Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Easily Overlooked, But Important

The Aspen Institute just issued a “playbook” for community colleges looking to do “transfer” well. (The report has ‘vertical’ transfer in mind, rather than ‘lateral’ or ‘reverse’ transfer.)  

I think I’ve used my quota of quotation marks for today.

Anyway, the report looks closely at six community colleges, including my erstwhile employer, Holyoke CC.  It draws on lessons from all six about ways to make vertical transfer more visible and successful, but I was struck that it mentioned a key one only briefly and in passing:

Faculty from receiving institutions participating in program reviews.

At most community colleges, departments or programs are on a review cycle.  (Liberal Arts is a program; English is a department.)  Every x number of years, each program or department has to do a fairly detailed report examining how well it’s doing what it’s supposed to be doing.  

I didn’t realize that the longstanding Holyoke practice of requiring the presence of external evaluators from transfer-receiving schools on program reviews was considered unusual.  Apparently it is, but it shouldn’t be.  I consider it the academic equivalent of having local employers on advisory boards for career-focused programs.  The employers know what they want in future employees; presumably, the faculty know what they want in future students.

The feedback proved incredibly useful in several cases, because it got around the problem of limited expertise.  Nobody is a subject matter expert in everything.  In the case of a program that fell outside the disciplinary training of the dean or anyone higher up, it can be easy for incumbent faculty to circle the wagons and declare that they’re practically perfect in every way.  Hell, they may even believe it.  But bringing in people from the same discipline who have taught the students who were products of the program provided a welcome reality check.  In a few cases, those reality checks occasioned some fairly significant changes.  I might not know the ins and outs of Nuclear Basketweaving well enough to judge, but the professor from the university Nuclear Basketweaving program does; if she says something isn’t right, it probably isn’t.

The process wasn’t always smooth or conflict-free, but that’s to be expected.  And the point of it -- better preparing students for the next step -- was hard to dispute.  Nobody likes to hear bad news, but the peers from outside were generally quite good about phrasing recommendations as ways to make strong programs stronger.  We sometimes had to prep them with some discussion of per-student funding levels and the realities of open admissions, but that was only fair.

The reality check worked in reverse, as well.  Folks who came in with preconceived ideas about the rigor of community colleges were often positively surprised by what they found.  In my perfect world, four-year schools would invite disciplinary colleagues from community colleges to sit in on their program reviews, but that’s not up to me.

There is a cost involved: we typically paid modest stipends along with local travel costs.  But for the establishment and maintenance of faculty-to-faculty relationships across institutions, it was well worth it.  

The entire report is worth reading, but I probably would have highlighted that piece a bit more than it did.  It’s low-hanging fruit, easy, cheap, and effective.  I just didn’t know it was unusual.