About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Thursday, February 25, 2016

Reforming the Community College, Part II

The “Guided Pathways” Model
            In my last post, I gave a quick overview of the community college, highlighting some of its achievements and current problems. The problem now getting the most national attention is the low rate of persistence and completion: approximately 30% of students finish a degree or occupational credential in four years. There have been a number of attempts over the last few decades to address this poor record of success, from a rethinking and restructuring of remedial English and mathematics to more intensive, technology-enhanced ways to provide orientation and advising.
            A comprehensive reform plan that is much discussed right now is the “guided pathways” model put forth in Bailey, Jaggars, and Jenkins’ Redesigning America’s Community Colleges. This book condenses and focuses years of research—a fair amount of which comes out of Columbia’s Community College Research Center, which Bailey directs. I am going to consider these authors’ model in this and the remaining posts I write in my upcoming blogs on the community college.
            Bailey, et al. locate the fundamental problem with the community college in the structure of its curriculum and the institutional assumptions that undergird that structure. In its attempt to serve all members of its area, the typical community college has allowed to proliferate a wide range of academic, occupational, general interest, and service courses and programs. Though some type of orientation and counseling and advising are typically available, their quality and effectiveness vary, and counselors’ case load—1,000 students per counselor is not uncommon—works against any substantial contact. And many students don’t utilize these services at all.
            As the authors see it, community colleges “offer an array of often-disconnected courses, programs, and support services that students are expected to navigate on their own. Students are confused by a plethora of poorly explained program, transfer, and career options; moreover, on closer scrutiny many programs do not clearly lead to the further education and employment outcomes they are advertised to help students achieve. We refer to this as a cafeteria-style, self-service model.” Students, many of whom are the first in their families to go to college, might enter college without a clear goal and/or get inadequate or incomplete advising, take courses that don't lead to a specified outcome, take courses out of sequence, or take courses they don’t need at all.
            As remedy, the authors suggest a more structured approach. Community colleges “need to engage faculty and student services professionals in creating more clearly structured, educationally coherent program pathways that lead to students’ end goals, and in rethinking instruction and student support services in ways that facilitate students’ learning and success as they progress along these paths. In short, to maximize both access and success, a fundamental redesign is necessary. We refer to the resulting strategy as the guided pathways model.”
            The authors acknowledge the laudable reforms attempted recently, such as improving the curriculum for remedial courses and streamlining them or creating programs at the front end of college to better orient and guide new students. But these reforms have had limited impact on completion, the authors claim, because the large macro-structure of the “cafeteria model” remained in place. Broad structural change is needed.
            To realize the Guided Pathways Model faculty and staff would create sequences of courses that lead to clearly defined outcomes: for example, an occupational credential or sub-specialty certification; an Associate of Arts degree in one of the social sciences; transfer status in physical science to a state university. Because many students enter without a clear goal—this is a major issue in the community college—there will be “meta-majors” that reflect broad areas of interest (e.g., business; health care; English, arts, and humanities), “each of which features a default curriculum that gives students a taste of the given field and helps them either narrow down their choice to a specific program or switch to another area of interest.”
            This major restructuring of the curriculum provides direction for other significant institutional reforms that will aid in retention and completion.
            Instruction. The faculty working within a particular pathway will together define “the skills, concepts, and habits of mind” they want students to develop through the pathway “and map out how students will build those learning outcomes across courses.” Librarians, instructional technology specialists, and student services staff will assist faculty in incorporating “innovative approaches to teaching and learning.”
            Orientation and advising. At the front end, increased effort will go to helping students clarify goals and choose a major or “meta-major”. Orientation to college will be beefed up, and students will be enrolled in courses that provide ongoing information and guidance about college life. Through the increased integration of technology into advising, students will receive timely feedback on their progress, and instructors and counselors will be alerted when something goes awry—for example, a student drops a course.
            Remedial or developmental education. Because so many community college students are held for one or more remedial courses, and because the traditional remedial sequences in math, writing, and reading can include as many as four courses for each subject, students required to take multiple courses are stalled in their progress and have a higher probability of dropping out. Here the authors of Redesigning America’s Community Colleges adopt the various reforms of remediation currently in place: fewer, more intensive courses; additional instruction and tutoring added to courses; math, writing, or reading taught in the context of a student’s curricular pathway, e.g., a writing course built on topics and readings from healthcare or a math course linked to a psychology or sociology course. The authors’ assumption is that these currently existing improved remedial courses will function more effectively as part of a pathways model, becoming an “on ramp” to a student’s college-level course of study.
            The above in a nutshell is the redesign of the community college advocated by Bailey, Jaggars, and Jenkins. As the authors admit, aspects of it are already in play, but not brought together in such a comprehensive fashion. A few two- and four-year colleges are implementing some version of the pathways model to good effect, and the authors profile them.
            I think the pathways idea is a good one. I have known so many students who would have benefitted tremendously from it—would have taken fewer courses that were extraneous to their goals, used up less financial aid money, moved more quickly toward completion of a certificate or degree or toward transfer to a four-year school. And I think the suggested reforms that follow, especially related to orientation and advising are long overdue. I raise similar suggestions in Back to School. And as for the rethinking of remediation, I’ve been on that boat for thirty-plus years. So I want to be clear in my agreement with and support of the reforms laid out in Redesigning America’s Community Colleges.
            But I do have some observations and in some cases reservations to offer, and I will begin to lay them out in my next blog.

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