Week after week. From foes. From friends. “When are you going to write a book?”
From true friends? “Your book should have been on the shelves a year ago. You won’t have any impact unless you’ve written a book.”
I lead with the lamest excuse of all.
“And exactly when will I write this book?” The slides begin in my mind of all the people busier than I am who have written books. My slides put all these authors in earnest conversation with Charlie Rose, Faith Middleton, Jon Stewart, or Stephen Colbert.
“And exactly when?” O.K., next excuse: “The bread is in.” That’s a text message that arrives most weekday mornings.
“The Bread Guy” is my nickname at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, where we will soon have our seventh food bank in as many months. To clarify “food bank”: the Greater Boston Food Bank unloads an 18-wheeler of frozen chicken, pork, bags of carrots, bread, and yogurt and whatever else at the back of the building. At first, an 18-wheeler's worth of food vanished in 90 minutes. The fourth was after summer classes ended and before fall classes had begun. We wondered if students would show. They did. At the sixth, last week, the food was gone in 60 minutes. These hungry, remember, are human beings taking calculus, computer science, biology, nursing.
The bread? Oh, yes. Here’s an e-mail from the other day.
I am a current BHCC student who is going through a rough time financially. My friends and I look forward to seeing the "bread guy" carting around the school with free bread and pastries. For some of us, it is the only thing that we get to eat that day. For others, it helps us save what we would have spent on food so that we can buy a T pass to get to and from school.
The food bank and the bread arrived after my March column here that I had thought was about using federal work-study funds to pay students to study -- so they’d have money for food. Instead, the column broke the news of hunger on college campuses. "Here and Now," on NPR, picked up the story (Professor Suggests Paying Students To Study). That brought an e-mail from the parents’ association of Minuteman High School in Concord. Could they deliver every day four to six cases of day-old bread from Panera? “Of course. Thank you.” Each morning, I or a colleague load the bread onto a three-tier steel cart that clangs and rattles as we roll the bread to the Single Stop office, where a colleague has peanut butter and jelly, too.
Historical Aside/You Can’t Make This Up: That’s “Minuteman” as in Lexington and Concord. Remember in the Longfellow poem, Paul Revere on the 18th of April in ’75, “Then he said "Good-night!" and with muffled oar silently rowed to the Charlestown shore.” That spot on the Charlestown shore is just a few blocks from BHCC. The Minuteparents, then, are bringing the bread to Charlestown along pretty much the same roads as Revere rode in the other direction in ‘75. Surely the patriot silversmith had higher hopes for our nation than food banks in mind when he spurred his horse and looked over his left shoulder to where BHCC now stands.
My Goddamned Book? Next excuse?
Here’s a showstopper. Wars. My colleagues and I are always working with two students out of money because of wars. The family of one is in hiding in the civil war in Mali. Car bombs in Damascus have shut the banks of another student’s family. A refugee from the civil war a few years back in Kenya last year earned a few dollars over the Pell Grant limit. No more financial aid. He can’t come back to school.
Every day faculty and staff all over our campus are helping the 500 U.S. veterans back from deployment in Iraq, Afghanistan, and, often, both. With the understaffed federal Department of Veterans Affairs, payments due to these men and women are late all the time. The veterans are, then, at the food banks, too.
Foes? How better to slow my nettlesome columns and convey me to oblivion than a year or two writing and (the real joke) trying to sell a book about the ease of educating the poor. My foes have the point that haunts me. Who cares, beyond my colleagues, the food banks and the Minuteparents, that these students have no food?
Who cares? The presidents of both my union, the National Education Association, and my lobby, the American Association of Community Colleges, blew off my suggestion to share with memberships the versions of Walt Whitman’s “I Hear American Singing” that The Nation published this fall. Click here for the poems. I had suggested that teachers and professors everywhere Steal This Assignment and have students flood the White House with the results. Not as literature but evidence that these millions of students have talent and motivation that’s worth lunch and a little help.
My Goddamned Book? Five years ago, I embedded myself at Bunker Hill Community College to find out who these students –- the millions failing to complete college –- are. What can they do? What would it take for them to succeed?
