Tuesday, April 08, 2008


Yesterday I mentioned just how impressed I was by Kay McClenney's panel on the “Bridges to Opportunity” initiative of the Ford Foundation. Although I can't do it justice, a few highlights (and since the facts flew fast and furious, and I may have gotten some of them wrong, anyone in the states mentioned who knows better is invited to comment):

  • In the state of Washington, apparently, they've been using Foundation money to help defray the cost of having two instructors co-teach remedial classes. They use a 'learning community' or 'cohort' approach, in which everybody in a given major who needs remediation in, say, writing, takes a double-length class that combines the intro to their major with remedial writing. The idea is to place the writing in a context in which students will see the relevance. Proprietary U used to do that with a technical writing elective, in which students in their last semester would take a technical writing class that piggybacked on their technical project class, and used the project as the raw material for writing assignments. It did a lot to get past the usual resistance, which has apparently also been the case in Washington. They've seen increases in pass rates, retention, and the like.

  • They've also identified four “momentum points” after which a student's likelihood of completing a degree are measurably higher. (The four points are completion of remediation, finishing the first year, clearing the college-level math requirement, and, obviously, graduation.) They're either working to or already have (my notes aren't clear) base college funding on these four momentum points, to give an institutional incentive to keep an eye on the ball.

  • In Kentucky, prior to the current year's fiscal bloodletting, they made a move to tie professional development funding for faculty to remedial students' needs. The idea, apparently, was that if you want faculty to do a better job meeting the needs of the neediest students, you have to align your incentives accordingly. It's one of those forehead-slappingly obvious ideas that makes you feel stupid for not having thought of it yourself. (I don't know if it survived Kentucky's recent budgetary smackdown.)

  • One panelist discussed the messages that resonate, or don't, with the public. Intriguingly, he suggested that some of our standbys – small classes, personal attention – don't cut it. He was adamant that one of the strikes against many community colleges is how they're named; although most of them are parts of larger (state) systems, many don't identify as such. If they were identified with the larger systems to which they actually belong, he argued, the public would think more highly of them. I'll admit not having thought of that. I don't know if it's true, but it's not absurd.

  • On a more basic level, I was heartened to see that there's at least one venue in which the kind of comparative work that we desperately need is actually being done. The “laboratories of democracy” model only works if the labs report their data. Data collection is still in a painfully rudimentary stage, but at least somebody's trying. Kudos, I say.

Anyone who can fill in some of the blanks is invited to comment. But I have to admit, the idea that some people are actually taking active steps to come to grips with real problems is heartening.