Thursday, May 29, 2008

Improving Community Colleges

Several interesting articles in Inside Higher Ed lately, mostly driven by presentations at NISOD being covered by their reporter.

The last paper described in this last article, a reasoned critique of the "6 year graduation rate" with a proposed alternative, might be of much interest given discussions I have been involved in over at Dean Dad's place.

Of course, graduating does not always equal learning. I was again disappointed by not seeing a discussion of what measure constitutes success. Is it passing or learning? Is it graduating or getting and keeping a job? Is it the AA degree, or passing your classes after you transfer?

That item on employing data to improve the college is of great interest to me. You can't fix problems if you hide them behind the marketing facade of the college, especially if that means keeping them from the faculty, and you can't tell if a "fix" has changed things if you don't look at the data critically. Our college faculty learned a great deal during the reaffirmation process (aka re-accreditation) when we saw some rather disturbing data about how our students move through the college and how they do after they leave. However, these data get muddled up because such a small fraction of our students fit in the FTIC cohort that gets tracked for federal reporting rules.

One thing that bugs me is the difficulty of getting baseline data about the college (current information is not archived in any way that I can find it at our institution) and the challenge in running any kind of control when every group of students is different and affect the details of what happens in class on any give day.

Yeah, a physicist looking at social science research methods is not a pretty sight.

Ditto for a physicist involved in academic governance, and trying to find out how we are doing towards our goals for improving the college. All I know is that we are failing at some of them, but not by how much! (Or why! !!!) Are we close? Have we moved the wrong way? Have we made it half way? Will "increased focus" mean doing more of what already failed? Has that one objective failing shown any correlation at all with the other success measures that it is supposed to help fix?

One idea in those articles that really hit me as interesting is the one about starting the math remediation process in high school. As I have written before, many of our weakest students were lied to in high school about the level of the math classes they are taking. As a result, they don't take our remediation classes seriously. We also see the pattern mentioned in one of the articles, where students persist in "prep" english but bail out of "prep" math. A combination of data, professional development for adjuncts, and developing support groups within the student body may all have to be put to work in that area.

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