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.300 batting average as a target for community college completion (essay)

Why Not Baseball?
July 20, 2012

Let’s proclaim .300 as the target national completion rate for the nation’s 1,200 community colleges. A .300 batting average is fine for baseball, a bargaining point for an even higher salary.  Why not for community college completion?

Howls about low completion rates are always in the news.  No one will ever translate “too low” into a target reflecting the variables -- student preparation, student health, country of origin, campus funding, faculty workload or hours a student must work per week.  I failed twice for this column in seeking  a coherent comment from the leaders of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC). First a referral to the excellent but aging Voluntary Framework for Accountability.  Next a mumble about the inappropriateness of national comments or goals. 

I disagree. Community colleges have no more important source of funding than federal Pell Grants.  Acknowledging variances campus to campus, we still need a national target.  Little causes me more distress than that it falls to me – one of the nation’s leading obscure columnists – to take a stand for these 8 million students, many of whom are on Pell Grants and food stamps.  Until the experts offer a credible answer, I’ll say that community-college completion rate targets should align with baseball – a .300 average is pretty damn good.

Before writing here, I certainly benchmarked this hypothesis in the private sector, with a Yankees fan who’d be loath to certify any theories from Red Sox Nation. 

“A measure of success is only meaningful if everyone understands and agrees on the degree of difficulty involved,” the global advertising titan Steve Gardner said from the New York offices of his firm, Gardner Nelson + Partners.  “Arguably, the graduation rate at an elite college like Williams should be darn close to 100 percent.  Williams is rigorous … but it starts with the crème de la crème of students and protects them in an environment with strong emotional support and financial resources.  In contrast, the fact that the graduation rate at a community college may be 25 percent is inherently a meaningless statistic until it is shaped with context. What is fair to expect?”

After a winter and spring of deep analysis, I declare that baseball may be the only human enterprise with as many forbidding variables as teaching in a community college. A .300 batting average is fine for baseball.  Why not for community college completion? Baseball is our national pastime. Community colleges bear the burden of educating the core of the nation’s work force.  Why not start with batting averages?

Let me be the first to go on record, then, to state that a .300 completion average is not good enough -– for me or for my colleagues.  All I seek for community colleges are completion-rate targets reflecting the difficulty of the job.  With an awake electorate and national leadership behind me, I will commit to the completion targets below.

Conditions

Completion rate

Current, We, The People Plan: Pell Grant cuts continue. Veterans flood into community colleges with no additional support for the colleges. No national leadership by or for community colleges. 

.300 and falling

Federal free and reduced lunch and breakfast extended to college students on federal Pell Grants.

.400

Students paid to study under same conditions as federal work study.  Click here for details.

.500

Requirement that federal Pell Grants must first be applied to achieving AP/college-level work in expository writing and in statistics. 

.650

The federal government pays for trained veteran counselors, one for every 50 veterans on a campus.  Counselors will help with benefits, career advice, and medical management.

.750

Equal federal subsidies, need-based, for all U.S. college students. 

Federal subsidies at community colleges per student equal to subsidies at colleges such as Williams with indoor golf nets, faculty teaching 2-5 courses a year rather than 5 per semester, and the same Alice Waters inspired dining-hall food from the Yale Sustainability Project.

.850

I’ve been sitting here for months, beside a baseball and The Science of Hitting, by the Boston Red Sox legend and lifetime .344 hitter Ted Williams (and John Underwood).  “Hitting a baseball –- I’ve said it a thousand times -- is the single most difficult thing to do in sport,” is Williams’s opening in the book.  After careful analysis over the past five years, I’ve concluded that community college teaching is at least as difficult as hitting a baseball.

Before hammering community colleges for low completion rates, keep in mind that the top lifetime batter was Ty Cobb with .366.  Babe Ruth? .342.  Lou Gehrig? .340.  (From Baseball Almanac.)   As I write, the won/lost percentage of the top Major League, team, the Yankees, is 0.614.  In academia, that’s a D-. 

Why .300?  A few weeks before the end of last semester I was projecting how many students would finish the semester at my standard. (Many community college faculty members have such targets, in spite of reports that community colleges are afraid to be accountable.)  Mine is a credible essay answering the Advanced Placement exam question on Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, “Write an essay in which you analyze the rhetorical strategies Lincoln uses to achieve his purpose.”

My M.B.A. HP 12-C calculator, still set to three decimal places, sent back a batting average, not a two-digit percentage: .272. That stinks. One more success, I discovered, would take me over .300, a batting average good enough to renew a Major League Baseball contact.  I looked at the list of students.  No guarantees, but I could see three I might be able to pull through before the end of the semester.  Not all three, but one of the three even if I tried for all three.  To .400?  .500?  1.000?  No way I could see, and, worse, nothing I could wish to have done differently. 

I’ll declare, as I have before (my 2010 column “Last Year I Flunked Myself”), that I flunked again.  Once again, I can end with no explanation for any percentages and enough heartwarming stories to delude myself that I’m making progress.  This semester?  A national magazine wants to publish my students’ versions of Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing.”  We, the people, can’t educate eight million students via anecdotes. 

Why baseball batting? Williams includes a chart showing that a baseball can pass through the strike zone in 77 different places. I have no trouble seeing a Ted Williams chart worth of pitches headed at me when I step up before these students each day.

I am not going to trivialize students by naming them  “Curve,” “Slider,” “Changeup,” “Forkball,” or “Sinker.”  Consider the variety of pitches?  Some students are high school graduates and some have GEDs.  A Somalian explained at the start of one semester that the challenges impairing her high school experience included dodging snipers on the way to school and frequent raids on the school, machine guns firing, by rebels kidnapping future child soldiers. 

The first languages that any class might pitch to me include Arabic (Moroccan, Egyptian, Syrian, Lebanese dialects), Armenian, Russian, Portuguese – via Brazil and Angola -- Spanish from every South and Central American country.  Somali.  French.  Creole.  Swahili. 

Hunger is a more frequent pitch.  These students may not have eaten that day.  Last spring, two students had bosses who thought nothing of scheduling 8 a.m.- 4 p.m., 4 p.m.- midnight, and midnight to 8 a.m. shifts all during one week.  One semester, I had a veteran who vanished (later found) after two more buddies from his unit committed suicide.  Once, a student was shot and murdered.  Last spring was the first semester in a while where no one in the class reported anyone shot in their family.

I don’t understand why others won’t make this proposal? The president, the board chair and the board chair-elect of the American Association of Community Colleges ducked the question twice as I worked on this column.  Here in Boston, a foundation in January issued a lightly researcher, predictable report with all the usual comments on low completion rates and failure to meet work force needs and no specific success targets. The distressing news eight months later is that in spite of at least one heroic effort I know of, no one, including the Massachusetts community colleges, have put a plan or a reply on the table.

My grade for last semester remains “F.”  My batting average I don’t know yet. Still working in extra innings with two to complete the course.

Bio

Wick Sloane writes the Devil's Workshop column for Inside Higher Ed.

 

 

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