Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Reflections Upon Re-Entry

The League conference wrapped up on Wednesday in the way that conferences usually do: a half-day in which the dress code abruptly changed.  The skirts and suits of the first couple of days were gone, in favor of jeans and pullovers.  Even after all these years, I’m still a little surprised by that.

I managed to squeeze in a final panel in the morning.  Courtney Adkins, from CCSSE, gave an overview of the findings of its report, “Expectations Meet Reality.”  The report was based on a national survey of community college students, as CCSSE reports usually are.  (Those of us on campuses know that the data collection process is a bit lumpier than would be ideal, but given the massive sample size, there’s an assumption that the lumps come out in the wash.)  The focus of the report was on placement.  Apparently, about a third of the students surveyed in their second or subsequent semester reported that they disagreed with the level at which they were initially placed.  That figure came conspicuously close to the figure that the CAPR panel identified as misplaced.  When Big Data and student self-reports are telling us substantially the same thing, in pretty much the same proportions, they may be onto something.

The stat that jumped off the screen for me was that roughly 40 percent of students who self-report A averages in high school placed developmental at community college.  Given John Hetts’ study of the veracity of student self-reporting on GPA -- basically, they tend to be spot-on -- there’s probably something here.  I’d suspect that these students show up disproportionately in the “I was misplaced” camp, and they’re probably right.  

Reflecting on the conference more broadly, I see a hunger for recognition on all sides.  One longtime attendee mentioned to me in passing that the secret of packing the conference is giving lots of awards; people show up when they get awards.  Judging by the number of people who stood in the plenary when award-winners were asked to stand, there’s something to that.  But the hunger for awards is revealing in itself.

The craving for respect shows up in various ways.  In discussions of the ways that various reforms took root, I kept hearing about the delicate balance of administrative support and leadership with faculty autonomy.  If there’s a leadership vacuum in administration, faculty autonomy will defeat most reforms.  If administration is too heavy-handed, faculty will foot-drag, and the reform won’t thrive.  And while students generally like to be treated with respect, a perceived lack of respect is more damaging to the students whose cultural claim on higher education isn’t as broadly accepted.  They’ve already internalized some doubt, so they’re quicker to take indifference or hostility as confirmation that they don’t belong.  Some prophecies become self-fulfilling.

One reporter I met there mentioned that when he worked for local newspapers, he grew accustomed to people seldom returning his calls.  But when he calls community college people, they trip over themselves to get back to him.  There’s a palpable hunger for recognition, respect, and a wider understanding of what we actually do.

That may explain (part of) why it’s rare to see panels about reforms that failed.  Community colleges endure all manner of negative stereotypes, and much of the data out there is either badly misleading -- cough IPEDS cough -- or used as a bludgeon.  In that climate, would you take a rare moment in the sun to talk about something you messed up?  

That’s a shame, because failure can be an effective teacher.  And _other people’s_ failures are far less painful to learn from than your own.  If we were secure enough collectively to try it, we could probably make great strides by learning from post-mortems.  

I was struck, too, at the eagerness for cookie-cutter answers.  I’ve seen enough different community colleges to know that context matters; the taken-for-granted assumptions of one place are deeply foreign at another.  That’s probably part of the appeal of a program like ALP: it’s uncommonly portable.

The challenge of administration is in moving between the national, data-driven view, and the realities of a four-dimensional local culture, and doing justice to both.  It’s in providing leadership that makes autonomous faculty feel empowered, rather than led.  It’s in acknowledging the kernel of truth in much larger lies that fly unchecked in the political world, and working on what we can without feeding any narratives that would be used to destroy.  

How hard can that possibly be?