Feeding the Roots of a Dying Tree: A Call for a Strategic Paradigm Shift
In Outliers: The Story of Success, author Malcolm Gladwell argues that the tallest oak in the forest is the tallest not just because it grew from the hardest acorn. It is the tallest also because no other trees blocked its essential daylight; the soil around it was deep; no rabbit chewed through its bark as a sapling; and, no lumberjack cut it down before it matured. As educators with a penchant for student success, we know that successful students come from hardy seeds. We can also research and determine the essential sunlight that warmed them; and, the rabbits and lumberjacks they were lucky enough to avoid. Our record today, is that our community colleges have been relatively unsuccessful in accomplishing our several missions, and dumping students into developmental studies has proven not to be the answer. Despite more than a decade of determined reform, few colleges have “moved the needle” on overall rates of student completion. This researcher of some 45 years has concluded that unless we create a strategic plan at the national and state levels, current higher education reforms will accomplish little more than feeding the roots of a dying tree.
Since becoming a junior college student in the 1950s, my love and commitment, research and teaching agenda, have been in America’s community and technical colleges. I believe that we are in crisis mode, and only a major strategic redirection will prevent us from becoming more redundant as a higher education entity in the first quarter of the 21st Century. Recent meta-research has shown that college efforts have resulted in limited success in response to increasing political pressure for higher graduation rates, examination of their student outcomes, and experimentation with new approaches to improve those outcomes.
For the majority of students who are not college ready, we must begin with a prescription, a contract, and the understanding that the student must earn a college-ready status, before entering the college or institution. Research concludes that many of these incoming students, in addition to low scores in math and English, show external locus of control. As with the military recruit, in order to become effective as students, they must experientially master new attitudes and values. Throwing these students into courses with typical college instructors assures that the unmotivated and unprepared will join the statistics of failure. No amount of intervention by typical outside resources will be able to reverse this unsatisfactory conclusion, until decision makers are willing to link student success accountability to those who provide the resources.
It is time for the strategic federal, state and local leadership of the 1,100 community colleges to consider a sea change in the role that we play in meeting this nation’s democratic principles of building the technical and Blue Collar workforce for the pending national mission of infrastructure improvement and change. After the presidential terms of George Bush and Barrack Obama, we come to 2017, an unstructured new era in which we can propose a major structural overhaul, by organizing the workforce mission as our first and most pressing obligation, and to account for student learning by replacing developmental studies functions with strategically developed, fully funded, Workforce Leadership Academies.
Community college leaders will need external help in creating a more effective organizational structure by creating Workforce Leadership Academies in every community college, and by making a clear distinction for our students and communities between precollege and college-level academic work in all technical and community colleges. This author has no argument with the Tom Bailey, et.al in the work, Redesigning America’s Community Colleges; and, strongly believes that improvements in student success will only be achieved by redesigning the deep architecture of our colleges from the cafeteria model to one of clearly designed and supported program models with more limited choice and more secure outcomes.
The clear path to student success, and mission consideration, is never accomplished by moving the furniture around, but in redesigning the structure of the house. A paradigm shift is necessary in which the strategic thinking in all 50 states is to plan for, and achieve mission realignment, where the creation of the work first thinking in American higher education is seen as the strategic priority for the next decade.
According to the Columbia University researchers, today in America, approximately twothirds of incoming community college students fail to meet their institution’s standards for college readiness. By completing developmental education courses, which are not counted for degrees, the ridiculous assumption is that students will acquire the basic academic skills that are required in college-level courses. It is, indeed, sad when our very best community colleges are reporting success rates where students classified as, not college ready subsequently do not walk across the stage with a recognizable credential.
The assumptions we make concerning our accountability to the communities that we serve seldom appears in a score card understood by our supporters. The annual cost of operating our community and technical colleges in America is estimated at four billion dollars annually- for a payoff where only 15 percent of matriculating students completed their referred math sequence; and, only 8 percent ever completed a college-level math course. Under increasing calls for federal state and local accountability, the question remains, how long can we continue along this path, when our branches yield so little fruit?
In our business, we see few unsuccessful students who persist into a subsequent semester. The evidence is that most do not try again. J.D. Vance, a former Marine and Yale Law School graduate, suggests what happens to the majority in Hillbilly Elegy. The American Dream is somewhat lost, and the majority live their lives with lowered expectations for their future. Our national leadership has set itself on a new and uncertain path, and new solutions will be sought. America is calling for an examination of the status quo, and is also riding on the strong shoulders of our technologically powerful manufacturing industries, and the need for America’s crumbling infrastructure to be rebuilt.
Gladwell’s works can provide our decision makers with a vision that will make them see the world in a different way. We can start by seeing our organizations as businesses to be satisfying the needs of all of our students, and to turn our course offerings into the means for altering human behavior, both in the students, and the educators who provide it. We know that major success with the same kinds of students is achieved in the military and technical training provided to trainees entering our several services.
In the governing boards and leadership teams, there is a need for deep soul searching necessary to find solutions to the brave new world that we have inherited, with a 50-state solution, and an organizational quality movement. Under the right conditions, national community college advocates could partner with the Departments of Commerce for quality models, Labor for coordination and funding, Defense for instructional and curriculum support, Education for Tech-prep vouchers, and the Veteran Affairs for revision of educational policy. At the local level, industries looking for qualified employees are already on board. America needs a ready and trained workforce now.
George A. Baker, III is a 21- year combat veteran of the US Marine Corps, and a 40 year Professor of Community College Leadership. He serves on the advisory board for National American University’s Roueche Graduate Center, and on NAU’s military college advisory board. This article is the continuation of a series authored by principals involved in the Roueche Graduate Center, National American University, and other national experts identified by the center. John E. Roueche and Margaretta B. Mathis serve as editors of the monthly column, a partnership between the Roueche Graduate Center and Community College Week. For additional information send emails to mbmathis@ national.edu or, call 512-813-2300.