I’d had it with conferences on college access –- white tablecloths, sweating pitchers of ice water, pads and pens my students didn’t have. Speaker after speaker repeating demographics. And the excuses. And the excuses. And at lunch, platters upon platters of free sandwiches. Free drinks before dinner. I found, then and now, no evidence to counter my surmise that T-Mobile and Red Bull know more about these students’ lives than anyone on the higher education research/foundation/conference circuit.
My Goddamned Book would report my finding:
We, the people, can put at least a million, maybe two million, students on the path to a solid 21st-century career with funds already available in the federal budget. No new taxes.
My obstacles are that my blessedly simple, practical, finance-able ideas must be wrong. Otherwise, someone other than me would already have thought them up. Let me summarize. (This is only a column. You are going to have to buy the book.) Provide food. Give students a quiet place to study. Start with critical skills.
To increase degree, associate, bachelor’s, or certificate completion by at least a leap and a bound:
Right now, begin a pilot program that used already-budgeted federal work-study money to pay students to study. Click here for details. Wages to put food on the table will always trump giving up pay to study and attend class.
For Pell-eligible college students, provide the same federal free and reduced lunches these students received in k-12. Right now, we, the people, penalize students for continuing postsecondary education by taking away lunch. To fund this we can either cap federal direct-cost reimbursement for research grants (most now at least 50 percent) at 15 percent -- or just give me a few minutes with the Pentagon budget.
Require students receiving federal student aid to apply those funds first to being able to pass the Advanced Placement Exams in statistics and in English composition. Click here for details. (No, we, the people, will not pay current prices to the College Board.) Stop complaining about low U.S. math scores. Do something.
Evidence of students worthy of this investment? Again, click here and read the poems The Nation published.
My target populations are those now in community colleges. Not every single student. Two out of 20 in every section I’ve taught so far have the intellect to follow any rigorous course of study, from a Cisco systems license to admission at a selective college. Ten percent, then, of eight million students in community college is 800,000. To the many who will call my estimate folly, I’ll adjust by 75 percent. Call it 250,000 students. I’ll settle for a 10,000-student clinical trial/pilot, the rigor of which education has never seen before.
These are the students worth the public investment now. Our lack of an answer for the other 7,750,000 million students is no excuse for failing to educate, to the max, the 250,000 I will delineate in My Goddamned Book.
Yes, stories sell books. My Goddamned Book will move aside what too often passes for education reform –- the hero teacher and hero student tales. Jaime Escalante, “Stand and Deliver,” and Erin Gruwell, “Freedom Writers,” inspire me every day. Their work is evidence that these students are worth an investment. Recommending these movies to a friend is not what My Goddamned Book will propose.
My Goddamned Book will examine the shabby state of data with which to do real research in education. My Goddamned Book, and perhaps a column soon, will illuminate how education wonks and leaders over the past few decades have mastered (and doctored, I guess) excuses while medical doctors and scientists have found cures and treatments for many cancers.
Exactly when will I write My Goddamned Book? When the BHCC student who gave this stunning speech in Washington at the Opportunity Nation Summit has a funded plan for food for the balance of the semester. Click here and take a look.
My Goddamned Book will admit that I don’t think everyone needs college and that I have no idea how many more completions and graduations will energize the economy. My Goddamned Book will recognize that none of us has the slightest idea what would happen if a million more students per year, or even 1,000, could pass those two AP Exams. My Goddamned Book will propose that we, the people, give these simple ideas – food, quiet study time, high standards -- a try.
Is 250,000 still too big a clinical trial still? Is 10,000? O.K., how about the solutions I propose for 1,000 students at Bunker Hill Community College, starting Monday? I’ll bet my job on their success.
Submitted by Anonymous on September 18, 2012 - 3:00am
Improving college and career readiness among our high school students is one of the great imperatives facing our nation. To meet this challenge, educators, policymakers and business leaders are working to increase students’ academic skills through a host of national and state initiatives, including the Common Core State Standards.
