Sunday, October 23, 2016


Ask the Administrator: What If They Decide Wrong?

A longtime correspondent (and fellow administrator) writes:

Students at our community college struggle with math, a phenomenon common to many students, community college and otherwise. Recently, our math faculty completely revamped the curriculum and implemented a new placement test (the latter with disastrous results and the exam was pulled). Some of the parameters within the new curriculum are antithetical to student success. For example, in order to move from one 7-week class to the next, a student must pass an exit exam with a score of 70%. If she does not, she will earn a D or F in the course, regardless of her status prior to that test.

Faculty own the curriculum; that point is never questioned. However, what if the faculty decisions stand to do tremendous and potentially irreversible harm to both students and the institution? If other faculty approve the curricular changes in the shared governance process, what are the reasonable options that can also avoid irreparable damage to the relationship between faculty and administration?

This one’s tricky, because both sides are partially right.  I think it comes down to different definitions of “student success,” as well as different accountabilities.  And it points to a fundamental issue of ownership.

From an institutional point of view -- the view an administrator is supposed to adopt -- student success means more students completing the program, graduating, and finding either jobs with decent salaries or relatively clean transfer to good four-year schools.  

From an individual instructor’s point of view, student success could mean students doing well in her class.  

In a perfect world, there’s no conflict between the two perspectives.  And on the high end, there isn’t; honors students, for example, tend to succeed in both courses and programs, and then tend to do well after that.  But on the lower-GPA end, the conflict becomes real.  For example, if you replace a two course developmental sequence with one course, this might happen:

Old system: 60% pass level one, some walk away, 60% pass level two, some walk away, you wind up with maybe 25 in college-level math.

New system: 50% pass the only level, some walk away, you end up with 35 in college-level math.

From an in-the-classroom perspective, the new system is an obvious failure; it went from 60 percent passing to 50 percent passing.  Why is the administration ignoring academic preparation?  What the hell do they think they’re doing?

But from an institutional perspective, the new system is a raging success; it went from 25 percent getting to college-level to 35 percent.  That’s a game-changing increase.  What are the faculty carping about?  What the hell do they think they’re doing?

From what I’ve heard from colleagues in Florida, that’s a pretty good approximation of what happened there when the state banned mandatory placement into developmental classes.  Pass rates in the first college-level class dropped, but more students got through it because more students got into it.  Whether that’s success or failure depends on your definition.

It sounds like you’re facing the clash between immediately visible, in-class success, and success over the sequence.  

The good news for you, I think, is that as the proposal makes its way through the governance process, you will have faculty from other departments weigh in.  They may be more amenable to the institutional-level view, since they don’t teach the math classes themselves.  If you argue from the perspective of helping the most students succeed, I’m guessing you’ll be on solid ground.

If that doesn’t work, you have some other options to minimize the damage.

One is a pilot or phase-in period.  The change being proposed is pretty radical, and the results speculative.  There’s a respectable argument based on prudence that would suggest starting small to see what the results are.  If they’re unexpectedly positive, then the conflict goes away and you can scale up.  If they’re what you think they’ll be, you will have restricted the damage to a smaller group.  Sometimes “less bad” is the best option on the table.

Alternately, you could move to a multi-factor placement system to reduce the number of students who need to take developmental classes in the first place.  (Think of this as the “soft” Florida option.)  Using multiple screens -- add high school GPA, say -- to filter students out of developmental classes may more than offset the losses from the proposed new system.  To the extent that multi-factor placement leads to greater accuracy, the more intense new system may actually benefit the much smaller number of students who would take it.  

The larger issue of “ownership” of curriculum is likely to come up more often in the next few years as various reform movements gain traction.  I’d prefer to replace a term like “ownership” with something closer to “first say” or “primacy,” just because there are too many variables to default to anything absolute.  If a state decides to ban developmental classes, can local faculty overrule it?  No.  If federal financial aid rules change and make an existing practice untenable, can local faculty choose to ignore the change?  No.  If a college lacks the money to support a new curriculum, can the faculty dictate it anyway?  No.  In a context of performance funding, with performance defined as credit accumulation and graduation, it’s ludicrous to prevent administrators from having a say in how to improve performance.  Like it or not, the artisanal model of production is not sustainable.  We’ll need to adjust the model.  

But that’s a larger issue.  In the short term, I’d focus on working with faculty in other departments, and having a discussion of multi-factor placement.  The longer term, well, will take longer.

Good luck!  I’ll be curious to see how this plays out.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Is there a more elegant way around this dilemma?

Have a question?  Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

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