POV: Effective Community Colleges Can’t Thrive on Data Alone
Last spring, a few finalists on the singing competition program American Idol were challenged to sing from the Beatles library. One contestant stated that he had not heard of the Beatles, much less the assigned song. With a measure of shock I replayed the DVR to rehear the confession.
“What? You’re kidding,” I said to myself. I first excused the remark as a generational artifact. I’m considerably older than these “kids” and I lived through the Beatles era. The contestants of course had not.
But wait, my academic side reasoned. Aren’t these contestants the heirs to pop music? Shouldn’t they know the legacy of their craft?
At times those of us in higher education suffer similar memory loss and fail to appreciate our legacy.
“You remember Ernest Boyer?” I asked a few of my closest colleagues. I expected the older ones to remember him, yet not even a newly minted Ph.D in higher education administration had heard of him. Only one out of 11 knew who he was.
Boyer (1928 – 1995) helped shape American education. He served as U.S. commissioner of education in the Carter administration and president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. His report, High School: A Report on Secondary Education in America (1983) recommended a core curriculum for high schools. He subsequently wrote College: The Undergraduate Experience in America (1987); and, Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate (1990). He was a passionate advocate for students, encouraging institutions to better prepare high school students for college, enhance students’ college experience, and improve the quality of teaching for undergraduates. Affectionately known as Ernie, he reportedly was affable, eloquent, and widely respected.
After more than three decades as a community college teacher and administrator, I’m finding that Ernie’s wisdom regarding campus community and student success is as relevant as ever, particularly in light of two prevailing concerns.
First, community colleges face multiple student-related challenges. My college is no different. Community college students are among the least prepared for higher education; more than 40 percent require remedial work in the 3 R’s. Many face economic and personal hardships.
At the same time, state-mandated accountability standards place greater expectations on community colleges to get students to complete remediation as quickly as possible, increase graduation rates and produce more students who transfer to four-year institutions. One proposal to our state legislature recommends that funding be based on successful course progress, or attendance at designated points in the semester rather than census date enrollment
Second, simply pushing more students toward credentialing begs questions of quality. Justifiably, this gives faculty pause.
Community colleges across the country are trying all kinds of strategies to encourage student persistence to completion of courses and programs. Some involve curriculum redesign, course sequencing, and modularized instruction. Others incorporate pedagogies such as learning communities, peer tutoring, collaborative learning and supplemental Instruction.
Many of these strategies are driven by data collected to ascertain their impact on student learning and in turn, student success. At my own institution, student success is the central goal adopted by our CEO and governing board around which everything revolves.
Since 2004, the Achieving the Dream organization has set forth a comprehensive model for using data to inspire practices that lead to student success and completion. The model addresses a concurrent need for committed leadership, broad engagement by all constituencies, and equity among all student groups.
This is where Boyer’s work, particularly Campus Life: In Search of Community (1990) becomes pertinent. He describes ways to build meaningful relationships among students, faculty, and staff. By fostering this spirit of community, the college can model behaviors and set the expectations necessary for students to succeed.
Boyer posits six principles of a meaningful campus community. He envisions the college campus as an:
1. Educationally purposeful community – where faculty and students share academic goals and work together to strengthen teaching and learning on the campus.
2. Open community – where freedom of expression is uncompromisingly protected; where civility is powerfully affirmed.
3. Just community – where the sacredness of the person is honored and where diversity is aggressively pursued.
4. Disciplined community – where individuals accept their obligations to the group; where well-defined governance procedures guide behavior for the common good.
5. Caring community – where the well-being of each member is sensitively supported; where service to others is encouraged.
6. Celebrative community – in which the heritage of the institution is remembered; where rituals affirming both tradition and change are widely shared.
I’ve reread these principles countless times. They describe the college I would want to attend if I were a student. Hopefully, they describe the college I work for.
I don’t discount the need for data. Data helps us identify strategies that work and those that don’t. At my institution, a team of “faculty coaches” analyzes disaggregated data (grades, passing rates, course success rates) for departments to review. This process provides a quantifiable measure that helps academic departments assess standards of quality.
Just as critical as examining data, however, is the exercise of working together in community to ensure the statistics prompt meaningful action. Boyer likely would contend that value does not rest solely on the analysis, but on the community that the interpretation of the data calls into action.
Together, faculty members provide a context and define the process for learning. When performing their role as a concerned community, they affirm a strong unity of educational purpose and support, which then must be conveyed clearly and consistently to students.
The community — which Ernie so eloquently described — is the conduit for providing the reassurance and support our students need not just to meet, but to exceed expectations. A faculty community cognizant of such outcomes generates needed encouragement. When as a student I know that the community believes in me, I’m motivated to succeed.