogically focused and disciplinary-bound within these primary content areas.

Our criticism of this research is not in its lack of ability to evolve our pedagogies and shape curricula in our local programs; rather, we see this as developmental education’s inherent strength. In fact, it is this primary attention to the diverse instructional needs of our students which marks our work as progressive in higher education. However, as we have given priority to this standpoint in the past, we have often remained myopic in these examinations as they are positioned more broadly across the disciplines. It is our challenge to the evidence of this first assumption that we need to begin the next step in a process of increasing developmental education’s visibility. We also believe this can be done through an extension of existing research, for its implications are rich, but as yet unarticulated in their connections to a theory of developmental education. For example, theories and strategies in the development of critical thinking (Chaffee, 1992; Elder & Paul, 1996) that appear in developmental education research have the potential for further application across the disciplines. Similarly, studies of minority students and multi-cultural issues (Boylan, Saxon, White & Erwin, 1994; Knott, 1991; Miller, 1990) provide evidence of rich and untapped resources for theoretical development across the disciplines. An examination of these philosophical foundations and an application of these tenets to definitions of developmental education can create a more unified perspective of how our students learn with a focus on their multiple contexts, not just what we are teaching them in the content areas.

Even in this bibliographic categorization of these as separate content areas in the 1997 bibliographies—critical thinking, and minority student retention—a particular pedagogical and epistemological stance is reflected. These categories seem to reflect a possible point of transcendence over the traditional disciplinary divisions as they prioritize theoretical orientations and culturally relevant issues over pedagogical tactics. Yet while it is necessary to address content-based approaches within our current structures for developmental programs, it appears that our most widely useful theoretical models often remain bound within these preconceived categories. This results in a strong, ongoing assessment and sharing of practice-based issues, but it does not ultimately lead to a strengthening and building of relevant theories that can be applied across the disciplines and contribute to a better understanding of our culturally diverse student populations. The most recent bibliographic volume (Volume 2, 1998), however, reflect a more integrated approach to its organization as it shifts from the content-based labels to a richer blend of foundational, pedagogical, and theoretical areas reflected in the research. This shift positively challenges the first assumption simply through its suggestion that a range of issues, rather than a fixed set of disciplines, is what unifies us as a body of research and practice. However, our theory and research designs need to follow similarly in this approach to work more explicitly as a theory-building entity in higher education, a move which ultimately best serves our students through our strong tradition of pedagogical critique.

The second assumption we uncovered is reflected in a recurring focus on attitudinal, psychological, and affective dimensions in the field which emphasize individual, behavioral, and skills-based issues and needs. These have certainly provided one of the most informative and active frameworks through which we have challenged reductionist education models and expanded definitions. In surveying the most recent (1998) bibliographic collection, we noticed that learning assistance, advising, tutoring, and skills-based models for learning reflect our primary developmental models. These are informed by a rich history of learning development theories based on cognitive and affective processes (Boyle & Peregoy, 1990; Hylton & Hartman, 1997; Smith & Price, 1996; Spann, 1990). These models have contributed to the development of one of the unique features of developmental education programs—the use of additional educational support services such as learning centers which offer individualized assistance. However, as far as these skills-centered instructional modes go to address these cognitive factors, they do not expand much beyond this mode of learning enhancement to challenge this deficit-based programmatic model.

The third assumption in the literature describes how these individualistic models tend to reinforce notions of remediation even as they may purport to reject them, especially as they apply to diverse student populations. When our definitions remain focused on linear, stage-oriented developmental schemes, we develop only one aspect of a more complicated picture of students’ backgrounds and of the role institutional contexts play in these interactions. This includes a broad range of social, economic, political, and cultural backgrounds which intersect in ways that affect students’ experiences in the classroom. While our rhetoric embraces notions of diversity and recognizes that we serve non-traditional populations of students in greater numbers than most programs in higher education, our research does not similarly reflect this reality. Linear models of cognitive and affective development are often used to justify and validate assessment tools and behavioral labels, and they typically categorize students within a limited range of specific “skills sets” or linear developmental tasks. What is missing from existing frameworks is a culturally-based examination of student needs and pedagogical implications.

A broader recognition of the diverse contexts within which developmental education takes place is essential. For example, the notion of multiple contexts and communities (Phelan, Davidson & Yu, 1998) within which students, their programs, and their teachers live and work is key in this evolving understanding of developmental education. Work, family, peers, school, languages and other communities are interconnected in this broader picture. Such culturally-specific models for development address students holistically as they make transitions into higher educational settings. These issues are especially important as we continue to discuss educational opportunities and experiences relevant to the needs of students of color and other traditionally bypassed populations such as students for whom English is a second language, low-income and first-generation college students, and students with disabilities.

