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2016 April 10 - 05:06 pm

The Path to Promoting Diversity

Closing Achievement Gaps Can Boost Enrollment and Completion

Fortunately for community colleges, the best strategies for closing student achievement gaps are the same strategies that can diversify student populations, increase enrollment, improve retention and completion rates and boost the financial viability of the college. When these goals can be met with no significant cost to the college, the story seems too good to be true. Although this concept simply takes that which is common knowledge in instruction and makes it common practice, the challenge is in the holistic and atscale implementation in the instructional area.

Seldom is instruction included in discussions regarding diversity. Efforts focus more on enrolling a diverse group of students than on retaining them to completion through effective teaching and classroom intervention strategies. This is no surprise as research and national reports tend to be more concerned with the lower-hanging like student support services, which reach small groups of students. Many times these programs, although meant to complement instruction, are used to compensate for the continued use of ineffective teaching strategies which hinder student learning.

Although anyone can talk about what he or she is very knowledgeable about, it takes a professional educator to facilitate learning with a diverse group of students. However, this has not historically been the paradigm of higher education. Past focus on teaching, and not learning — on activity, not results — meant that as long as teachers were covering the content they were upholding their responsibility.

Although the American Association of Community Colleges’ (AACC) report Reclaiming the American Dream (RTAD) from the 21st Century Commission on the Future of Community Colleges reiterated what has been included in national reports on higher education for decades, the report shifted to the use of more emphatic adjectives to describe the transformation that must occur in order to meet the mission of community colleges. The report reiterated the community college mission of “ensuring that millions of diverse and often underserved students attain a high-quality education.”

This high-quality education cannot be achieved with a diverse group of students with ineffective and low-quality, passive teaching strategies.

Eight of the 11 characteristics the RTAD report said must change are directly related to instruction, even though boutique and pilot programs have been used for years to avoid having to address instruction at-scale. This is precisely why, even after decades of encouraging use of more effective teaching strategies, the RTAD report stated a need to “courageously end ineffective teaching strategies.”

As the gatekeeper of standards in instruction, the chief academic officer must have a purpose and passion for student success that exceeds the fear of faculty resistance in instilling this culture of accountability. Closing student achievement gaps is the first step in providing a truly equal opportunity for a more diverse group of students. There is no greater purpose for a CAO than ending ineffective teaching strategies that are destructively discriminatory toward the very ones that could benefit from education the most.

Instead of a committee sitting down with a list of a dozen variables impeding student learning/success and trying to determine which one is to be addressed, a holistic approach addresses every obstacle to learning with an action plan for improvement. By incorporating proven strategies at-scale to address each variable associated with student learning, there are immediate and significant improvements in all areas of the learning environment. This provides the momentum needed to obtain buy-in from even the most resistant faculty.

This holistic approach is designed to create a more active learning environment that naturally promotes deeper learning, critical thinking, life skills, study skills, attendance, and preparation for class, skills which are not naturally promoted in a passive teacher-centered environment. The basics of this approach center around maximum engagement (minimum straight lecture), relevant instruction, and supportive relationships.

Specific strategies involve the following: maximizing faculty-student and student-student interactions; crystal-clear objectives for each exam; using course evaluations to improve positive perceptions; standardized grading scale and final exam for each course; frequent low-stakes assessments; early intrusive interventions; writing assignments; and a complete set of instructor-made lecture videos covering all objectives.

The good news is that there is a group of faculty already practicing these effective strategies in the classroom. These topshelf faculty are always looking for ways to increase their effectiveness by empowering a more diverse group of students through proven instructional strategies that facilitate deeper and more meaningful learning. However, student achievement gaps exist because of instructional effectiveness gaps. Research consistently shows that teachers using the most effective active learning and intrusive intervention strategies have minimal achievement gaps in their classes, if there are any at all.

The biggest perceived obstacle to overcome in implementing these strategies is faculty resistance. However, since change is required for improvement and constant improvement is a requirement for a professional in any field, initial resistance is just part of the process. The intent is to minimize the amount of time in this resistance phase by providing a system of support, training, and accountability. This is especially true as faculty have been bombarded with changes over the years that have resulted in little improvements. New programs implemented without accountability for participation result in the same top faculty using the new strategies to improve as these faculty are always looking for ways to improve. Since these faculty actually have the least room for improvement, college-wide improvements are minor and result in the disbanding of the program. The problem is not the program, but the small-scale nature of the approach combined with voluntary participation.

The other obstacle is content tyranny, or quantity over quality. Most teachers were educated in a time where knowledge was king and paramount to interjecting rigor into the course. Since more knowledge can be accessed via smart phones than all the libraries in the state, the 21st Century classroom must transform into an environment where the rigor is not in the shallow memorizing of abundant content, but in the requirement to critically think and problem solve. These are skills that are developed as students are required to evaluate sides of issues to which they may have never been exposed. Research shows that just the exposure to diversity (ideas, people, places, environments, etc.) increases critical thinking scores on tests. This ability to reason, discuss, and evaluate based on facts and evidence is all too rare in a society where feelings often trump facts. However, it is a skill that is crucial to being an informed citizen in a pluralistic and democratic society.

As a more diverse group of students become empowered with more engagement and relevancy, their academic successes increase. The results are increased attendance, persistence, satisfaction, preparation for class and completion. As retention rates increase, so do completion rates and institutional revenue. Evidence of the kind of results that can be expected with a holistic at-scale approach to the instructional process was experienced at Wallace Community College-Dothan over a threeyear period. The 16 percent increase in fallto-fall retention rates experienced the second year (2012-13) of our instructional initiative (I-CAN…Improvement, Constant And Never-ending) accounted for more than $500,000 in additional tuition revenue alone. This second year of the initiative also resulted in the highest growth in enrollment of all the community colleges in the state. The I-CAN initiative became further enhanced through a college-wide completion agenda which focused on total employee support of ‘Getting the Tassel’ resulting in an increase in AA/AS degree attainment of 67.2 percent from 2010-11 to 2014-15!

Developmental courses experienced a complete closing of socioeconomic student achievement gaps, while the top ten enrollment courses closed over 75 percent of this gap just two years after implementation of the WCCD instructional I-CAN initiative. Although there were increases in student learning across all groups, there was over three times more improvement with the low-income (Pell grant eligible) minority student in these courses. These type results are to be expected with a system of accountability for at-scale implementation of active learning and early intervention strategies, combined with a focus on maximizing positive student perceptions of the learning environment through use of course evaluation instruments.

These strategies become increasingly important as low-income minority students feel less emotionally prepared for college and more likely to report feeling over-whelmed and angry than their white counterparts (Jed Foundation/Steve Fund survey 2015).

Research also shows that positive perceptions of the learning environment result in over five times more improvement for the low-income minority students, with chances of completion doubling when these students make a connection with at least three people on campus.

Course evaluations are one of the few assessment measures for evaluating how students “feel.” Unfortunately, 93 percent of colleges only perform these evaluations at the end of the term. This eliminates some of the most valuable data: that of the withdrawn student. With many courses having in excess of 30 percent withdrawal rates, it is crucial faculty have a system for determining perceptions from this group of students in order to increase retention of a more diverse group of students.

The economic, social, and cultural success of this country depends on the ability of the community college faculty to meet the diverse challenges of the 21st Century with a positive can-do attitude of whatever-it-takes. Anything less would be a grave disservice to the honor and integrity of the community college mission.

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