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Beyond the basics: Karen Hynick and a better developmental education model

The big picture she envisions includes a more expansive developmental-education model – efficient, broader in scope and responsive to the moment.

Karen Hynick helps during the early college years when many students – particularly at the community colleges and technical schools that make up a large chunk of MnSCU – struggle to find their way.
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot

While covering important events in our civic and cultural life, journalists typically focus on facts, controversies, issues and their impact. They rarely look through the lens of understanding leaders and leadership: who is leading the causes and creating change, how those leaders were motivated to tackle tough problems and create opportunities for their communities, and how they worked through the challenges that arose.

In this series, “Driving Change: A Lens on Leadership,” MinnPost is profiling such leaders in order to provide new insights — and, we hope in some cases, inspiration — for our readers. Each profile is paired with comments from experts and scholars. (See ‘Driving Change’ panel: Cultural competence of teachers affects students’ ability to thrive.) The project is made possible by a grant from the Bush Foundation.

Karen Hynick had been teaching social studies at a high school in Leominster, Mass., for several years when she agreed to take on an unconventional role: teaching basic skills to inmates in the state’s juvenile prison system.

She spent four years working at prisons in the Worcester area of central Massachusetts, but it didn’t take long for her to realize that the social shortcomings of her students – lack of discipline and low self-esteem, to name a few – could be mitigated by the hope that an education brings. It was the kind of revelation that sticks with a teacher.

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“I really just believe in the power of education,” Hynick said. “For those people without one, the trajectory of life just isn’t positive.” 

She added: “I saw kids who didn’t come from the same background as I did and having the power of an education helped them aspire to things in life. It was a powerful thing to help people turn on that light bulb.”

In 2005, Hynick’s husband, Robert, got a job in Minnesota, so she began looking for a new position. Besides chairing her high-school social studies department, she had taught courses at Quinsigmond Community College in Worcester, so she applied for a dean opening at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. The school along Hennepin Avenue offered her the job the day before she and her family left for Minnesota – a stroke of good fortune that she chalks up to “kismet” (meaning “fate” or “destiny”).

At MCTC, Hynick worked in several areas of student support, including developmental education – the network of basic courses in reading, writing and math, along with tutoring and counseling, set aside for students who need to brush up on the essentials before moving on to college-level work.

In 2011, she went to work for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System, otherwise known as MnSCU, as its system director of college transitions, a post that deals with those early college years when many students – particularly at the community colleges and technical schools that make up a large chunk of MnSCU – struggle to find their way.

Over the past year, for instance, she has been working with 40 college and high-school math teachers and state Education Department officials on creating a standard exam for evaluating algebra skills. Just last month, she was awarded one of two inaugural Chancellor’s Fellowships, which will support her for the next year as she works on many areas of the transitional experience, including developmental education – a longrime higher-education niche that has been drawing, over the last decade or so, increasing attention from reform-minded educators.

“Developmental education really is about the needs that students have and how we develop them for learning,” Hynick said. 

The needs are striking

MnSCU, a sprawling network of 31 public institutions – 24 two-year colleges and seven state universities – was created in 1995 when the state’s four-year universities, community colleges and technical colleges merged. It serves more than 200,000 students on 54 campuses spread across the state, making it, by far, the largest generator of college degrees and certificates in Minnesota.

(The author of this profile has taught English and mass communication courses at four MnSCU schools, though none at the developmental level).

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The developmental needs are striking. About 40 percent of the students who enrolled in Minnesota colleges or universities in 2008 took at least one developmental course during their first two years of college, according to a study conducted by MnSCU and the University of Minnesota. A decade earlier, about 33 percent took a developmental course. Mathematics is the most common developmental course that students have to take, followed by writing and reading.

About half of the students in developmental courses are right out of high school, while the other half are so-called “non-trads” – older, “non-traditional” students who are back in college, or perhaps first-timers, seeking new degrees or training.            

There are many theories, but few sure reasons, as to why more students need  developmental courses. Some educators point to technology and its effect on attention spans and motivation. Others note that the recession knocked many workers in mid-life back into the educational system, in search of degrees or certificates in new fields. Many recent immigrants and refugees, an increasing segment of Minnesota’s population, also end up in developmental courses, often because of gaps in their English skills.

All of these concerns have nudged educators to rethink the assumptions and teaching methods behind what was once referred to, often dismissively, as “remedial education.”  Think tanks at Columbia University and Appalachian State University are just two of the places percolating with fresh ideas about reaching struggling students.

“Much more is known about learners today than 20 or 30 years ago,” Hynick said. “Over time, developmental education has evolved. At a university, it might consist of study skills or a first-year experience seminar, while at a two-year college it may be a course. The nature of the economy is different today than it was in 1970 or 1980, for one thing, and just the number of people coming back and looking for retraining has increased. It’s a game changer.”

In Minnesota, entering MnSCU students who score below certain thresholds on the ACT college entrance exam are required to take a test to determine whether they need to enroll in any developmental courses. Known as the Accuplacer, the exam evaluates the students’ acumen in the Big Three: reading, writing and math. (It also evaluates computer skills).

Following is a sample directive and question from the sentence skills section of the exam:

Directions: Select the best version of the underlined part of the sentence. The first choice is the same as the original sentence. If you think the original sentence is best, choose the first answer. 
Question: Painting, drawing and to sculpt are some of the techniques artists such as Picasso used to express themselves.

