Thursday, July 19, 2012


Friday Fragments

The Girl brought a hardcover copy of my dissertation to me as I was typing.

TG: Daddy, did you write this?

DD: Yes.

TG: So you just wrote your second book?

DD: Well, no.  That’s my dissertation, not a book.

TG: What’s a dissertation?

DD: It’s like a really, really long paper that you have to write to get your Ph.D.

TG: Who are the characters?

DD: It doesn’t really have characters.  It’s more like an article.

TG: That’s a long article.  It has a cover like a book.

DD: Yes, it does.

TG: But it’s not a book?

DD: No.

TG: That’s silly.

Smart girl.


Last week, we spent a few days in Burlington, Vermont.  (If you were there, you might have seen me.  I was the white guy.)  Gotta say, we were all impressed.  It’s a very walkable town -- even if it has “too much uphillness,” as The Girl put it -- and the food is amazing.  Lots of “locally grown,” organic, and vegetarian offerings to be had.

Lake Champlain was a treat, too.  TG was hopeful that we’d see Champ, the local answer to the Loch Ness Monster.  We didn’t, but the beach was fun and the water warm.  

We also made the ceremonial trips to the Ben and Jerry’s factory and the Vermont Teddy Bear factory for TG’s birthday.  Ben and Jerry’s was smaller than I had pictured it, but it put on a good show.  The Teddy Bear factory looked more factory-ish, but was still fun.

If you haven’t been there, Vermont looks different.  Part of that is the complete absence of billboards, which makes more of a difference than you’d think.  And part of it is a certain economy of language.  I laughed out loud when I saw signs on the highway that just said “Moose.”  Not “Moose Xing” or “Moose, Five Miles,” just “Moose.”  You had to fill in the rest.  Navigational cues there are generally, well, understated, but “Moose” really captured it.


I read with interest that the City College of San Francisco may need “special” trustees to come in and right the ship.  Folks who’ve been following the development of “emergency fiscal managers” in Michigan, or even the municipal bankruptcies in California, will have a sense of deja vu.  

It’s not entirely clear just what powers the emergency trustees would have.  Given the issues faced by CCSF, they’d have to be pretty drastic.  In the absence of a funding model in which growth more than pays for itself, I’m guessing that some forced programmatic shrinkage is on the horizon.  Since “shared governance’ models are historically unsuccessful at dealing with shrinkage, it will probably have to be done top-down.  

If they’re smart, they’ll tie the decisions of which programs to keep, at least in part, to the willingness of the faculty in those programs to get with the assessment program.  (Obviously, employability, transferability, and graduation rates should matter, too.) That way, faculty in the various departments will have some ability to control their own fates.  That won’t solve every issue -- departments with strong ged ed presence, like English and math, aren’t going anywhere -- it should at least generate enough progress on key indicators to get the accreditors to back off for a while.  Done right, it might even set the stage for eventual improvement, which is kind of the point.

Either way, though, this is the (admittedly large) canary in the coal mine of California’s public higher education system.  You can’t run a college like the Paris Commune in an anti-tax state forever.  This is one of those cases in which both sides are wrong, and the likeliest outcome is unlikely to address the real problem.  But if the emergency can get some drastic structural changes enacted -- including a complete re-do of the funding system -- then it’s at least possible to have hope.  

For now, I have hope.  And if someone in authority in California is looking for a thoughtful out-of-state observer with actual community college administrative experience and a long history of writing on higher ed issues to provide input, well, I check my inbox frequently...

When the kids are older, you can visit the "Magic Hat" brewery.

I read the CCSF report with interest because the problems go much deeper than money. Large parts of the college appear to have held the entire process of Learning Outcomes and their assessment with as much contempt as the for-profit that was denied accreditation. I wonder if the faculty thought that those requirements were the invention of a "mean Dean", resulting from a total failure to communicate both up and down the hierarchy.
Dude, in Vermont, "Moose" is a verb.

When you got to those parts of the road, did you moose? For the sake of your health and the continued use of both of your lips, I certainly hope so.
If Merced College doesn't stop holding learning outcomes and assessment in the same contempt as CCSF did, they will be next on the way to losing accreditation. MC has until March to fix their problems.
Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs) are an important part of the accreditation process--and one which many CA ccs, including mine, have been dinged for.