Current individualistic definitions simply do not extend far enough in recognizing multiple cultural issues which are important factors in student success in higher educational settings. We propose that interdisciplinary theoretical models be incorporated into definitions of developmental education. More research must be done in this area to challenge individualistic models which often separate students and their academic skills from their communities. Such research might help developmental educators challenge deficit models of students by constructing models that can view students as fully formed individuals—and not merely as “underprepared.” Students can be seen instead as individuals who are traversing the territory of new communities while retaining and bringing their previous strengths and identities into higher education. This might also lead us to expand beyond the linear views in developmental psychological theories which unrealistically tend to scaffold and compartmentalize students’ development. This would answer Higbee’s (1996) call for an ongoing focus on the more positive, domain-oriented educational models which address intellectual development.

A fourth assumption uncovered by the survey focuses on conversations about assessment, which form the bulk of research studies in the developmental education. The reality is that most educational programs are frequently defined by local contexts such as legislation, politics, test scores, and other external factors of placement. This is perhaps the reason for the richness in programmatic models and emerging definitions in the field, yet these conversations also tend to reinforce the language of barriers and “insider/outsider” notions even as much of the recent research in this area has attempted to challenge this trend (Darling-Hammond, 1994; Gabriel, 1989; Fuentes, 1993; Kerlin & Britz, 1994; Jitendra & Kameenui, 1993; Seybert, 1994). Whereas this assessment bind may be inescapable in many locales, it also marks an important place in our practice where the challenge to externally-limiting definitions can continue. As definitions in developmental education become less focused on a language of remediation and more on inclusive, holistic models, it is important that research in assessment also begin to challenge its traditional stance of divisiveness and barrier-making language—even when these realities continue to be binding. While assessment tools certainly create initial placement lines and define who does or does not enter programs, developmental education does not begin or end with these preconceived boundaries.

The final assumption we uncovered in this survey focuses on the articulation of programmatic models to broader audiences—beyond the boundaries of individual disciplines, specifically as they relate to relevant educational theories informing their conception. There is a strong history of sharing classroom models and strategies within field-specific domains, but few of these are linked directly to definitions of developmental education and an explanation of relevant educational theories which inform their foundations. Programs need to be more self-reflective about current goals and theories, like La Guardia Community College (Chaffee, 1992; Simpson, 1993) has done in the past. Discussions such as these, which are oriented toward the unveiling of tacit theories underscoring local practice, provide directive starting points and useful models for other programs to investigate and share their work with a national audience. Such ongoing articulation and sharing of programmatic philosophies and educational foundations is important, especially in a field which is interdisciplinary by nature. Research centers like the National Center for Developmental Education (Spann, 1996) and national organizations like NADE also continue to provide forums for this shared information. However, this strand of our conversation needs to move beyond the sharing of pedagogical and classroom models and toward an inclusion of broad-based representations of programs, their locales, their educational philosophies, and the communities they serve. This will contribute to a richer definition of developmental education, and it can provide ongoing, interdisciplinary frameworks linked to useful theories in education which, in turn, can lead us to expanded research in the field.

Toward Theory: James Paul Gee and the Centrality of “Discourse”

We argue that a healthy next step for this discussion would be consideration of a variety of theoretical directions for developmental education. As a profession, we have operated on the basis of tacit theories of deficit models and normative socialization. Such tacit theories are disclosed by examination of our practices. But the examination of practices to discern what our tacit theories might have been seems backwards, at best. A more deliberate engagement with theory as a precondition for adoption of practice is consistent with developments such as the recent public articulation of definitions of developmental education among NADE members (Higbee & Dwinell, 1996). In recommending a greater engagement with theory, we risk appearing to be judgmental about or dismissive towards the literature reviewed above. Nothing could be further from our intention. In calling on colleagues—and ourselves—to articulate and apply theories which might guide our practice and form a framework for further testing of our assumptions, we hope to add value to the everyday efforts which are at the heart of developmental education and access programs in higher education. We recognize, too, that examination of theory is inherently frustrating. As each theory is examined and tested, its limits become apparent and competing theories enter our field of vision. Moreover, as we embrace any one theory for the space of time it takes us to learn from it, we are inevitably in a reductionist posture toward the complex domain of developmental education. Theory is humbling, as well, in that fiscal and human resources rather than theory typically provide and define the tangible limits of our efforts. Recognizing that, however, we also remain convinced that in the absence of evolving theories of what we do, we are left without the complex bases on which compelling cases can be made for both what we do and how we propose to do it.

