• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

Friday Fragments

Timing and tests; judging instructors; honors colleges.

October 5, 2017
 
 

A new study shows that children in households that receive food stamps do worse on tests in school towards the end of the month.  

That sentence doesn’t contain a curse word, but it’s probably the most obscene thing I’ve ever written.

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When the outcomes assessment movement started to hit in earnest, I had it drilled into my head that we were never to disaggregate the data by instructor. That was to prevent two possible evils: using it to evaluate faculty, and spreading the fear among faculty that it was being used to evaluate them. (Those are not the same thing.) 

So I was surprised to read about Pierce College, in Washington, generating data dashboards about the pass rates for every professor, disaggregated by demographics, and shared with the professors directly.  It seemed like the sort of thing that would cause the faculty to go nuclear.

Apparently, it hasn’t. In a way, this gives me hope.

Professors with uncommonly low pass rates often attribute them to high standards. But if a disaggregated rate shows that some groups are thriving and others being decimated, the conversation could shift from indignation to improvement.  

Grade distributions are not outcomes assessment, but a similar logic has applied in the past.  If the culture is shifting to the point that we can start to have empirically-informed discussions with faculty whose results are strongly skewed, that seems like a good thing.  

In grad school, when I was a t.a., I actually analyzed the grades I had given in a few sections I had taught.  It turned out that female students had done a full grade point better than male students overall. They didn’t necessarily write better papers, but they got them in on time.   The male students’ promptness was, uh, somewhat uneven. All those penalties (and missed assignments) added up.  

I adjusted by giving the entire semester’s schedule of assignments on the first day of class, and sticking to it.  I explained to the students that they could use it to anticipate crunch times and work around them.  It helped a little; the gap shrunk, though it never disappeared.

In a collective bargaining environment, this sort of thing would have to be approached thoughtfully. But it’s too good an idea not to discuss.

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As a parent of a blisteringly smart high school junior, honors programs and honors colleges at public colleges and universities are making more sense to me than they ever have.

Sometimes they get attacked as elitist, but honestly, I’d rather see universities value academic drive and intellect than a good jump shot. And many of the private schools have simply become cost-prohibitive.

Brookdale recently had its first transfer fair specifically for its own honors students; representatives from four-year schools in the area came to choose from among our very best, and were happy to do so. The energy in the room was palpable, because the recruiters knew that these students are the best of the best. I actually wished one recruiter “happy hunting,” eliciting a smile and a knowing nod. This is prime territory.

Prime territory should be affordable.  

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