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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Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Reforming the Community College, Part III

The Human Messiness of Implementing the “Guided Pathways” Model

            In my last blog, I summarized the “Guided Pathways” model of curriculum redesign presented in Bailey, Jaggars, and Jenkins’ Redesigning America’s Community College. This model is attracting a lot of attention and to varying degrees is stimulating reform efforts at community colleges across the country. As I stated in the last post, I generally agree with the authors’ criticisms of the typical community college’s structure and practices and see much that is good in their recommendations for reform. But I also have some concerns—maybe cautions in a better word—and in this blog will sketch out some that have to do with the social and political dynamics of establishing their Guided Pathways model.

            In a nutshell, the authors seek a restructuring of curriculum and of both instructional and student services practices that will require collaborative engagement on the part of faculty and staff, both within departments and across them. The authors realize the challenges of effecting such engagement and devote a chapter to the topic. They wisely begin the chapter by noting some of the difficulties: the possible lack of trust between administration and faculty and staff; the divide between faculty and student services; the disruptive role played by dissenters; etc. The authors then proceed to suggest strategies to work through these problems and present individual cases to illustrate the effective use of their strategies. For example, include dissenters in program planning, create planning teams that combine faculty with student services personnel, use data to question current practices, etc. This is a legitimate way to structure such a chapter.

            But such a structure implies that the barriers to change listed at the beginning of the chapter can be overcome with the management and group facilitation techniques presented in the remainder of the chapter—an impression reinforced by the lack of any examples or discussion of what to do when the techniques fail.

            The authors have a wealth of experience studying two- and four-year colleges, so they surely know how messy and unpredictable the process of reform can be. Perhaps they (or their editor) decided that it was best to present their model and a process to achieve it, and not to overly complicate things with extended discussion of potential pitfalls and blunders. Fair enough. And perhaps the authors’ disciplinary backgrounds in economics, policy analysis, and quantitative methodologies limit their treatment of the tangled day-to-day dynamics of status, power, and turf—which, depending on the institution, can include everything from budgets to racial tensions to contentious personal histories. To limit treatment of all this is a legitimate choice, but should be stated and underscored, for my worry is that individual colleges attempting the reforms suggested by Bailey, Jaggars, and Jenkins will encounter more of a minefield than anticipated and possibly scrap or significantly weaken the implementation of ideas that have real merit.

            Let me illustrate my concerns with three examples.


Turf, power, status, and ideology

            The organizational compartmentalizing and the administrative hierarchies that exist in the community college are not only structural features; they are electric with power and status. The various methods suggested by Bailey, et al. to bring people together to work through these dynamics toward the common goal of creating Guided Pathways are good ones, tried and true in the toolkit of management theory. They can yield results. But they also can be foiled by genuine ideological differences about the purpose of a particular area of study or of education in general. They can also be foiled by turf protection, administrative power struggles, and pure and simple personal animosity. As one administrative staff person I know said in exasperation, “It’s incredibly difficult to do anything outside of your own classroom.”

            To be sure, change happens. I’ve witnessed several successful programs take shape over the past few years as a core of energetic and creative faculty are given the resources to run with their ideas. But during that same time I’ve also seen such groups—inspired, seemingly tireless people—be stonewalled or shut down by larger groups of faculty within their subject area, or by their department heads, or by middle managers who want to protect turf or avoid the distribution of power.

Working from shared values

            Bailey, et al. suggest arriving at shared values as a starting place for examining current practices and changing them. For example, the authors write “In our experience, faculty and staff choose to work at community colleges because they believe in the open-access mission and are passionate about improving students’ lives.” This is generally true in my experience, but with two qualifications—which illustrate how arriving at shared values can be more complicated than it seems.

            First, regarding the embrace of the open-access mission of the community college, a percentage of faculty at most institutions believe that some of the students they teach should not be in college, and certainly not in their classrooms. These faculty align themselves with the universities that educated them, want to teach students who have some affinity for their discipline, and are not at all trained to work with students who are academically underprepared. In some cases, these faculty are younger and are at the community college because that was the only position available in a tight job market. In other cases, these are older faculty who have been at the college for decades and lived through a significant shift in student demographics. They look back nostalgically at a golden age—one that most likely did not exist as they remember it.

            My second qualification is this: faculty can have quite different beliefs about concepts like “improving students’ lives.” And some of these differing beliefs can present resilient barriers to change. One faculty member believes that to change methods of instruction will compromise standards and lead to sub-par education. Another believes that students—particularly those with poor academic backgrounds—need to have positive experiences in school, so avoids challenging them intellectually. And yet another operates with racial, class, or gender biases that limit what he or she thinks is realistic for some students in school or career.

Using data to facilitate program development

            We live in an age of “data-driven” decision-making. The assumption is that when faced with data about student or instructor or program performance, faculty and staff with guidance will engage in reflection and behavioral change. But we read data through multiple interpretive lenses. Bailey, et al. quote a faculty member who, upon reviewing “data from a series of student focused groups” exclaims “Oh my god, I’ve been misadvising my students all these years!” Some people will respond thus—and thank goodness for them. But other responses are also possible, and I’ve heard them directly or had them reported to me. People don’t believe the data—especially in institutions where there is a high level of distrust between faculty and administrators. People question the way the data were obtained. People blame the students. This last response is a big one where test data or pass/fail rates are concerned. When faced with data demonstrating the low pass rates in remedial English or math, some faculty respond by stating that those students don’t belong here. As one community college staff member said to me, “It’s hard to admit we’ve been doing something wrong.” To admit that one’s practice over the years has been ineffective is a blow to one’s professional identity.


            Again I want to make clear that I generally agree with Bailey, Jaggars, and Jenkins’ analysis of the problems with the traditional community college’s structure and mode of operation. The issues I raise in Back to School, though expressed differently, are in line with their analysis. I also think the Guided Pathways Model has many virtues. My goal in this blog is to note the kinds of entanglements community college personnel are likely to encounter as they attempt to follow Bailey’s implementation plan, which I find to be thin on the political and social dynamics of institutional change. The management and group facilitation techniques suggested in Redesigning America’s Community Colleges are good and useful, but play out on a complex human landscape, so might well need to be combined with savvy, possibly Machiavellian leadership; with horse-trading; with both symbolic and financial incentives; with the strategic use of personal relationships; and, unfortunately, at times, with reassignment or marginalization of obstructionist personnel. Change can be difficult and bruising.

            In my next blog, I’ll consider the diverse realities of community college students’ lives in relation to the key features of the Guided Pathways model.

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