As a starting point in engaging theory which might better inform our practice as developmental educators, we point to James Paul Gee’s notion of “Discourse” (Gee, 1996). Building from the intersection of culture studies and sociolinguistics, Gee defines a Discourse as follows:

A Discourse is a socially accepted association among ways of using language, other symbolic expressions, and “artifacts”, of thinking, feeling, believing, valuing, and acting that can be used to identify oneself as a member of a socially meaningful group or “social network”, or to signal (that one is playing) a socially meaningful “role.” (p. 131)

That is, Discourses are ways of being in the world. (Gee [1996] uses the upper case “D” to distinguish this complex meaning from “discourse” in its everyday uses tied to spoken language). A Discourse “is a way of speaking/listening and often, too, writing/reading in specific social languages, as well as acting, interacting, valuing, feeling, dressing, thinking, believing, with other people and with various objects, tools, and technologies” (Gee, 1998, p. 9). Our “primary Discourse,” most typically the one we acquire at home as children, forms our language uses and defines for us the basic terms of human interactions. This primary Discourse makes available to us a sense of values, a set of cues from which we learn our roles and response patterns. The primary Discourse and its ways with words, ways with people, ways of carrying ourselves, ways of understanding the complex varieties of human behaviors that make up home life and neighborhood life, is powerfully formative. This primary Discourse gives us, according to Gee (1998), “our initial and often enduring sense of self” (p. 9) Moreover, the primary Discourse gives form to our culturally specific vernacular language, the language we take out into the world with us when we go off to school.

For Gee, Discourses are embricated with ideology. Without our giving it much critical reflection, we acquire values, world views, perceptions of others, and a definition of ourselves within the deeply complex affective and cognitive domains of the family or other unit of early socialization. These include our situated language (our family or community’s version of English, for instance) and our initial perceptions of what “counts” as knowledge and its meaningful expression (like storytelling from individual experience as the unit of knowledge and its expression, as an example). These languages and perceptions are acquired within the same deep contexts as are our sense of what is right, what is wrong, how the social world is modeled or imagined, and a host of other “truths” (i.e., perceptions) through which we construct our social selves within the everyday realities we inhabit. As a result, Discourses are comprised of interpenetrating patterns of values, “knowledge,” language, beliefs, roles, and relationships.

From this vantage point, one’s life can be said to be marked by the interplay of different Discourses. Our primary, or initial, Discourse is added to or modified by the series of secondary Discourses with which we come into contact and to which we attach value as we live our lives. Gee (1998) notes emphatically that as we acquire or learn secondary Discourses, we “filter” (p. 10) them through our primary or initial Discourse. New Discourses (such as the Discourse of being a student in a school) are acquired or resisted in proportion to their perceived compatibility with the primary Discourse. Furthermore, acquiring any secondary Discourse (where “acquiring” means that its features become part of one’s enduring sense of self) requires both learning the terms of the new Discourse and recurring meaningful practice of its key features.

School is comprised of sets of Discourses—“ways of using language, other symbolic expressions… thinking, feeling, believing, valuing, and acting” (Gee, 1996, p. 131). In the U.S., the Discourses of schools are marked by white middle class ways (how adults are addressed; how a child is groomed; how authority is asserted or acknowledged; how limited forms of English are used; how literate knowledge is primary; and how knowledge is expressed, and so forth, for example). In addition, school Discourses reflect and value the practices and world-views of specialized communities, such as science or law. Children in many families, of course, learn within their primary Discourse many of the features of the secondary Discourses they will encounter when they enroll in school. That is, they will have a primary Discourse which includes values, ways of expressing themselves, dispositions toward what counts as knowledge, ways of dressing and behaving, which are consistent with the specialized Discourses of school. An individual’s “enduring sense of self” (Gee, 1996, p. 9) can be said to have been constructed in ways which dispose him or her towards the Discourse of school. For “successful” students, school becomes the place in which they acquire through both learning and meaningful practice the peculiar set of secondary Discourses that comprise school knowledge and behavior.

How successful one will be in acquiring a new Discourse depends in large part on the degree to which the new Discourse conflicts with or threatens the primary Discourse and the enduring sense of self it sponsors. From this perspective, some students who do not do well in school might be seen to have not acquired school Discourses (school values, preferred language forms, authority structures, constructions of knowledge, ways of expressing knowledge, social practices) because the new Discourse threatened or conflicted with the primary Discourse and its ways in those domains. And it is often such students who enter the programs where developmental educators work.

