Retrieving the Dream

Stung by highly critical report, leaders of community college reform initiative start series of efforts aimed at responding to the criticisms.
April 6, 2011

Champions of Achieving the Dream, a nationwide initiative designed to boost the academic success of community college students, received some humbling news last month, when an independent evaluation revealed that overall trends in student outcomes at the first 26 institutions to join the effort remained relatively unchanged after five years, despite the use of a variety of strategies to improve them. The critical appraisal also suggested that the participating institutions need to do more to involve adjunct and full-time faculty in their efforts, concentrate more on teaching and learning in the classroom, learn to scale up promising strategies to reach more students, and help institutions that have “very weak data capacity” assess their work.

In response to the critique, Achieving the Dream is releasing a series of guides and workshops designed to “provide a framework, principles and practices” to help community colleges overcome the four major challenges to reform identified in the recent evaluation. Last week, it released a publication and held a national workshop to discuss how its institutions can work to engage more adjunct and full-time faculty in their student success-driven initiatives. Though Achieving the Dream officials admit that their new suggestions may not engage many more professors overnight or win over the persistent skeptics among their ranks, they argue that they are learning from their project’s “struggles” and are more cognizant than ever that “moving the needle” is hard work.

"When we saw that [the evaluation] was pointing out weakness of our round-one colleges that we’re still dealing with after four and five years, that definitely caught our attention," Carol Lincoln, senior vice president of Achieving the Dream, said of last month’s evaluation by MDRC, a nonprofit education and social policy research organization. "Still, those things that it identified don’t sound to us like those are exclusively Achieving the Dream college challenges; they are problems all community colleges face. So we decided, 'Let’s use this moment to call attention to those big challenges.' "

The MDRC report suggested that participating institutions should seek more involvement from their faculty and staff members. “Given the primary role that faculty and staff play in teaching and supporting students’ learning, the initiative should focus more attention on directly engaging these personnel as leaders in the colleges’ reform process,” reads the report, asserting that many participating institutions have not made enough effort to involve adjunct faculty in their efforts. This goal is especially important, it argues, since many of these faculty members teach remedial coursework that enrolls high-risk students.

“The report wasn’t saying that there aren’t stories of ways to engage faculty,” Lincoln said. “It was just saying that the faculty that are being engaged in Achieving the Dream are the ones closest to the initiatives. But, when you look across out campuses, you won’t see a lot of faculty in other disciplines involved. We had the vision that this would spread to all faculty writ large, but we’re still trying to figure out, ‘How do you get all faculty involved?’ ”

The new publication offers a few broad themes for institutions to consider. It suggests that administrators should come to full- and part-time faculty “with questions, not answers,” and view them as “expert resources” for improving student success. To develop "transparency and trust in the data" used in the project, it recommends taking time to show faculty how data are collected and analyzed. Further, it notes that administrators should offer faculty professional development opportunities in areas like data analysis or reward them for their involvement in projects with release time and stipends.

To encourage long-term change, the publication recommends establishing the “expectation for faculty involvement in student success initiatives” at the hiring stage for both full-timers and adjuncts. It also suggests that formal dialogues should be established between groups that often are at odds with one another, such as development and general education, and full-time and adjunct faculty.

The publication identifies a few Achieving the Dream institutions that are already doing a good job of engaging faculty members. Sinclair Community College, in Ohio, took its faculty and staff on a “data retreat” to look at student success data together. It also gathered quantitative and qualitative information from professors and students in developmental math courses to use to improve the courses in later years. Meanwhile, Houston Community College, in Texas, and Valencia Community College, in Florida, hold large meetings with all faculty and staff members annually to discuss their Achieving the Dream goals and strategies.

Luzelma Canales, director of grant development at South Texas College, noted that her institution has always had a faculty-led process for all Achieving the Dream related changes, such as those in advising, assessment, placement, matriculation and student accountability. She said that her institution’s faculty was able to successfully push for a program to train all faculty members in advising. Since 2006, more than 400 faculty members have completed at least one level of advising training.

“You can’t look at student success without fully engaging faculty,” said Canales, admitting there will always be some faculty who don’t buy into projects like this. “We’ve had a bottom-up approach to this at our college…. The advice I give to colleges is that you have to, literally, find your champions amid the faculty. There are folks who will champion this and make it their own out there. The biggest road bump we have is for us not to become complacent.”

Lincoln, for one, is optimistic that the lessons Achieving the Dream institutions have learned so far are making a difference in “moving the needle” in measurable ways, such as graduation and retention rates. She acknowledged that Achieving the Dream will have to work on better ways to measure the success of its growing list of member institutions. She noted that last month’s report from MDRC on the first cohort of institutions to join the project was mainly pushed by the Lumina Foundation for Education, which predominately funded this first cohort.

“One of the limitations of that report is that it just looked at the first cohort,” Lincoln said. “People are starting at a quite different spot with Achieving the Dream now than they were before. We’ve learned. We see the struggles of having a highly targeted pilot and trying to grow it from there. Newer generations of colleges are jumping to scale and not messing around as much at the pilot phase. That’s our expectation for our newer colleges.”

Further Achieving the Dream publications and workshops for how to address the other challenges identified by last month’s MDRC report are planned for later this spring and summer. The next topic is scheduled to be how to bring strategies to scale.


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