Thursday, January 28, 2016

 

Save the Bunnies!: A Response to Rebecca Schuman


By now, you’ve probably heard about Simon Newman, the president of Mount Saint Mary’s University, and his statements about the need to throw out high-risk students in order to improve his school’s retention numbers.  He memorably goaded reluctant employees with “You just have to drown the bunnies...Put a Glock to their heads.”  I responded in this space a few days ago.

I was glad to see Rebecca Schuman take on the same topic, since I’ve been a fan for a while.  But her response was badly off-key.  She correctly identified President Newman’s core motivation as improving student retention numbers, and rightly criticized him for trying to cook the books.  She followed, though, with suggestions for better ways to improve student completion rates:

First, and this is the most important of all possible suggestions: Don’t accept many marginal students in the first place.

I don’t know if she intended to write off the entire community college sector in one fell swoop, or if she just didn’t realize she was doing it.  But either way, I must object.  

Although Schuman’s piece is supposed to be a rebuttal, she and Newman actually share a core assumption: capability is a discrete quality inhering in individual students, and it can be sussed out and measured quickly and easily.  They disagree only on timing: Schuman prefers to sort out the unworthy or incapable before admission, while Newman waits until a few weeks into the first semester.  Either way, though, success comes from exclusion.

The founding assumption of community colleges as a sector is that the epistemology behind exclusion is false.  We don’t know who will succeed until they have a chance.  Ability sometimes wears disguises.  The way community colleges discern ability is by letting people in and giving them a chance to show what they can do.  

In fact, one of the student-success practices gaining currency at community colleges across the country involves moving away from single placement exams in favor of considering high school performance.  The goal is to place students in the courses in which they’re likeliest to succeed.  I’m a fan of that shift, since it recognizes that student ability shows itself more fully over four years of day-in, day-out work than in a single standardized test.  But whether a given college uses a test, transcripts, or whatever else, admission is a given; placement refers to the level at which they start, rather than to whether they’re allowed to start at all.

The willed naivete of open-admissions requires effort to sustain.  It increasingly cuts against the grain of a culture that seems to have made peace with economic polarization.  It requires tolerating failure -- neither denying it nor punishing it -- in a culture that believes in “performance funding.”  It means embracing economic and racial diversity in a culture that increasingly defines a “good” neighborhood or school by the absence of poor and/or brown people.  Sometimes it even means choosing to disregard Big Data and give some longshots a chance, just because it’s the right thing to do.  Choosing ethics over data feels almost radical these days.  Efficiency is great, but it only makes sense against some larger goal.  It’s not a goal in itself.  

Schuman makes exclusion “the most important of all possible suggestions.”  That’s where we disagree.  The beauty of an unglamorous sector is that it takes inclusion as a positive good.  It dares to spend resources on people nobody else will.  It doesn’t just take the cutest bunnies; it takes all who show up.  And it achieves real successes with them, despite budgets a small fraction of what their exclusionary counterparts get.

Epistemological humility is a choice, but it’s a choice rooted in a larger truth.  People will still surprise you, given the chance.  Arguing over whether the bunnies should be drowned in their senior year of high school or first month of college misses the point.  We don’t really know who will succeed until they show us.  Let them.


Comments:
I remain convinced that the best way to improve freshman (and developmental) retention and performance is to staff those gen ed and developmental sections with FT faculty actually trained in gen ed and developmental skills. Staffing those sections with adjuncts who are underpaid (so they have to have second or third jobs) or over worked (6 sections divided by 3 campuses) means that faculty don't have the time to give adequate feedback, or meet with students to provide the personal help they need.
 
"The way community colleges discern ability is by letting people in and giving them a chance to show what they can do."

Agreed. But what if they show that they cannot attend class more than once in the first two or three weeks of the semester? What are the odds of passing if you don't turn in the first essay or take the first exam?

The point should be that neither the increasingly embattled institution (performance funding for community colleges exists) or an increasingly embattled faculty (ditto for tenure review based on passing rates and outcomes) should be held responsible for something that is not under their control.
 
I agree with Matt that a community college should let just about everyone in and give them a chance to show what they can do. But I also agree with CCPhyicist in that there can be problems if a community college accepts just about anybody with a warm body who applies, even if they show little or no prospect of success.