Gee (1998) calls such students who come to higher education without having successfully acquired school Discourses “latecomers” (p.11). However, as he has evolved the term recently to reflect a more positive connotation, he now calls them “authentic beginners” to describe “people, whether children or adults, who have come to learning sites of any sort without the sorts of early preparation, pre-alignment in terms of cultural values, and sociocultural resources that more advantaged learners at those sites have” (Gee, 1999, p. 1). For authentic beginners, who lack experiences in and familiarity with the domain of education and, in particular, higher education, the task of acquiring the new Discourses in ways which might lead to full mastery of knowledge sets and fluency in skills is complex. In fact, he notes, “People who teach latecomers [authentic beginners] require the most knowledge, sophistication, heart, and talent of any teachers I can think of” (1998, p. 20). Gee assigns to higher education an assembly of specialized Discourses, all of which would be situated as secondary Discourses against the primary Discourses of students whose families or early socializing environment has not led them to smooth acquisition of school Discourses. (In this he is consistent with developmental education legislation under the U.S. Department of Education TRIO Programs, in which special supports are targeted at “first-generation college students” on the assumption that the primary Discourses of such students will not be formed in ways which lead to ready acquisition of the secondary Discourses of school and higher education.)

A number of implications for developmental education might be derived from Gee’s Discourse theory. When we invite “underprepared” or developmental students to join us in the enterprise of higher education, we invite them into a social world where sets of certain secondary Discourses define the terms of success. Certain modes of social behavior, certain ranges of spoken and written English, certain conventions of dress and of interpersonal relations, and certain modes of inquiry, all of them interpenetrating, interact to define what is appropriate, what is valued, what counts as knowledge in this environment. These secondary Discourses are most typically outside the range of the “everyday” world inhabited by our students as an extension of their primary Discourse. The acquisition of the new secondary Discourses of higher education for such latecomer students is no simple matter. Gee (1998) articulates a number of features necessary for the success of developmental students and which will mark successful developmental programs for “latecomer” students in higher education. Each has implications for our practice. Taken together they add to our capacity to affirm some aspects of current practice and to critique elements of the status quo as evident in the survey of the literature cited earlier.

First, Gee argues that effective efforts aimed at developmental students must have a “low affective filter” (Gee, 1998, p. 16). That is, the new Discourse of higher education must be organized and made available to latecomers in ways which will not promote conflict with their primary and other extant Discourses. He notes that central to this is treating latecomer students and their other Discourses with respect, and “allowing them to actively build on what they already know and feel as a bridge to acquisition of a new Discourse” (Gee, 1998, p. 16). When our utterances and our practice as developmental educators represent the primary and other extant Discourses of our students in a deficit model needing remediation, we have already lost the battle.

Second, latecomers will acquire the Discourse of higher education most efficiently through what Gee (1998) calls “situated practice” (p. 16). He argues that people learn by “engaging in authentic practices within the Discourse [and] finding patterns in those experiences” (p. 16). He draws on research in a number of disciplines to argue that people need “lots and lots of actual and meaningful experiences (practices) in a new Discourse” (p. 16) if they are to acquire it. Developmental education programs which posit a “quick fix” or instruction disembodied from meaningful practice (as some drill and practice programs have been characterized) offer a low probability of success, despite their attraction to legislators and administrators with pinched purses.

Third is the principle of “automaticity” (Gee, 1998, p. 17). Gee asserts the need for developmental students to acquire simultaneously both lower order and higher order skills of the Discourse of higher education in the context of meaningful practice. Through repeated practice in meaningful contexts, the learner masters lower order skills to the point of their being automatic, while the higher order skills are used and also mastered. He uses the example of reading to illustrate. To read efficiently, one relies on mastery of lower order skills (e.g., recognizing words) in order to do the important work of making inferences from the text (the higher order skill). Students will acquire the lower order skill of recognizing words at the level of automaticity only through repeated meaningful practice in actual Discourse contexts (suggesting there is something important to be learned). The principle of automaticity seems to argue for developmental programs in which the authentic-beginner student engages in meaningful practice toward important learning, and suggests, perhaps, that “skills” are acquired only in the context of meaningful engagement with the subject matter curriculum rather than in isolated preparatory skills courses.

Gee’s fourth principle is “functionality,” which he defines succinctly:

It is impossible for people to acquire any secondary Discourse unless they truly believe (not just say they believe) that they will be able (and allowed) to actually function (at least eventually) in the new Discourse and get something valued out of it. Of course, one good way to gain this belief is to experience oneself as actually functioning in and benefiting from (at progressively more sophisticated levels) a Discourse as part and parcel of the process of acquiring it. (p. 17)

Developmental programs which isolate students from “real college” and unduly postpone the experience of its benefits are at odds with the principle of functionality. Most importantly, programs which create (or which are perceived to function as creating) an overly “contingent” relation between the student and the mainstream of the institution might be counterproductive.

