A Faculty-Driven Approach To Closing Gaps
Wallace Community College Sees Gains in Achievement
At Wallace Community College in Dothan, Ala. faculty have addressed the issue of student success and closing the student achievement gap by addressing the instructional effectiveness gap at an institution with a fall enrollment of about 5,000, and where the majority of incoming students are low-income, firstgeneration college students. WCCD’s improvements in closing this gap led to the national recognition of being chosen as a Bellwether finalist in 2015 for our instructional I-CAN (Improvement, Constant And Never-ending) initiative which was first implemented collegewide in the spring of 2012.
Millions of students are directly affected by the choice of instructional strategies used to promote critical thinking skills and advanced learning, giving the term “academic integrity” a much deeper and broader meaning. By putting efforts into training faculty to use proven strategies, while using a system of accountability to ensure 100 percent participation, community colleges can maximize student success while minimizing the student achievement gap.
The increase in student learning and success witnessed during implementation of the faculty-driven I- CAN initiative throughout the science division a few years prior to collegewide implementation provided the confidence needed to empower faculty to action. Just one year after implementation, our BIO 103 course — the second largest enrollment course on campus — experienced a 73 percent increase in positive student perceptions on course evaluations, a 31 percent increase in attendance, and a fivefold increase in the number of students showing up prepared for class. There was also a 42 percent decrease in withdrawal rates and 47 percent increase in student course success rates.
The college-wide implementation of I-CAN fostered a mindset needed to challenge the status quo. By relentlessly focusing on professional development directly related to maximizing instructional effectiveness through a more active and supportive learning environment, more than 96 percent of the achievement gap between low- and higher-income students (low income based on Pell Grant eligibility) in our developmental studies courses was completely closed when comparing data from 2011 and 2013. Over two-thirds of this gap in our top ten enrollment courses was completely closed during this same time frame. These courses involve 100 percent of our degreeseeking students.
Faculty credited instructor-made lecture videos (more than 6,500 available online) for the increased opportunities for more engaging classroom activities, more tutorial assistance and improved remediation efforts. These videos, along with the dozen best practices related to maximum engagement, relevant instruction, and supportive relationships that were implemented at-scale, resulted in the highest success rates in the top ten enrollment courses since WCCD converted to a semester system 15 years ago.
We knew that for significant gains to be made in student achievement we first had to convey the importance of the purpose or the “why” behind the need to provide a truly equal opportunity to ALL students. The open access policy of community colleges, along with available financial aid for the most needy, gives the perception of an equal opportunity. But success statistics across the nation in community colleges do not reflect this equal opportunity as a reality.
Conveying this mission and purpose must be passionately consistent and repetitive, since the single most important thing one can do to increase opportunities in life is the pursuit of higher education. The goal of this college-wide I-CAN challenge was maximum improvements with a maximum number of students, and fueled by maximum faculty participation. The immediate and significant increases in student learning that results from a holistic approach to creating a more active, engaging, and supportive learning environment supplies the momentum needed to empower even the most resistant faculty.
To significantly close the student achievement gap, community colleges must have a plan of action, accountability and training for the least effective faculty. Unfortunately, this is also the group that most resists change and are least likely to implement new strategies in the classroom. Resistance to change equates to a resistance to improvement, hence the need to effectively communicate the mission and purpose of community colleges, as well as the need for accountability for transparent data. Without addressing the lack of proper training and accountability in pedagogy with the least effective faculty, community colleges would only be giving lip service to the closing of the student achievement gap.
As leaders know, people are always the problem and are always the solution. As Jen Lara, Professor of Teacher Education at Anne Arundel Community College in Maryland and 21st Century Commission member says, “The naysayer or fixed mindset have no place in community colleges of today nor of the future.”
Upon analysis of our data at WCCD, it was apparent that the unacceptably large gap that existed among instructional and instructor effectiveness was contributing to the student achievement gap. The most engaging and effective instructors were practicing strategies that contributed to the closing of this achievement gap. The least effective instructors were practicing strategies that contributed to this achievement gap, whether it was knowingly or unknowingly. This reinforces the need for faculty to make decisions based on data and results, which is more likely to occur when the data is transparent.
This instructor effectiveness gap also reinforces the need for a system of accountability to accompany the standards set for instructional effectiveness to ensure maximum faculty participation, which is the not the same as faculty buy-in. Although buy-in is initially optional, participation in a planned action of constant improvement is not. However, the immediate and significant increases in student learning and motivation from implementation of multiple proven instructional strategies are what fuels the increased buy-in of those least receptive faculty, as well as the momentum needed to drive the initiative.
By focusing solely on institutional effectiveness, the data on the least effective faculty is balanced with the most effective. When the data is displayed for each faculty member, each department, and each division, the areas which need the most improvement become evident. This transparency of data was one of the concerns in the Reclaiming the American Dream report of 2012. By making this data (course success rates and course evaluation responses) available for all faculty, including departmental and college wide averages, faculty become empowered to develop their own plans of action for improvement. Each division knows where it ranks with other divisions, while faculty members in the same division know how they compare to other instructors in their division. Faculty are not initially evaluated on the results (data), but on their response to these results. This stimulates collaboration among faculty, since the only unacceptable response is to do nothing.
Developing this positive, proactive response to the data required the answering of three simple questions for any issue or problem relating to student success: What am I doing about it?, How is it working for me? And, if it is not getting the results needed, What am I doing to improve it? The word “fault” is removed from our vocabulary as there is not a shortage of people or policies to blame. This I-CAN initiative is about empowering more faculty to take leadership responsibility for proactively addressing each issue that impacts student success by committing to a growth mindset of constant improvement. Although there is not a competent coach that would say, “It is not my fault the players did not play hard and learn the plays. After all, I told them to.” However, similar words have been spoken by community college faculty all over the nation. Once again, the only wrong answer to any issue or problem is to simply do nothing.
Since closing this achievement gap is the very first recommendation of the Reclaiming the American Dream report, it is imperative community colleges address instructional effectiveness. Data and research clearly show that a more active learning-centered environment, combined with positive perceptions of the learning environment, improves learning for all students. Learning is improved substantially more for the least prepared and most at-risk students.
Since the students (low income and tuition-assisted) and faculty that will benefit the most from these effective instructional strategies are the lowest performing groups, community colleges become much more efficient stewards of taxpayers’ funds. The 16 percent increase in fall to fall retention experienced just one year into the I-CAN initiative at WCCD translated into over $370,000 in tuition alone for our college. Combining this with the 5.3 percent increase in fall enrollment, at a time where most colleges in the state and nation were experiencing decreasing enrollments, and the financial benefits to the institution become as apparent as the increases in student persistence and completion.