Monday, August 26, 2013


Fruits of Twitter

Among its other virtues, Twitter makes a nifty self-updating annotated bibliography.  People tweet links with comments; if you follow the right people, you can wind up with some great suggestions.

This week, the tweets runneth over.  Below, some links well worth checking out:

- Sherman Dorn’s response to the Obama plan, and a series of suggestions that he thinks would work better.  Dorn vacillates between “crack cocaine” and “pixie dust” metaphors, but the piece is well worth reading anyway.  It shows a healthy awareness of the ways that various actors can “game” systems, and suggests that putting too much faith in any one algorithm will lead, inevitably, to abuses.  Nicely done.

- “America’s Worst Community Colleges,” from the Washington Monthly.  Spoiler alert: they’re all in California, and largely clustered in the Bay area.  The piece gets a bit confused on causality; it cites several statewide mandates, then argues that too much local control is the real problem.  One could make a much more compelling argument that the issue isn’t so much local vs. state control as institutionalized conflicts of interest and a system that delegates power but not authority.  Still, it explains much of why CCSF is so difficult to get on track, and why so many California community colleges are struggling.  Simply put, the governance model (and, I’d add, the financing model) makes no sense.  

- “America’s Best Community Colleges,” also from the Washington Monthly.  There’s plenty to argue with here, but just going down the chart and looking at states is suggestive.  New England only has one college in the top 50 nationally, a smallish college in Maine.  Washington state seems to do much better than an outsider would suspect.  I know that Washington has had considerable success with the IBest program, but that can’t be the only factor.  

Following up on yesterday’s point about comparative work, I’d love to see a serious comparative study of state systems of community colleges.  Why does Washington state seem to be such fertile territory for community college success?  Why does the Northeast seem to lag?  If we take states as the units of analysis, rather than individual campuses, then some of the structural variables that tend to drop out of most descriptions might become more obvious.

- “Advice for New Community College Presidents” and “Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?” benefit by being read together.  The former is mostly a catalog of variations on “l’etat c’est moi,” with the usual cautions against overweening egos.  The latter, though, suggests that part of the reason that persons with overweening egos -- frequently, though not exclusively, men -- land presidencies in the first place: people who make selections often mistake confidence for competence, so overconfidence gets rewarded.

That isn’t an entirely new finding -- anyone who has read Jim Collins’ work knows about humility in leadership -- but it’s worth revisiting.  The best presidents have some humility, but that same humility makes it less likely that they’ll get chosen for the role.  The HBR piece used gender as a lens, and that’s valid, but issues of hubris and humility transcend gender (cough Sarah Palin cough).  

The challenge the HBR piece poses to Jenkins’ piece is entirely fair.  If so many leaders fall victim to egotism, why do people keep choosing egotists as leaders?  Solve the latter, and the former will mostly take care of itself.

Concerning your comparative study question, the first comment on IHE for yesterday's column contains pretty much what you are asking for. Look AT

I didn't have time to do much more than hit some highlights, but was intrigued that they had Michigan with a slight positive score -- meaning their analysis had a lower expected graduation rate.

They are limited to the midwest, but they do look at every CC in each state they studied.

The column with cost data and an efficiency analysis was really an eye opener. I'll bet we both wonder what a similar study would show for California and Washington.
I'm surprised to see you link to that "Worst Community Colleges" piece without a reminder of your complaint about the (mis)use of graduation rates as an evaluative metric. It does seem the data sets the author refers to treat both transfer and attaining degrees (and maybe certificates too?) as part of a common "success" category, but in the same sentence she describes the metric as "total degrees awarded per 100 students".

Also, setting aside the confusion about whether the rankings count certificates and transfers along with degrees: The *denominator* of that fraction is an especially poor choice if the point is to compare institutions nationally, across radically different geographies and economic landscapes. A while back, my wife and I, who live in a dense coastal metropolitan area, happened to become students of our local CC when we signed up for an evening Spanish conversation class. We had no interest in attaining some sort of coherent certificate, let alone a whole degree; we just wanted to practice our Spanish and develop a bit more fluency. The same was true for most of the 30+ people in the class. The experience fulfilled our goals perfectly, and we enjoyed it enough to move on to the next level the following term. I don't know how the population of folks like us compares with the total number of students, but given the college's location and its huge number of similar offerings, it can't be trivial.

If national rankings of CCs want to use graduation rates comparatively, they have to somehow account for the different sets of "users" CCs tend to have. (Surely the distribution of those user sets is one of the things that distinguishes, say, the Bay Area from rural Kentucky.) If you are going to tell me a given school has X students graduate or transfer "per 100 students", I need to know what those 100 students look like on average. At the very least, tell me how many of those 100 students were attending college with the *purpose* of graduating or transferring in the first place; otherwise suggesting that the resulting rankings have much meaning is a pretty hard sell.
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