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Developmental Education or Cultural Assimilation? Finding the Right Path at a Tribal College

October 18, 2022|By Rain Newcomb

Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College (FDLTCC) moved from a traditional prerequisite model of developmental education to a corequisite model with the full support of faculty, staff, administration, and students.

This is how we did it.

In the spring of 2016, a multidisciplinary team of Native and non-Native faculty members gathered to look at developmental student success data. Specifically, we wanted to know how many students were passing the gateway math and English courses after completing prerequisite developmental education courses.

The data, although slightly higher than national statistics, were awful. When we disaggregated them to see how our underrepresented students* were doing, it got even worse.

(*At FDLTCC we include BIPOC, first-generation, non-traditional, and low-income students in this group. These students make up at least 70% of our student body every year. Many of our students fit in two or more categories.)

Like every school in the nation, our underrepresented students are vastly overrepresented in developmental math and English classes, particularly when compared to the campus’ student population as a whole. Moreover, strategies to fix the problem mostly help traditional-aged, White students.

We needed to radically shift our understanding of the problem.

Courses and Culture

We know our developmental students are not stupid. They have survived and strived to earn a seat in the classroom. We know our colleagues who teach in the K–12 system are well-trained experts who do good work in difficult conditions. So what is preventing underrepresented students from completing gateway math and English courses, the very courses that provide a solid foundation for a college education?

Gateway courses are designed to acculturate students to academia’s specific epistemologies, critical thinking habits, and approaches to problem solving. That’s why these courses are so important and so difficult.

Academia is a culture with its own rules and codes of behavior. Like every dominant culture, the academic culture believes that its particularities are universal, and when individuals do not know the rules, it is their personal, intellectual, and moral failing.

No wonder the students who are worst served by developmental education are the ones whose cultures of origin are most unlike academia.

Students placed into developmental courses are deemed unworthy of the intellectual work of gateway courses, leaving them isolated and stuck in an expensive, time-consuming quagmire of prerequisite developmental course sequences until the epistemologies of their cultures of origin are eradicated and they are assimilated to the culture of academia. 

As a Tribal College, we know what happens when education is used to assimilate students to the dominant culture. This is the pedagogical foundation of the Boarding School Movement. Our communities are still healing from the intergenerational trauma and cultural genocide enacted by “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” policies. The bodies of children are still being found.

Seeing the problem through the lens of culture fundamentally changed our narrative surrounding developmental education. Suddenly, we weren’t just worried about not serving developmental students effectively. We started wondering if we might actively be doing them harm. 

This realization gave faculty a greater impetus to enact radical change quickly and a path to get the entire campus on board.

Curricular Change Based on Mission and Values

To earn the support of our administrators, staff, and students, we connected the corequisite model to the mission and values of FDLTCC.

FDLTCC’s mission is to be a union of cultures. Rather than assimilating students, we honor their cultures of origin while teaching them how to operate in the academic culture. FDLTCC’s core values framed our approach in evaluating our model of development education and implementing a new model that embraced corequisites. 

Moving to a corequisite model was a radical curricular innovation. Maamamiikaajinendamowin (innovation) is one of our core values. Looking at our disaggregated student data required gwayakwaadiziwin (integrity). We couldn’t simply blame systemic inequities; we had to take personal responsibility. Our value of manaaji’idiwin (respect) helped us understand the knowledge, skills, and values our developmental students came to college with, while having zhawenjigewin (compassion) to see them through a lens of wholeness, not deficiency. Finally, we are enacting our value of ganawenjigewin (stewardship) by treating our developmental students as valued resources who are making significant contributions to our communities.

Our corequisite program places developmental students in gateway courses alongside their peers. Traditional models of Ojibwe education involve people of various skill levels, learning together by doing the work. This is evidenced in the Ojibwe language: Gikinoo'amaadiwin, the noun for teaching, comes from gikinoo'amaadiwag, which means “they teach each other,” a conjugation in which all participants have equal and reciprocal participation. Collaborative education is built into the Ojibwe language.

We began teaching developmental English this way in 2017. Math joined us in 2020. From attendance to class participation, our developmental students have emerged as classroom leaders in the gateway courses. This is a remarkable transformation for students who are accustomed to feeling they are the worst in their classes. Underrepresented students particularly flourish under the corequisite model.

There is one major drawback to the corequisite model—it is expensive. At FDLTCC, we faced a choice: We could teach developmental education badly and make money off of it or teach it well and lose money. We chose the path that aligns with our mission, values, and enacts our commitment to closing equity gaps. We choose to invest in our students by offering developmental education that honors their whole selves.

Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College is part of the Corequisite Research Design Collaborative, a national initiative aiming to dramatically increase the number of students who successfully complete research-informed corequisite supports, particularly students who are minoritized or experiencing poverty.

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Categories: Blog, Higher Education

About the Author

Rain Newcomb

Rain Newcomb is a faculty member at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College in Cloquet, Minnesota. Previously, she taught at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina. Rain is grateful to her colleagues, teachers, and students (past and present) from whom she has learned so much.