Friday, December 12, 2008

Exciting Efforts to Improve California Community College

Tony Bryk, new president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, announced last night he is putting community college at the top of the foundation's priority list. At a gathering of community college educators and researchers, Bryk and colleague Rose Arca, presented findings of the foundation's Strengthening Pre-collegiate Education in Community Colleges (SPECC) program, which has involved 11 colleges in collaboratively sharing strategies to improve teaching and learning in basic skills. Future efforts will focus on developmental math and supporting institutional leaders to use data to improve programs. Speakers included Myra Snell, Los Medanos Community College mathematics instructor; Frank Chong, president of Oakland's Laney College; and David Wolf, a former president of different state community colleges and an accreditation leader.

A few tidbits jumped off the page for me. First, Tom Bailey, director of Columbia University's Community College Research Center, has published a new paper that reviews some of the challenges faced by most community college students in attaining a degree. At the meeting, one of the speakers estimated that 58 percent of incoming community college students need one basic skills class and that only 29 percent in those in English basic skills and 7 percent in mathematics basic skills ever graduate. Figures like these explain why foundations are converging on community colleges as the cause du jour: the William & Flora Hewlett, Irvine, Walter S. Johnson, Lumina and, recently as mentioned in this blog, Gates. Foothill College biology instructor Celeste Carter reminded everyone about the National Science Foundation's Advanced Technological Education program and the STEM Talent Expansion program.

WestEd was handing out information about seminars into Reading Apprenticeship strategies that community college instructors in all subjects can use to help students struggling with English basic skills. Instructor professional development has become a major focus, and the trick, according to Snell, is to help instructors see it less as "tutoring for bad teachers" and more as understanding how to teach students better. At Los Medanos, they have used Japanese lesson study and, as she put it: "You pay them and hold meetings on Friday afternoons from 4-7 and give them dinner. " As noted in this blog earlier, Chabot College is now serving as the home base of "faculty inquiry" in the state's community colleges with Hewlett's support. Snell noted that it's not enough for faculty to do good instruction--they need to "document it, share it, and build on it."

Chong described ambitious efforts to invite high school dropouts to return to school through college programs and special culturally-sensitive programs focused on African Americans and Latinos. Wolf brought a dose of reality, explaining that few state legislators in California have any interest in community colleges, even though, since Prop. 13, their rules have increasingly controlled and constrained community colleges. I need to look up the "50 percent rule." A Google search yielded no answers, but apparently, this is highly problematic for community colleges.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

College on less than $600 a year

California's 109 community colleges offer the most affordable option in the U.S. for students and their families. A new report ranks the state at the top of the nation, noting that more than 2.5 million students turn to the system for education. This news contrasts with the sobering announcement from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that the state's current fiscal crisis will lead to budget cutbacks and tuition increases.

The same report flunked all other 49 states for charging families too much, including the state of Washington, where it is estimated a family spends more than a third of its income on a 2-year college degree. The same state, however, offers baccalaureate degrees through its 2-year college program, often by partnering with 4-year colleges. Similar efforts are under way at New Jersey and Arizona community colleges. One report estimates that 36% of low income families' students complete college compared to 81% of high income families, figures that have inspired The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support efforts to help more low-income American students finish college.

The report ranked states on preparing high school graduation rates, college participation rates, rates of completion, and baccalaureate attainment rates.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

More philanthropic interest in funding college completion

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced a new philanthropic effort focused on improving college completion rates. The U.S. leads the world in the proportion of students in college, but lags in the proportion of students finishing college. Community colleges play a key role in this battle for retention. Melinda Gates made the announcement.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Are state tests going to expand to include new skills?

Critics of state tests love to flog them for being "too narrow," and now we have the logical consequence. If you want to fix the test, make it longer! The Boston Globe reports that state educators are moving toward including tests of 21st-century skills, such as problem solving, communication, and teamwork, into the standardized state tests. Right away conservatives attacked the move as watering down state content standards and tests, but they were quickly told that the changes would "complement, not replace" the existing tests. The process to include new 21st-century skills testing is expected to take 10 years and require a complete overhaul of teacher training programs and the state's academic standards.

On a related note from post-secondary-land, you can check out this link for the debate over calls for testing and accountability. And see this link for work on greater post-secondary accountability by the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

On a different note related to the sagging economy, a community college president received a 50% raise this year, but then turned around and donated the after-tax amount ($74,000+) to a student scholarship fund. Wow! In Kentucky, another community college president recently declined a bonus and pay raise. Signs of difficult times. A community college in Pennsylvania is offering unemployed workers up to 12 college units for free to retrain. A group in Michigan scanned public records to determine how many local students in their community were eligible for a little-known state college aid program.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Do SATs predict college graduation?

In an op-ed piece in the New York Times, Peter Salins, former provost of the State University of New York (SUNY), Stony Brook, argues that while it may be fashionable to downgrade the importance of SATs in selecting college students, a recent quasi-experiment in his university system indicates that higher SAT scores do indeed predict higher graduation rates. This finding is based on comparing the relative changes in graduation rates between SUNY campuses that raised SAT scores for admission to those that did not (See related link to the left). The benefit of this comparison is that it held constant the other competing predictor of student success, GPA. The graduation rates at the more selective SUNY campuses soared relative to the less selective campuses. The findings suggest that, as a self-selection variable, SAT scores are one way that administrators can choose the most likely students to graduate.

