Date of Award

Spring 5-12-2017

Level of Access Assigned by Author

Open-Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Higher Education Leadership


Elizabeth J. Allan

Second Committee Member

Susan K. Gardner

Third Committee Member

Leah Hakkola

Additional Committee Members

Dylan Dryer

Tara Parker (University of Massachusetts-Boston)


According to the National Educational Longitudinal Study, an estimated 28% of academically underprepared students who take developmental courses (preparatory, not credit-bearing) graduate within 8.5 years (Attewell, Lavin, Domina, & Levey, 2006), far below the national average graduation rate of near 60% of students for all postsecondary institutions (USDE, 2016). Given these statistics, some conclude that developmental education itself contributes to the low graduation rate of developmental students (Bailey, Jaggars, & Jenkins, 2015). Indeed, the causes of this attainment gap are the focus of vigorous debates by scholars from numerous disciplines, defining whether the problems exist within the organizational structure and climate of the institution, the developmental coursework, the students’ academic preparedness, or with other factors (Bailey et al., 2015; Goudas & Boylan, 2012; Grubb & Babriner, 2013). Similarly, the research methodologies most appropriate to analyze the problems are also debated (Bailey et al., 2015; Goudas & Boylan, 2012; Grubb & Babriner, 2013). In fact, since developmental education’s inception, scholars have disputed how to conduct basic skills education (Grubb & Babriner, 2013) and how best to support developmental students (Soliday, 2002). Despite the breadth of current inquiry, few scholars have used poststructural methodologies to explore the conceptual construction of “problems” related to developmental education, except within the field of basic writing (Horner & Lu, 1999).

Accordingly, the purpose of this study was to reposition understandings of developmental English education through the use of poststructural theories of discourse. Specifically, I conducted research to understand how policy discourses produce understandings of developmental English education in U.S. higher-education institutions to better delineate how policies are now shaping the field. Through five rigorous stages of analysis, the investigation of 39 policy documents led to the identification of five major discourses. Four discourses, those of crisis, accountability, standardization, and efficacy, work synergistically to justify the fifth, the role of policy fiat (i.e., commands from state legislatures). These commands both dictate solutions to the field of teachers and regulate the roles of scholars studying developmental education. The discourses shape the collective understanding of problems concerning developmental education and limit the possible solutions.