The Hook

On Wednesday Debra David and I attended a meeting of the Student Success Task Force, convened by legislation and hosted by the chancellor of the California Community Colleges.  The two-year publics are at the halfway point in a year-long process to evaluate and propose changes to their organization, with an eye to improving efficiency and increasing the number of students who reach their educational goals.

It’s a tall order.  The community colleges are open admission, by law serving “any who can benefit,” and the goals can be single courses, certificates, preparation for transfer, or an associate degree.  112 of these colleges serve the state, organized into 70+ districts that exert most of the influence.

Yet the conversations we heard were candid and bold.  Everything is on the table.  I think in the CSU, our own Graduation Initiative would benefit from such fearlessness.  But I also know that Debra and I were privvy to essentially a brainstorming session, and the final recommendations are still up for grabs.

Sitting there I was struck by a challenge both our systems share:  few of our students come ready for college.

As we focus on GE reform in the CSU, working with our faculty to make the curriculum more engaging, integrative, and purposeful, we should remember that for our students there’s a less visible difference between basic skills and lower-division GE.  As currently presented, both are a slog that you drag yourself through, on the way to the career preparation you came for.

We should work with our basic skills departments, that is, English and math, to come up with a consistent hook for our students, one that uses the promise of a better future to pull students through basic skills and GE alike.

A Carnegie Foundation project called “Statway” may be a step in the right direction.  It blends math remediation with college-level quantitative reasoning, flipping back and forth from week to week over a full year, to get students out of the rut of simply repeating math courses they didn’t understand the first time.  The expectation is that, by flashing forward to the applications of the principles they’re learning, students will better understand and value the concepts they need for later success.

The project is new and the jury still out, but I think the premise that we should dissolve the walls between traditional stages of learning, and foreground the future relevance of all we do, has promise.

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3 thoughts on “The Hook

  1. This is a really, really important issue – and it raises an even bigger possibility:

    It seems to me that we should revisit the whole idea of what “ready for college” really means, for two reasons.

    First, as your diagram indicates, a mastery of basic skills is not necessarily a prerequisite for addressing liberal studies outcomes, as we once thought. In fact, not only *can* skills be mastered in the context of liberal learning, but there is increasing evidence that basic skills learned in this way are learned better and are used more flexibly.

    Second, on a practical/social/institutional level, it doesn’t seem rational to consider the majority of people entering a situation to lack readiness for that situation – that state of affairs should probably lead to the redefinition of the situation itself. I’ll use a fitness center as an analogy (actually very apt on a number of levels): how much sense would it make for a fitness center to say that 60 percent of the people who enter the door are “not ready to work out”? And, more to the point, how likely would it then be for that 60 percent to ever achieve fitness or health goals, if they were not allowed to step on a treadmill or use the bench press – if they were told “sorry, here, walk around the outside of the building until you lose 10 lbs or achieve an acceptable resting heartrate”? No, a fitness center would not be worthy of the name if it admitted as full members only those who could begin their program at a level of intensity that had somehow been previously defined as “workout ready” – especially if that level were so elite that few clients met the standard.

    I suggest that what we have been considering “not ready for college” really means “entering the institution at a different point than was the [arbitrary] norm in the past.” And, as a matter of fact, what we have considered to be prerequisite might actually be more effective when integrated into what we have traditionally considered “college level” larger ideas and practical applications, rather than serving as a preliminary badge allowing entry.

    1. Hear hear — and the analogy to a fitness center is a hoot. Worth remembering.
      It seems like we agree on blending the liberal learning and remediation sides of the curriculum, and motivating all comers with a consistent message about the end result.
      The challenge is in organizing it all, right? Absent the means to provide everyone with a one-on-one tutorial, do we need to group students by incoming proficiency? It’s hard to teach effectively to a group when they begin at a wide range of levels, whether we call them “ready” or just “different from the prior norm.” I dunno. Thanks for the thought-provoking cocmment.

  2. Good question – how to work with students coming in at varying levels? Put another way, what do we do when the distances between outcome and input can be very different across different students? What it makes me think about is Salman Kahn’s Ted Talk that advocates an inversion of the “lecture/homework” equation:
    http://www.ted.com/talks/salman_khan_let_s_use_video_to_reinvent_education.html – the swiss cheese analogy is particularly apt: even when a student gets a “B” by mastering 85 % of the material, what about the missing 15% – and how will its lack get in her way if we say “okay, pretty good, now let’s move on, class” as we do now? How can we keep from leaving such holes in students’ backgrounds? Which is kind of the same question that you’re raising, Ken, since different students will bring different holes with them when they arrive, and they will develop different holes once they’re here. I like Khan’s answers for a start, though they’re not the only good ones out there – ‘stretch’ composition programs are another, for example.

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