While it goes without question that students need strong academic skills to succeed in postsecondary education, our research indicates that “college readiness” must be more broadly conceived. In a recent study, we interviewed almost 200 community college faculty, staff and students. These interviews made abundantly clear that certain non-academic skills, behaviors and attitudes are equally germane to college success.
Non-academic college readiness is only peripherally discussed by practitioners and policymakers. It remains poorly articulated, leaving new college students unclear about the expectations they will face, and high school and college practitioners unable to help them truly prepare. As educators aim to make the academic skills needed for college readiness clear and measurable, they must do the same for non-academic skills.
In our recent research, we identified four specific areas -- academic habits, cultural know-how, the ability to balance school and other demands and engaging in help-seeking -- in which college faculty had clear expectations of their students. These expectations differed substantively from those in high school, and while meeting them was critical to college success, they remained largely unspoken.
Many college instructors think they already clearly articulate their expectations to students, but our research indicates that behavioral expectations must be made far more explicit and precise. As one student we spoke to -- who dropped out after her second semester -- told us: “they didn’t tell me what to expect, so I didn’t know what to do!” Overall, the evidence points to the need for active, scaffolded guidance so that students can develop the behaviors and strategies exhibited by effective college students.
Take “studying,” for example. College instructors often tell students they must “study hard” for their class. But in high school, studying usually entails completing nightly homework, taking biweekly tests, and completing short-term assignments. College “studying,” in contrast, means completing work independently -- even if the teacher doesn’t collect or grade it. It means reviewing a syllabus at the beginning of a course, developing a plan to complete long-term projects and studying large amounts of material for infrequent exams.
Students who meet the college expectation of studying hard use strategies such as breaking their syllabus into small chunks of material to learn at regularly scheduled intervals, and taking notes in the margins of their textbooks while reading. Instructors should explain these successful behaviors to students on the first day of class, and regularly remind them of these and other important skills, such as recognizing when they need help, and asking for assistance rather than waiting for it to be offered.
To make their expectations sufficiently explicit and actionable, instructors will have to first spend time reflecting upon the non-academic behaviors and skills they expect of their students. Once they have identified their own expectations, instructors can make these clear to students and develop assignments that will help students learn to employ the necessary behaviors. For example, when an instructor asks students to “come to class prepared,” what does she mean? If she means coming to class having completed a reading and being prepared to participate in discussions about it, she can include this expectation in the syllabus, explain it to students from the first day of class, and assign students to write out three questions or observations about the reading to discuss each week.
Institutions can formalize this process by asking entire departments or disciplines to similarly identify and explicate the unspoken expectations to which students are held. Conversations about behavioral expectations could be conducted as part of program review, professional development or the creation of learning outcomes. Importantly, institutions must then make these newly identified non-academic expectations clear to current and future students -- by embedding them into course syllabi and structuring orientation, outreach activities and success courses around them.
Colleges should also work with high schools and state education policymakers to ensure that these non-academic readiness standards are incorporated into ongoing local and state college readiness initiatives. Senior-year transition courses, college-high school partnership programs and Common Core implementation are all avenues through which non-academic collegiate expectations can be clearly communicated to students, and successful skills and behaviors can be taught.
The bottom line is that educators must stop blaming students for breaking rules that they do not know exist. Until students are told the concrete ways college and high school are different, and provided strategies for how they might meet new expectations, there is a danger that all the focus on academic readiness will not lead to real change in students’ postsecondary achievement.
Melinda Mechur Karp and Rachel Hare Bork
Melinda Mechur Karp is senior research associate and Rachel Hare Bork is a research associate at the Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University.
After English department disappointed officials, administration said it would call off searches, send adjuncts "letters of non-reappointment," and tell students to take composition elsewhere. Now president says that was just a "worst-case scenario."
In the spotlight more than ever before, community colleges are increasingly being asked to do more with less -- facing greater pressure to produce more college graduates at the same time that state funding is being reduced.