Students who are engaged in meaningful practice in the ways of the new Discourse of higher education through their developmental programs are, according to Gee (1998), on the right track toward acquisition of the Discourse. But the practice must be structured in ways that the student learns from experience the “right” and “wrong” ways of operating. This is his fifth characteristic, which he calls “scaffolding” (p. 17). As he outlines this principle, Gee notes that latecomer learners engaged in meaningful practice must interact with teachers or others who have mastered the Discourse, so that these “masters” can intervene in the midst of this practice to say “pay attention to this now” (p. 18) or otherwise provide explicit guidance, explanations, or perhaps modeling of the “right” ways of performing within this aspect of the Discourse. “Scaffolding” would seem to argue for developmental education practices such as supplemental instruction, basic writing workshops of small enough enrollment to make the process of intervention possible, supervised homework sessions in mathematics, and other learning situations that are sufficiently constrained to allow the learner to see the teacher as one who intervenes in the process of practice as a trusted coach with mastery cues.

Gee’s (1998) sixth principle is related to the idea of scaffolding. He articulates it as “meta-awareness of what one already knows” (p. 18). As noted several times, the acquisition of new Discourses is optimally possible when the new Discourse is not seen as threatening to or demeaning of the learner’s primary or other extant Discourses. Similarly, the acquisition of a new Discourse is easiest when the process assists the learner in coming to know better what it is that he already knows on related matters—to know better what it is one has already mastered in the primary or other extant Discourses. An obvious example of this can be found in those basic writing pedagogies in which users of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) acquire so-called “Standard English” through practice which builds on becoming aware of what they already know through their mastery of AAVE.

From the perspective of Gee’s (1998) seventh point, for authentic-beginner learners to acquire the new or secondary Discourse of higher education, they must engage in a process of “critical framing” (p. 18) of competing Discourses. Gee notes (1998) that those who are “core members” of a Discourse tend to be “true believers” (p. 18). That is, when we are grounded in a Discourse, we are not disposed toward critiquing it. After all, as we acquire Discourses we are forming the self, or at least the social self, in new ways. This reluctance to critique a Discourse in which we are situated is thus understandable, given the complex interweaving of values, social forms, linguistic forms, beliefs, roles, etc. which comprise a Discourse in which we feel “at home.” When we attempt to acquire a new Discourse, it is important that we be able to identify conflicts between old and new Discourses—that we “frame” one within the other in order to see both critically. In the instance of the latecomer student, such critical framing might lead to an awareness of the limits of both the old and new Discourses, and might also help the learner see the potential each Discourse has in their domains of strength.

Finally, Gee (1998) insists that authentic beginners must be involved in a process of “transformed practice” (p. 19) in regard to the Discourses they inhabit. In particular, says Gee

It is necessary that they come to understand how Discourses work to help and harm people, to include and exclude, to support and oppose other Discourses. It is necessary that latecomers develop strategies of how to deflect the gate-keepers of Discourses when their newly won and hard fought for mastery may be challenged or begin to fail them. It is necessary that they develop the power to critique and resist the impositions of Discourses when these Discourses are used to construct people like themselves as “inferior” (often because they are latecomers [authentic beginners]). (p. 19)

Gee seems to be arguing that those of us who work in developmental education need to invite our students into a very clear discussion of the ways in which higher education as a Discourse operates as an agent of social construction. In the process of helping our students to enter that specific Discourse as developmental or “remedial” students, it is critical that we assist them in coming to understand the nature of Discourses in general and the place they occupy from their location as latecomers caught between competing ways and contradictory values on their way into the strange—or strangely wonderful—construct we know as higher education.