Fair enough, but this conclusion raises troubling questions for me about the goal of post-secondary education: Is it ultimately designed for a self-selected group of students who can survive, in Darwinian fashion, all manner of instruction? As a mother who has just helped both of my sons "prep" for the SAT, I had the opportunity to observe the level of "teaching to the test" that is involved in attaining higher scores. Perhaps the latent variable here that links SAT performance to graduation is little more than the willingness to engage in focused and repetitive practice for tests. To be sure, much of post-secondary education requires little more that: Sheer persistence. Taking this notion a step further, it has become commonplace to hear how a college education "predicts" higher salaries in life. I wonder. I am unfamiliar with the studies underlying these claims, but I suspect, they are grounded in correlation, which is not the same as identifying causation. It may be that something else is at work here. Perhaps the same tenacity and persistence that permits one to engage in grueling SAT prep and all manner of college classes--including the most inconsiderate and Darwinian--might truly predict success in life, perhaps even more than a college education.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Keeping community college learning expectations high

A big part of my work with the Domain-Specific Assessment project funded by the U.S. Department of Education involves trying to help community colleges set a higher bar for student learning. Today some reports came out based on national survey data that provide some more insight into the problem of low expectations in community colleges. I have put the links here on the blog for your review. I will comment more after I read them!

Friday, November 14, 2008

21st Century Skills

If you want students to learn 21st-century skills, one approach involves giving them problems in school that resemble those they may tackle in their everyday lives. The thinking is that by solving such problems, students will learn the skills of teamwork, communication, project management, and complex problem solving. Yet, it might be difficult to convince teachers to use such time-consuming activities in their classrooms, and the research on the effectiveness of such activities is mixed at best.

Of course, the ho-hum effectiveness results might have more than a little to do with the limitations of the tests of effectiveness than the actual classroom activities. And so begins the assessment debate. Currently, most American teachers at the K-12 level and beyond, are required to teach to tests that check student performance on more academically-defined standards. These standards generally focus on knowledge that is easy to test: core facts, concepts, and procedures--knowledge that cognitive psychologists characterize as "declarative" and "procedural."

You don't have to be a psychologist to know that life does not present itself as a multiple choice test, but more as an unstructured series of problems that require a bit more than reciting vocabulary and demonstrating you can transform an equation. Proponents of teaching 21st-century skills fear that students focused strictly on proving they have learned the more academic standards will fail to learn the kinds of higher-level skills that will keep them competitive in the global economy. We all can remember those first years out of college when we realized how little we learned in school seemed to matter...

Incidentally, despite the press of standardized testing, teachers have long been encouraged to teach students higher-level skills through instructional categorization systems that hierarchically rate classroom activities according to their cognitive qualities. Bloom's Taxonomy is a well-known hierarchy. It involves rating activities that require students to apply, evaluate, argue, or synthesize knowledge as the higher-order kinds of activities. Check the tasks required on your child's state tests. You won't see too many questions that require those kinds of skills.

I have provided a link to the discussion around the problem of how to assess 21st-century skills on the blog. The blogosphere and journalism world are already batting about these ideas, noting that the so-called 21st-century skills depend on knowing the NCLB basics. There's also some concern about how expensive it would be to score tests that measure such skills. While these policy debates heat up, various efforts unfold in the educational community that may point the way toward a rapprochement between the advocates of standards-based education and 21st-century skills-based education. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills has been providing skills standards for K12 subjects.

In my own work, we have taken the approach of helping community college instructors who want to engage their students in problem-based learning activities--the kind designed to teach 21st-century skills--to define the learning outcomes they seek to achieve and develop effective tools to assess student performance. Our team from the Foothill-DeAnza Community College District in Los Altos, CA, and SRI International is starting to share these materials, which were developed under a grant from the National Science Foundation. To review them, go to this link:

Monday, November 10, 2008

Why are we so conflicted about tests?

Tests. We take them in ways both small and large, formal and informal, throughout our lives. It perhaps begins sometime when we are so small we can barely remember. We learn, usually from our parents, that there are certain things they want us to do--from potty training to riding a bike to swimming--that we cannot perform right away, and we're aware that they're watching us vigilantly until one day, we perform just right, and they let us know we have "passed." It continues throughout our school years in all the familiar ways: from the 50-yard dash in gym class to the essay in English class to the timed test in math class to the solo in music class.

In recent years, tests have moved to the top of many Americans' "most hated" list, largely through the pressure of the federal No Child Left Behind legislation requiring all students to meet state grade standards in reading, mathematics, science, history, and science. Testing has a bad name.

As someone who makes tests for a living, I find the conflict more than a little interesting. I wouldn't have a job if there were not a continuing hunger for evidence of quality and performance, and yet, we don't like tests. Why is it that we're so conflicted about tests? Is it the same reason we're likely to "kill the messenger"? Are we, at heart, uncomfortable with honest, constructive criticism?

I start this blog with these questions. I do not have the answers. I am just doing the work in a hostile environment, trying to understand the hostility. In my heart of hearts, I like to make tests for lots of reasons that I'll explore here. It's a craft that offers a lot of adventure. I get to delve into many different subjects and interview many different subject experts. I get the opportunity to "get into their heads." Then I get to try out ways to define the kinds of reasoning and thinking that these experts value the most in their fields. Finally, I get to invent scenarios that help people show what they can do in those fields. It's a job that is part detective, part script writer, and part butterfly catcher.