                        A. Painting, drawing and to sculpt

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                        B. To paint, to draw, and sculpting

                        C. Painting, drawing and sculpting

                        D. To paint, draw, and sculpting

Students who answer C have chosen the correct answer, identifying a sentence part with three grammatically correct, similar elements (art techniques).

Avoiding the ‘black hole’

Andrew Nesset is an English teacher and acting dean at Century College in suburban White Bear Lake, which has experienced a dramatic increase in enrollment in recent years – and an accompanying increase in the need for developmental courses. That’s not unusual as many underachieving students first land in community colleges before heading to four-year schools.

“A lot of the growth is coming from students of color and first-generation college students, low-income and typically underrepresented populations,” said Nesset, who is in his 14th year at the school, which had a fall enrollment of about 12,000 students. “Many of those folks don’t come from families with college-going backgrounds or are coming back to school as displaced workers. Or they realize they need more than a GED. They come with a lot of deficiencies.”

Developmental courses are sometimes known, in faculty banter parlance, as “the black hole of education” because so many students in developmental courses never gain the traction needed to graduate. While some quit because they can’t handle the work, others simply get discouraged about having to take courses that will add to their college bill and lengthen their time in school.

Traditionally, developmental education has meant separating students into the academic haves, who begin college on the ground floor in traditional classes, and the have-nots, who must prove themselves in basic courses before they really get started. Increasingly, however, Hynick and other educators are looking at ways to smooth out and speed up the developmental track.

One initiative, The Accelerated Learning Program, which originated at The Community College of Baltimore County in Maryland, allows students who test at the developmental level to enter college-level courses, anyway, working with instructors on mastering basic concepts in accompanying workshops. The idea is that students get the remedial help they need while simultaneously taking a college-level course.

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There is also a movement afoot to better prepare students for college by giving them a taste, while they are still in high school, of what will be expected of them at the next level. One of the incubators is Minnesota State Community and Technical College – a four-campus college in northwestern Minnesota whose flagship is in Moorhead – which has developed the The Center for College Readiness. Among other things, the center hosts a stable of instructors from around the state who are available to evaluate the writing of high-school students. Students simply submit samples of their work through the center’s website and the instructors use a detailed rubric – basically, a kind of outline or guide – to provide feedback.

Paul Drange, the director of the center, has been working with Hynick on implementing some of the center’s strategies on a broader scale in Minnesota. He said her work as a teacher and now as an administrator make her a worthy advocate for the different ideas floating around in developmental education circles.

“She’s fantastic to work with,” Drange said. “She listens well and asks questions and sees the big picture very well. And she’s very passionate about making sure that we are helping students to, so to speak, be in right place at the right time, which helps them to be successful.”

Yet another piece of developmental education is simply cultural – in particular, a so-called “soft-skill” deficit among many students who have managed to make it out of high school without the study habits, motivation and self-assurance that can translate into success in college. As Nesset put it: “You need to be able to form a complete sentence and know how to punctuate independent and dependent clauses correctly, but over-riding everything here is a lack of maturity. High schools don’t teach that – they have enough on their plate – and there’s no hand-holding in college. That floors a lot of students.”

To combat this trend, Century offers first-year experience workshops to help students with such “soft skills” as goal setting and time management. The school also has a website – Bridging the Readiness Gap – that serves as a resource for new students. Under a section called “The Culture of College,” for instance, students are reminded that going to class every day, turning in assignments on time and asking questions of the instructor is up to them.

“What we can do is show students the consequences of having these skills in terms of being successful in school and on the job,” Nessett said. “The key here is communication and the need to let students know what is expected of them. It is shocking to many students to know what is expected. But that’s a good start.”

Irons in the fire

Hynick, a friendly woman who speaks with just a hint of a Boston accent, spoke to MinnPost in January at MnSCU’s headquarters in downtown St. Paul. After 40 minutes or so, she grabbed her coat and gloves and hurried out the main door, on her way to one of the many meetings and presentations that mark her days. One recent Monday, she was slated to speak to college and high-school math teachers at a symposium at St. Cloud Technical and Community College; it was the kind of presentation, she said, that gives her the chance to be a teacher again “while working on the big-picture piece.”

The big picture she envisions includes a more expansive developmental-education model – efficient, broader in scope and responsive to the moment. “There is a greater need for post-secondary degrees than ever in life, so it is kind of a dual role that we are playing,” Hynick said. “We need to work with the K-12 system to define standards and skills, and we need to work with an adult population that arrives in college with gaps in their learning.”

To that end, she has organized several collaborations between high-school and college educators, noting the natural antagonism between high-school teachers who are pinched by strict guidelines – such as No Child Left Behind goals – and college teachers who expect students to be prepared when they enter their classrooms.

“The more we can get high-school and college teachers together, the better,” she said. “We all do the blame game and don’t get to that disconnect.”

In a follow-up email, Hynick noted that discrepancies within MnSCU itself also need to be examined. For instance, while all of the schools in the system use the Accuplacer exam, they are also free to tweak competency guidelines for various programs, meaning that students who would have to take developmental courses at some schools to earn a certain degree can earn that same degree at another school without taking separate developmental courses.

“This is one of the things Karen has been working hard on – creating consistency within the system,” Nessett said. “But it’s not easy. I think people are on board, but there is a lot of turf protection going on. You know how it is with teachers: ‘Don’t tell us we don’t know our own students. You can’t tell us what to think.’”

Asked about this, Hynick smiled and said: “The ultimate question is, ‘How do we help college students to be successful?’”