The implications of Gee’s observations might take us in a number of directions. His theory of Discourse and synthesis of features of educational programs which lead to the acquisition of the Discourses of higher education seem to point toward developmental education programs which (a) respect through rhetoric and practice the students’ primary Discourses acquired in family and community; (b) engage students recurrently in meaningful practice in situations where real learning is the goal; (c) provide full disclosure of the terms of success through ambitious and meaningful practice marked by frequent, supported interventions by trusted “masters” which guide the learners toward patterns and ways which are “right” in the context of the new Discourse; (d) build explicitly on what students already know; and (e) disclose the essential features of higher education, its values, and the nature of its practices. At the same time, Gee’s theory of Discourse points us away from simplistic deficit models and a preoccupation with assessments which are not thoughtfully constructed and carefully explained. The theory might further provide the basis for critique of developmental programs of short duration or overly limited scope. Gee reminds us that when we invite authentic-beginner students into higher education through the portal of developmental education programs, we invite them into a complexly structured institution with arbitrary norms, into a socially and culturally constructed Discourse which may well be at odds with the “enduring self” (1998, p. 9) of the student as formed within the circle of family and community—and that to do so puts the burden of welcome and inclusion on us, the students’ instructors. Above all, the theory of Discourse engages us in an optimistic re-examination of various assumptions and principles which have formed both our professional practice and our literature. In that spirit, we offer this essay as a start toward a discussion of theory.


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Is Developmental Education a Racial Project? Considering Race Relationships in Developmental Education Spaces

Heidi Lasley Barajas, Assistant Professor


As a sociologist teaching in a developmental education unit, I am acutely aware that both disciplines, sociology and education, revolve around White theorists, create spaces that are inherently White, and create a culture of Whiteness that is more apt to study persons of color than to utilize their skills, talents, and ideas. The theoretical arguments and empirical evidence in this article explore the possibility that schools are what critical theory terms a racial project in which everyday school experiences and the school process are racially organized. Often, participation in racial projects silences students of color, and creates barriers to resources much like gendered spaces silence and create barriers for women.

This last year has found the call for a cross-disciplinary theoretical framework for practice in developmental education getting louder. The reasons for this are numerous, but Martha Maxwell (2000) gives both academic and practical reasons. Maxwell states that developmental education “not only lacks academic standing, but its practitioners do not have power to set or even contribute to policy decisions within their academic communities” (2000, p. 8). Judith Shapiro (2000) writes that students tend to define the term “racism” as discrimination based on what we take to mean physical differences of one kind or another. This definition prompted her to ask students what “class” means. What Shapiro expected to hear was a definition of class that included the structure of our society and how socioeconomic inequalities were built into it. However, her students seemed to be concerned about individuals—prejudice against individuals belonging to less-privileged socioeconomic groups. Shapiro’s experience provoked her to ask a very important question: Were students also viewing racism exclusively in terms of individual identities and interpersonal relationships? Shapiro’s fear is that the goal of creating a more just society had dwindled into a matter of sensitivity training or what she refers to as “sociological illiteracy” (p. A68). She states, “as a person may be illiterate in the most literal sense (unable to read or write), or scientifically illiterate, so a person may be uneducated in the social sciences, and thus unable to make use of the insights and tools that those disciplines provide (p. A68). Her argument is simple. If people know nothing about scientific topics they are “generally aware of their ignorance, readily admit it, and realize the remedy for their ignorance is serious and systematic study” (p. A68). However, when the subject is society, how society operates and why people behave in particular ways, people tend to confuse their beliefs with knowledge. We all walk around with theories about the social world in our heads just like sociologists. Unfortunately, people tend to do it badly. This brings us to our role as educators in a fairly sociologically illiterate society. Shapiro states that as educators, we must take our share of the responsibility to provide “to all of our students…basic tools of social and cultural understanding…to teach them how historical understanding is constructed” (p. A68). Shapiro issues this challenge to social science educators. I would like to issue that same challenge to us as developmental educators.

As our multi-disciplinary and diverse population of educators continues in its efforts to understand and define developmental education, we must not proceed without considering the way we think about race, because how we think affects the way we understand and relate to students of color. This is not to say that developmental educators do not consider issues of gender, race, and class particularly in practice. However, developmental education theoretically tends to stand in the same place as other disciplines such as sociology, as a “White” discipline. Hartmann (1999) recounts that in 1975 a sociologist named Joyce Ladner along other colleagues attempted to ameliorate this situation through the critique of traditional sociology as inattentive to the ongoing struggles for freedom, equality, and justice for people of color. He states that for Ladner, doing so would mean more than studying people of color and their particular problems. Although Ladner and her peers introduced the need for a change in traditional sociology 25 years ago, Hartmann acknowledges that a new millennium has come and the Whiteness of traditional sociology has not been detoured. His claim is that sociology has remained entrenched in traditional ideas because race is not, and should be, treated as a distinct area of sociological specialization. In addition, Hartmann argues the sociology that is specific to race relations tends, unlike other academic disciplines, to be framed in assimilationist theory. History, American studies, legal studies, women’s studies, and literature all have taken on the task of treating framing research in a race-critical approach.

