Friday, February 11, 2011


Not Achieving the Dream

Achieving the Dream is an initiative sponsored by the Lumina Foundation and spearheaded by one of my personal heroes, Kay McClenney. It’s an attempt to get community colleges across the country to build ‘cultures of evidence’ about student success. It relies heavily on data-driven decisionmaking, with the goal of prodding colleges to move from the ways things have always been done to the ways that things actually succeed. It’s a great idea, and I’m a fan. (For the record, my college is not an ATD school.)

That said, though, I can’t say I’m shocked at this report. Apparently, a national study has found that colleges that have signed on to ATD have not seen statistically significant gains in any of the measures used to gauge success.

Although my college is not an ATD school, it is working diligently on a number of similar measures to improve student success rates. Here, too, the results so far have been disappointing. And we have one of the better Institutional Research offices around.

Assuming the presence of a strong IR staff, good Presidential support, thoughtfully-constructed interventions, and broad agreement on the overall goal -- all of which are present here -- why aren’t we moving the needle?

I’ll answer the question with another question. Good, strong, solid, peer-reviewed scientific data has made it abundantly clear that poor eating habits lead to obesity and all manner of negative health outcomes. There’s no serious dispute that obesity is a major public health issue in the US. And yet people still overeat. Despite reams of publicity and even Presidential support for good eating and exercise habits, obesity continues to increase. Why?

Sometimes it’s more than a matter of knowing where the problem is.

For example, in the case of student success, there’s the fundamental problem of thin budgets. I’ve seen data suggesting that higher percentages of full-time faculty lead to better student outcomes, and I assume that there’s some truth to that. But we can afford only what we can afford. Knowing that a major increase in the instructional budget might help is of only theoretical interest when we’re taking year after year of operating budget cuts. We’ve shifted money around internally to keep the faculty numbers from slipping, but they haven’t grown, and enrollments have. (And the few remaining deans are stretched so thin that talk of quitting is becoming endemic.)

Thin budgets also manifest themselves in ‘boutique’ interventions that don’t scale up. On my own campus, we’ve had great results with several very labor-intensive programs: supplemental instruction, summer bridge programs, that sort of thing. They’re terrific for the handful of students who have access to them. But we have nothing close to the budget it would take to make those available to all, or even most, students. So we can get good percentage improvements in targeted areas, but the overall numbers don’t really move.

There’s also a fundamental issue of control. Faculty as a group are intensely protective of their absolute control of the classroom. Many hold on to the premodern notion of teaching as a craft, to be practiced and judged solely by members the guild. As with the sabermetric revolution in baseball, old habits die hard, even when the evidence against them is clear and compelling. There’s a real fear among many faculty that moving from “because I say so” to “what the numbers say” will reduce their authority, and in a certain sense, that’s true. In my estimation, this is at the root of much of the resentment against outcomes assessment.

Even where there’s a will, sometimes there just isn’t the time. It’s one thing to reinvent your teaching when you have one class or even two; it’s quite another with five. And when so many of your professors divide their time among different employers, even getting folks into the same room for workshops is a logistical challenge.

Of course, accountability matters. Longtime readers know my position on the tenure system, so I won’t beat that horse again, but it’s an uphill battle to sell disruptive change when people have the option of saying ‘no’ without consequence. The enemy isn’t really direct opposition; it’s foot-dragging.

ATD doesn’t address internal politics of colleges as institutions. That’s entirely fair -- they vary by location, and it would probably kill the project altogether -- but anyone who has tried to make headway on these issues can attest that internal politics can kill almost anything. Short of a massive exogenous shock to the system, it’s hard to imagine what will change that.

More darkly, there’s the unspoken truth that some students will just never make it. Depending on your angle to the universe, the meaning of “some” will vary; I’ve heard serious people argue earnestly that the pass rates we currently have are simply the best we can get, given the students we get. It’s hard not to notice that selective institutions have consistently higher student success rates, even when they herd their students into 300-seat lectures taught by graduate students. When you have open-door admissions, you can’t repackage failure as ‘selectivity;’ instead, you have to own it and get blamed for it. Selective institutions can outsource failure; we don’t have that option.

It’s possible to take the study on ATD as vindication for a sort of fatalism, but I think that would be a mistake. I’m not Panglossian enough to assume that this is the best of all possible worlds. In fact, longtime readers may have seen me make suggests for improvements from time to time. And it strikes me as obviously correct to base strategies for improvement on actual empirical evidence than on unthinking adherence to tradition or, alternately, watered-down caricatures of an idealized corporation. My guess is that we’re only beginning to grapple with some of the deeper issues, many of which will require much more disruptive change than most people suspected at the outset. Whether public institutions have the courage to do that, or whether for-profit competitors will swoop in and eat our collective lunch, I don’t know. But if we’re serious, we’d be well advised to attend even more assiduously to reality-based reform.

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