Faculty members will get upset if a large number of poorly prepared or unqualified students are admitted to their classes. What do you as an instructor do when they fail the first couple of tests, when they don’t do the homework, or if they don’t even show up for class? If you tell them that they should drop your class, this could count against you with the administration, especially if you have a lot of these problem students and you are perceived as having a drop rate which is too high. And if you keep them in your class but fail them at the end of the course, you could be dinged by the administration if they start to think that the student failure rate in your class is too high. In such an environment, you can be punished for things that are largely out of your control. If you are uintenured or if you are a contingent faculty member, it may be best for your career if you simply pass nonperforming students along, lest you attract the negative attention of the administration

Even the community college administration could get into trouble if it starts admitting too many marginal students, those who have little chance of success and who will probably either drop out or flunk out. If the dropout rate gets too high, the state agencies might ding the school for poor performance and may start to think about cutting the funding. If the graduation rate drops too low, the accrediting agencies may start to have a problem and will imagine that something is going wrong at the school.

But if a community college starts graduating too many non-performing students simply in order to meet their numbers, employers may start to imagine that the school is little more than a diploma mill, and even well-performing graduates from the school may start to have difficulty in getting good jobs. Students may start staying away from the community college in droves, assuming that a degree from the school isn’t really worth very much.

 
I agree with CCPhysicist and ArtMathProf...

I'm a math instructor at a community college, and I'm all for giving everybody a chance. And sometimes I'm all for giving students a second chance. But many times we go too far (at my institution), giving them third and fourth chances, and occasionally fifth chances, to the point where anybody with a brain would be able to see that these students are just wasting their time (along with mine, along with their classmates', and along with taxpayer money).

Math is hard; I get it. And we're doing everything we can to be creative and find ways to help our students get through it all. Free tutoring 50 hours per week on campus. A new pilot program with online tutoring. Accelerated and self-paced courses. Cohorts. New pathways. A math bootcamp. We are bending over backwards to find ways to help our students succeed and to get them where they need to be.

But then you have a student who tries to add a class a full two weeks into the semester. The class isn't full, so you're legally obliged to add them. And when you're trying to cover simplifying algebraic expressions and solving equations, that student is still struggling with 3-8. And they're interrupting the discussion every three minutes because they can't follow along with the basic calculations that everybody else knows because they made it a priority to be present for the first two weeks.

So then imagine that in this scenario, this is the student's second time taking the course with you. And you've already gone over all of this with them. And you've already told them about the importance of showing up to class regularly. And you had a talk with them at the end of the previous semester about how they're not going to pass a math class unless they show up every day. And then a month later, after winter break, they pull this.

We need to recognize as a society that college isn't for everybody, at least not "now" (in the sense that some people might not be ready for college at the moment, but some time in the workforce might help prepare them for the level of responsibility it requires). We need to have better alternatives like vocational schooling and apprenticeships so that students don't choose college as a default. And we need to recognize that our mission of giving everybody a chance should be contingent on them actually putting in the effort of showing up and following through with other basic requirements.

There's a point - and I don't think it's before the student starts, nor do I think it's in the first two weeks of the semester, or even the first semester - where we need to realize that it just isn't working out for a student. And this is unrelated to retention rates or cooking the books; it's because we need to realize that there's a point where keeping a student enrolled is just wasting everybody's time and money.
 
ArtMathProf:
Unfortunately, there is no 'might' or 'may' in "the state agencies might ding the school for poor performance and may start to think about cutting the funding" in my state. That is already a fact of life, and also applies to universities, some of whom have already started gaming their system. (If you tell smart people the rules to a game, they will figure out how to win it.)

Also, my sympathies to CC Math Instructor. We have a strict policy of no adds allowed after the second day of classes (one meeting of the class) without permission of the Dean, and my Dean will only do it with the permission of the instructor and perhaps a discussion of the student's transcript. We also do not allow anyone in the room who is not registered, so no story like "I have been attending for two weeks, something must have gone wrong with my registration so you have to add me".

And I'll also tell you that you are not alone. Several math colleagues share the experience of the repeat student who replicates the exact same behavior leading to the exact same grade. Some sort of cargo cult feeling seems to exist that pure chance will lead to a passing grade if they take the tests.
 
This is what happens in high schools. Students arrive in the middle of a semester, then disappear for a month-long holiday (excuse me, "religious trip"*), and we are expected to help them make up missing work so they can 'earn' the credit. If you wonder why your college students are unprepared with a high school diploma…


*We are not permitted to question this reason when given by the parents. If anyone knows a religion that demands a month in Hawaii I'd like to know, because I want to join it!
 
Thank you admin. Very valuable post.
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