For example, Arizona's state spending on community colleges in fiscal 2013 dropped 7 percent, from $71 million to about $66 million, in spite of a 7 percent increase in community college enrollment. In Virginia, the average state funding per student at community colleges fell 36 percent, from $4,602 to $2,946, between 2006 and 2011. And, in the last four years, demand for community college education in California has increased while the budgets have been cut by 12 percent. Many institutions nationwide cite such hurdles to justify three-year graduation rates dipping as low as 15 percent, saying it’s impossible to do better. But that’s not true.
Even in the face of all the challenges, there are examples of community colleges doing a superb job achieving student success at scale on campuses across the country. The sector is inventing programs that show promising results, yet community colleges are still being recognized more for their challenges than their successes. What community colleges need is a better sense of where to look for examples of excellence in the sector in order to raise the bar, not only for college completion, but also for student learning outcomes and employment after college.
In July, the Aspen Institute published data that offer some pointers on where to look for solutions. Performance and improvement metrics were released that detail which 120 community colleges are doing best -- and improving the most -- in terms of graduation rates, retention rates and degrees awarded, for all students and for minority populations that have historically performed at lower levels. The data are used to determine the top U.S. community colleges that are eligible for the 2013 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence.
The data set Aspen released, which is based on the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), does not tell the whole story, but it tells an important one. It shows community colleges across the country what levels of student success are possible, as well as some places they ought to look to as models. For example, the data show that:
Walla Walla Community College (Wash.) boasts a 54 percent three-year graduation and transfer rate, well above the national average of 40 percent.
Santa Barbara City College (Calif.) has a three-year graduation and transfer rate of 48 percent for Hispanic students, which make up over 30 percent of its student body.
Lake Area Technical Institute (S.D.) has a three-year graduation and transfer rate of 76 percent, even though over 40 percent of its students are low-income enough to be receiving Pell grants.
Not every example on this list of 120 is relevant to every community college. But every two-year college in the country can find examples in the Aspen data set of a place that looks a lot like they do, yet is achieving higher levels of student graduation, or retention, or degrees awarded, or minority student success. They can then work to figure out what those colleges are doing that allowed them to be so successful and examine the programs that are working well -- helping students learn, complete programs and obtain degrees.
For example, even after consecutive years of budget cuts in California, Santa Barbara City College has maintained an excellent range of programs to improve student success, including an accelerated track that helps speed the neediest students through developmental math and an exceptional writing center that prepares students for the rigors of upper-division classes if and when they transfer to a four-year college. Walla Walla Community College has developed very strong systems for advising students to ensure that they complete degrees, employing quarterly advising by case managers and excellent online tools to monitor progress towards credentials with strong labor market value. Lake Area Technical Institute also prevents students from slipping through the cracks by enrolling all students in cohort-based, block-scheduled programs, where students progress together through each semester knowing exactly what courses, degree and career lie ahead.
Valencia College, the winner of the first Aspen Prize in 2011, achieved its 51 percent three-year graduation rate with a highly diverse student population – 46 percent of its students are Hispanic or African-American. While many significant and scaled initiatives have contributed to Valencia’s exceptional student outcomes, the college’s success is built in substantial part on a culture of learning among professors and staff, fueled by a completely revamped tenure process that rewards professors for improving their teaching.
These institutions, as well as the others on the list of 120, have awakened to the realities that we cannot continue to deliver higher education in the same way we always have in this country and expect better student outcomes. And, community college outcomes need to improve. The national full-time graduation rate of 28 percent is unacceptably low, and student success rates remain under 40 percent even if you count students who transfer to a four-year college without ever completing community college. And, as has been widely reported, graduation rates are even lower for the large number students who enter community college needing remedial education.
But understanding the need to improve is only the first step. By examining the quantitative outcomes of the 120 colleges on this list, all community colleges should be able to understand that much higher levels of student success are possible. Aspen will help over the coming year by releasing toolkits and providing briefings about what is happening at the 10 finalist community colleges vying for the 2013 prize -- which were just announced. Our hope is that increasing amounts of attention will be paid to these exemplars of student success, and that more and more people will recognize them as excellent, deserving of our investments and places that offer institution-wide solutions to the challenges community colleges face.
Joshua Wyner is executive director of the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program.