This last year has found developmental education attempting to redefine its current theoretical framework based in psychological theory to include a cross-disciplinary approach. One of the reasons for doing so should be similar to those Ladner (1972) stated were necessary for a change in sociology—the traditional framework in developmental education tends to focus on deficit and normative models of student educational attainment rather than on the struggle for educational equality and justice for people of color. What complicates the situation of developmental education is the rich literature that speaks to how we practice as educators. The literature contains impressive consideration of students who do not fit the mainstream picture of education. However, we seldom utilize theoretical frames that help us explain the experiences of students of color beyond their skills. The consequences are that we cannot understand how the structure of our relationship with the institution affects our relationships with our students, regardless of what that institution is, rather than just exploring the student-institutional fit. The introduction of race-critical based theory to a theoretical framework for developmental education is important as part of the foundation of practice. Exploring the processes and mechanisms through which we work as educators is vital to understanding how we practice. However, race-critical based theory acknowledges that individual agency, and the struggle and resistance social actors employ, are not always in opposition to existing structures, but have developed as a part of the reproduction and transformation of those structures. Acknowledging such a presence serves an equally important part in developmental education; that is the effect that a theoretical framework that includes race-critical theory potentially could have on policy.

Race and Schools: What Is Left Out?

Leading theories about race and educational attainment assume that students of color in general have two options: assimilate to an established norm and succeed or resist that norm and fail. The exception to a dichotomous model is found in Hugh Mehan’s (1979, 1992, & 1996) work. Mehan’s excellent piece of scholarship and example of applied sociology discusses ways in which Latino students resist yet succeed in public school. However, one exception has not yet diminished the prevalence of dichotomous models found in much of the theory. The reason may be that even when citing structural disadvantages as a cause of school failure, resistance to school norms and success are often considered mutually exclusive and determined by student decisions alone. Such an approach ignores the processes and mechanisms through which students are privileged or disadvantaged.

We do, in education, look at relationships in schools as we explore how to understand educational institutions, and there is no doubt that we talk about race and schools. Overall, however, we look at schools through the eyes of those who are employed in the institution, the eyes looking at the population we serve rather than through the eyes and experiences of those we serve. I suggest we think about how relationships experienced in school look through the eyes of students of color. To do so, I will explore how race-critical theory explains a small sample of my empirical data about Chicano Latino students. Between 1996 and 1998, I interviewed 45 university Chicano Latino students participating in a mentor program housed at a large Midwestern university. Thirty-one are female and 14 are male. Thirty-three participating students are bilingual, Spanish and English speaking, and 12 speak only English. University participants ranged in age from 18 to 25. They relate both kindergarten through 12th grade and university experiences.

Chicano Latino Students in School Space

Chicano Latino students more often than not described schools as “White spaces.” I had to figure out what this meant. As I looked for patterns in their explanations, I found examples of institutions acting as White spaces through their formal practices. By formal practices I mean school policy, such as admissions, financial aid, and what programs educational institutions provide for students of color, or what is not provided. In addition to formal policies, some aspects of schools as White spaces may be identified through informal practices such as control over the classroom environment, grading practices, and the assignment of negative attributes to Chicano Latinos as a group. The examples for this chapter focus on informal practices because that is where many Chicano Latino students relate the importance of strong cultural identity and with that strength, appear to negotiate the consequences of informal practices occurring in White spaces.

University students often disclosed that they were drawn to certain things as younger children, but not necessarily being aware of these things as part of a cultural identity. As a process, these students nurtured an awareness that their difference is important, and strengthening connections to what made them different is important. This was particularly true in situations where those connections were disrupted. For example, Laticia, a 21 year old Chicana university freshman relates that

when I got into high school it became something very important to me because I went to a high school where the population was upper class and mostly White. And I learned that I had frustrations with the mentalities or the ideologies that the students had . . . So I think in high school that is when I really tried hard to understand Spanish and get everything down grammatically and verbally. And that is when I started to seek out other opportunities where I could hang on to my culture or gain knowledge of different parts of my history.

When asked if she could remember a specific example of this “White mentality,” Laticia recounted a situation in her high school humanities class, basically an English literature class. The class was reading Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1969). In the class discussion, this student had brought up the ignorance of the author by referring to the trek into Africa as darkness, equating the darkness with an evil energy stripping the White men of their will to work and hope. Laticia had even read an essay by an African American writer who made this argument. She went on to tell me that several White students in the class were offended by her comments, saying that Conrad wasn’t even talking about race, only about how much vegetation surrounded the river. After the first comment, Laticia raised her hand to participate in the conversation, but the teacher refused to call on her, and after five comments from White students about the offensiveness of this talk about race, the teacher closed the discussion. Laticia talked to the teacher after class and asked why he didn’t call on her. He told her, “I did not call on you because I knew what you were going to say, and it is too upsetting to the other students.” Laticia tells me,

I understood that the assumption of the White teacher, that White students, who were the majority of the class, were in need of protection [and that] silenced me. It also taught me that even in academic discussions, I am not part of the White world of my school.

