Monday, February 25, 2019

Somewhere Between Urgent and Cranky...

Monday’s League conference was one of the most encouraging conference days I’ve had in quite a while.  For today, I’ll just focus on Uri Treisman’s keynote.

Treisman was a pioneer in developmental math acceleration, and he has been fighting battles around student success in open-access colleges for decades now.  Which is to say, he has seen a lot, he has nothing left to prove, and no need to impress anybody. He took that as freeing, and offered a brief stream-of-consciousness talk that was bracing in its honesty.  This was a man with no more hoots to give, but who decided to use his powers for good anyway.

The gist of the talk, as near as I could piece it together, was that “innovation” consists of both ideas and implementation, and that we’re far better at the former than the latter.  Too often, we treat “innovation as ornamentation,” creating tiny little projects too small to matter. “Pilots don’t scale,” he declared, noting that advisors often steer students away from pilot sections of anything, because they don’t understand (and therefore don’t trust) the pilot.  In a moment that made me laugh out loud, he added that “when scaling a system, you have to ask, can Banner handle it?”

Instead, he argued that when scaling up, you don’t just replicate.  You have to look at the lessons you can learn from it, then change systems.  That can mean curricular pathways, but it can also mean such quotidian-but-crucial matters as financial aid and registration systems.  Anyone who has tried to get an ERP system to recognize learning communities will groan in recognition.

Systemic change goes beyond internal college matters.  He advocated reaching out to high schools and cooperating to improve students’ readiness, rather than just exhorting them.  That may eventually require changing some governance systems. (At a panel later in the afternoon, I had to sigh when the presenters noted that they have a single public school district covering the entire county.  Monmouth County alone has over 60. The challenges increase exponentially.) Changes at that level promise to be particularly challenging, since they involve competition for power; he left that part unstated.

Moving to equity, he noted that at some community colleges, as many as 60 percent of the students who receive Nursing degrees -- one of the highest-paid occupations for which we prepare students directly -- already have bachelor’s degrees.  That tends to reduce the impact of such programs on the inequality of wealth and opportunity. I don’t know if that’s true locally; it never occurred to me to check. I’ll check.

Worse, he relayed that when completion rates increased dramatically in Tennessee, some engineering schools started pushing back, saying that with so many students doing well at cc’s, they didn’t know how to sort applicants.  All those failures served a “sorting” purpose; when the failure level got too low, the next level of schools had to introduce new filters. It struck me as a small version of the larger truth that education alone can’t solve a labor market problem.  We’ve shied away from acknowledging that, for fear of getting “political” and therefore divisive, but it’s true. The Great Recession didn’t happen because we suddenly got bad at teaching. At a certain point, equity requires much larger choices than any that colleges can make, even if we get really good at them.  That doesn’t let us off the hook, but it does suggest a larger context for a discussion that we’ve been careful not to have.

Treisman’s manner was somewhere between urgent and cranky, with a palpable feeling of impatience.  That struck me as about right. Systemic change is the work of years. Now that we know some things that work -- as he put it, “I was as surprised as anyone” that speeding up developmental sequences actually worked -- there’s no excuse not to do them, and to make the larger changes we know we need to make.  For a cold and windy Monday morning in February, it was twenty-five minutes well spent.