They're absolutely meaningless. When I do my SLOs every semester, I fill out a grid with numbers: 5 is excellent, and 1 is failing. There is no way for anyone to verify that the numbers I assign have anything to do with reality. I could just make 'em up.
A lot of our effort here at Proprietary Art School is taken up by Learning Outcomes Assessment, the latest educational fad. We are spending all of this effort to keep our accrediting agencies happy, fearful that if we don't have an assessment program in place or if we don't do the assessment effort right, we could lose our accreditation.

One might think that outcomes assessment in fields like mathematics should be pretty easy to do--either a student knows how to solve the quadratic equation or they don't. But even there, we seem to have a hard time in getting it right. I would imagine that it is much more difficult to do any meaningful outcomes assessment in fields like philosophy or sociology. How do you write a set of realistic learning outcomes rubrics for these fields? I suppose it could be done, but it certainly wouldn't be easy.

I can see pressure on faculty in just about every field to conduct their classes in such a way that they teach only those things that can be easily assessed via some set of externally-imposed rubrics that satisfy the accrediting agencies. More and more classes will be reduced to instructors teaching to the test, which would supposedly assure the assessment weenies that their students are learning something. Higher ed will be gradually reduced to something a lot like *No Child Left Behind*.

I can also forsee faculty being dinged by the administration when the students in their classes get scores that are deemed "too low" on these assessment rubrics, or perhaps even lose their jobs if the student scores fall below some preset minimum. If I knew that my raise and perhaps even my job depended on how well my students did on the assessment test, I am certainly going to make sure that they indeed do well, by hook or by crook.

I can forsee that the imposition of a too-draconian assessment regime might lead to a corrupt system in which faculty and even administrators fake the assessment results or simply make up the numbers, just to keep out of potential trouble with the accrediting agencies. They would be tempted to "juke the stats", just like the faked police reports in *The Wire*.

We never seem to get the assessment effort right. Just as soon as we have an assessment effort in place, it seems that it is never good enough, and we must revise it right away. This constant assessment churn adds to the cost of higher ed.
It's possible that CCSF's interim chancellor hasn't been on the job long enough to be held culpable for the mess her school is in. However, the accrediting commission (ACCJC) judged that CCSF personnel are suspicious of each other and uncooperative, which was certainly a key factor in leaving ACCJC recommendations unaddressed for so long. The right special trustee could be a key part of the solution, such as when Solano College hired former American River College president Bob Jensen to come in, knock heads, and clean up Solano's mess -- which he did. CCSF needs someone with depth of CC knowledge and communication skills to purge the stables of CCSF's nonresponsive organization, which right now is on life support.
I wish someone would start talking about some bright spots in assessment. I would love to hear about the college that has the greatest tools with students achieving their goals and faculty really ready to assess whether or not the goals are met.

I think one of the things that makes assessment so hard is that faculty are not taught 1)how to set goals 2)how to assess those goals 3)how to be responsible to each other in achieving goals. I can imagine my former colleagues laughing at the suggestion that course A should include content that the prof thought superfluous because course B needed it for foundation.

Students need faculty to coordinate and sometimes they do – but all too often they roam through the curriculum like tyrannical despots, exercising complete unquestioned control over their fragment of the curriculum. This is made worse if the course is only taught by one person and they never have to answer for its content to anyone else.

A wise department chair once told me that the curriculum belongs to the department, not individual faculty. I would say the curriculum actually belongs to the college and university as well.

Faculty have a responsibility to understand how the happenings in their classrooms will affect the institution as a whole – assessments part of that, clearly stated objectives are part of that and outcomes are part of that. Faculty who don’t get that should be reminded - if you can’t control yourself, others will step in to control you.
I hope the last Anonymous @8:24PM is more likely to be my colleague than the one @8:18AM. Once we got over the "unfunded mandate" of Outcomes, the discussion of foundation knowledge and "closing the loop" across courses and disciplines has become quite productive. After all, the best assessment of Calc 1 is whether students are ready for the first week of Calc 2. Ditto for knowing (and still knowing) the math needed to learn physics.

But the most important point is these are all currently under our control and can be directed to what we think is most important to retain for the next class - but have never tracked in isolation.
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