This student clearly understood the school world as White. Furthermore, the power a majority of White students and a White teacher have in a classroom discussion is about more than numbers. How do we discuss this experience? What concepts define patterns like this? The mechanism that allows White teachers and students to participate in a conversation like this one is what I have termed the taken-for-granted organizational logic that orders classroom interactions as White spaces. The environment or climate of the classroom situation was more than chilly for Laticia. She does not say she is “uncomfortable” or that she felt others were not taking her seriously. Nor did she say she felt discriminated against. Laticia defines her experience as someone who is not White upsetting those who are White, consequently being told through words and actions that she should keep that difference invisible. Furthermore, Laticia learned through this experience that appropriate relationships in the classroom are those that keep her difference invisible. White students receive the same messages but in a different way. They were able to participate in the classroom by being who they are, but not necessarily by being aware that who they are is the norm because the school is a White space. Laticia’s White teacher may understand he has authority and therefore power in the classroom, but may not associate that power and authority with practices that reinforce his classroom as a White space. Yet, the teacher by his actions and words made the student of color disappear. This is how invisible White space is to White people in that space, and how visible it often is to the “other” in that same space.

Relationships as Part of Organization Logic and Racial Formation

Feminist theorists such as Joan Acker (1989) and Jennifer Pierce (1995) have addressed the idea of a space operating as a place of advantage or disadvantage. Their research argues that a process exists by which “advantage and disadvantage, exploitation and control, action and emotion, meaning and identity are patterned through and in terms of a distinction between male and female, masculine and feminine” (Acker, 1989 as quoted in Pierce, 1995, p. 30). In addition, Acker’s definition of organizations as gendered states that “gender is not an addition to ongoing processes, conceived of as gender neutral. Rather it is an integral part of those processes, which cannot be understood without an analysis of gender” (1989, p. 146). This distinction is important because both Acker’s and Pierce’s research support the concept of space as gendered, and as having negative consequences for women. The way in which a gendered space operates is through the relationships in that space. What I discovered in the empirical evidence from my study is that school spaces racialize (read like gender) as White space silences students of color, and creates barriers to resources much like gendered spaces silence and create barriers for women in the workplace. In the educational institutions I studied, White space is created and reproduced through a specific kind of organizational logic, a mechanism of informal practice and formal policy that renders “difference” to disappear in order for the institution to appear race neutral. Such an organizational logic does not necessarily support perceptions about race strictly through outward markers of race, such as skin color or surname. The organizational logic is devised through symbolic meanings of what it means to be White in a White space and what it means not to be White in a White space. Organizational logic conceptually exists in other institutions besides education. For example, the law utilizes a kind of legal logic that determined the outcome of the Susie Phipps case in 1983 (Omi & Winant, 1994). Phipps, a light-skinned woman, unsuccessfully sued the Louisiana Bureau of Vital Records in order to change the racial classification on her birth certificate from Black to White. Louisiana’s “one-drop” law defines anyone with one thirty-second “Negro-blood” as Black. Therefore, outward appearance, such as white skin, cannot determine the assignment of a racial category because the organizational logic of the courts, a kind of legal logic, maintains the symbolic meaning of what it means to be “Black” in a White space.

Although social scientists have theorized about space as affected by race, no one has defined the process by which organizations become a racialized space as clearly as Acker (1989) has defined organizational spaces as gendered. This is because Acker suggests that in a work organization, power exists in the relationship between what is male and what is female. The concept of space as racialized is also about relationships. The relationship is between a White space, valuing White, male, and middle-class interpretations of what has worth and what does not, and other interpretations of worth. This concept of space as White constructs differences in the school along racial lines and has real and often quite negative consequences for those who are defined as the “other.”

The next theoretical point is to define what I mean by racialize. In order to understand race relationships in the school and how these relationships are created and sustained, we need to talk directly about race. For the most part, issues of race and education are discussed through language such as stratification, inequality, and segregation. However, the educational process for many students of color is also tied to cultural identity, original community, and ways that social actors negotiate the educational process. These issues come into play because race relations are a fundamental component of the educational process. Race relations in educational institutions, however, are more complex than prejudice and discrimination

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