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Monday, February 28, 2011

Tying Our Shoelaces

Budget requests are due this week. When I’m out and about, people ask me, “How’s the state budget picture going to effect MV?” Lately, my response has been pretty consistent, “It all depends!”

In an environment where we serve more students at a disproportionately lower amount per student, the environment brings to mind too many clich├ęs – “do more with less”; tighten your belts a couple more notches; work smarter, not harder; tie your shoelaces a little better!

The last one, about the shoelaces, probably isn’t top of mind for most people, but it is for me. It comes from John Wooden, the legendary UCLA men’s basketball coach whose teams won 88 straight games and 7 consecutive national championships from 1967-1973. When asked about his approach to winning and how he prepared his team for a championship run each year, he responded by describing how he started every season. The first practice of the year was spent making sure each player was an expert at tying his basketball shoes correctly. If their shoes weren’t tied correctly, not only did their chances of tripping on an untied lace increase, but they were certain to get blisters on their feet and subsequently miss out on valuable preseason practice time – making them less efficient preparing for the grind of the year to come.

Although I play a lot of sports, I try to minimize my use of sports metaphors. However, the notion of tying one’s shoelaces to diminish efficiencies seems to have relevance to our budget and the overall operation of the College. The budget constraints we’re currently operating under, and will continue to do so next year, create an environment that calls for a reexamination of all processes, along with the manner in which we work. It’s more than breaking through the increasingly worn excuse, “we can’t do it that way because we’ve always done it this way.” It’s about approaching every part of our operation from a different perspective, asking “how might we do this better?” It requires us to listen more closely to students, the community, and each other. It requires us to be more open to feedback and talk about things in a critical way without being critical. It’s the open dialogue that doesn’t allow people to simply rant about why something doesn’t work, but calls for an expression of opinion, saying, “I disagree, but I have another (not necessarily a better) idea to consider.”

By looking closely at our processes, we need to spend more time collecting and analyzing data to inform our decision-making processes. It makes assessment relevant – we should collect and analyze data because it helps make more informed decisions, not because our accrediting agencies require it. Our culture needs to change from one that says, “in order to do more, we’re going to need more” to one that says, “we can implement that new process or program because we created additional capacity by changing this or eliminating that inefficiency.”

This approach would require everyone to respect the ideas, strengths, and talents of others and work together to develop a culture of continuous assessment and improvement in everything we do. We work at a most amazing place that has the potential to provide our students, and the community it serves, even more than it already does! If we make sure our “shoelaces are tied correctly” we can “minimize the blisters” and find ourselves running faster and farther than any of us could ever imagine.

If you have any thoughts on this post, please contact me at presblog@mvcc.edu.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Ballad of the Community College Student

In my twenty years of working in community colleges, I’ve had some pretty profound and memorable experiences that have shaped my commitment to and deep appreciation for the amazing role community colleges play in transforming the individual lives of students. Last week was a particularly powerful week for me – one that provided me with a variety of student interactions that, once again, surfaced the futility found trying to define the “typical community college student” and inspired me to organize the following profiles.

I am the honor student who prefers small classes
So many choices, but I choose to be here
First in my family to attend college
Breaking the inter-generational cycle of poverty

I am the adult student who has no time
My child’s sick
My job is mindless
I have dreams for myself
I have bigger dreams for my children
So I model the way

I am the student with the unseen disability
Putting in extra hours just to get by
Determined to let nothing stop me
I overcome challenges every day
Others will never know

I am the student on the brink
I’ve made choices in my life – more bad than good
The consequences are more than I expected
I hope this will be the time
I make the change I need

I am the average student
Going through the motions – waiting for a spark
I don’t know my strengths so my dreams are small
My potential is beyond
Anything I can imagine

I don’t even know what I don’t know
All I do know is I just need something
I just need a…
strong shoulder, helping hand, warm heart, or caring ear
But most of all,
I just need a chance.

I hope I find it in you.

If you have any thoughts on this post, please contact me at presblog@mvcc.edu.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Toward a More Viable Democracy

My reflective practitioner post prompted a few responses that have added insight and resources toward the importance of liberal arts and general education as well. I’ll try to weave the feedback and resources received into a coherent post. General education is often referred to as “the basics” – reading, writing, and math. With the world changing so dramatically all around, the basics are being recast into critical thinking, communicating, and problem solving (in a more applied use of the original basics). Trends show general education moving in the direction of students learning these skills in the context of interdisciplinary themes like sustainability, citizenship, and entrepreneurship. These ideas are arising in conversations, think tanks, and thought pieces. Unfortunately, they fail to surface much at all in uninformed or narrow-minded policy discussions and isolated campus cultures – and the timing couldn’t be worse.

A talented, well-informed, member of the adjunct faculty at MVCC sent me a wonderful resource on TED – a fantastic resource. It’s a fascinating and enlightening speech (18 minutes long) from the President of Bennington College, Dr. Liz Coleman, sharing the underpinnings of why and how that college reinvented general education. She issues a call to action to change general education in our colleges to help change our country and our world for the better. As she says, “it’s not about good and evil, but finding solutions between competing ideas.” In light of the challenges we face, general education in this country needs to be comprised of mutually dependent circles rather than isolated triangles. It should have a new set of categories:
1. rhetoric - organizing the world of words
2. design - organizing the world of things
3. mediation & improvisation – assuming a special place in the new order
4. quantitative reasoning – managing change through measurement
5. technology - making connections
Dr. Coleman then turns the entire focus of general education toward acting on the critical issues of our day and the success of our collective future. As she closes, “We cannot have a viable democracy made up of zealots, experts, politicians, and spectators." Amen. http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/liz_coleman_s_call_to_reinvent_liberal_arts_education.html

The higher education and secondary sectors of our educational system are not very well aligned. We can’t simply continue saying “look how many students aren’t prepared for college.” We need to be part of the solution. The Race to the Top initiative addresses more root cause issues in primary and secondary education than No Child Left Behind did. However, it “races” over too many variables like English as a Second Language and other barriers associated with fair standardized testing practices in our schools. It has also shed a bright light on the performance, or lack thereof, in our school systems. It is too easy and even disingenuous for colleges and universities to simply say, “send us better students.” As the SUNY Chancellor says, “this is our problem too – we train the teachers.” Additionally, most every report or research study that looks at college student learning in the aggregate, particularly in general education areas, demonstrates limited achievement. http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2011/01/18/study_finds_large_numbers_of_college_students_don_t_learn_much. With the price of college today, we need to be as at least as accountable as our secondary schools.

We need to be part of the solution. We need to embrace those studies that show setting high standards for students and delivering content in engaging and applied ways, along with effective support systems and resources, most often causes students rise to those high standards. Simply “raising the bar” and telling the students to get there without changing our delivery or our support systems does more harm than good. Reconsidering and reinventing “the basics” of general education needs to include a deep curricular connection to our secondary school partners to align curriculum, expectations, and outcomes for increased relevance, learning, and consequence of the student experience.

If you have any thoughts on this post, please contact me at presblog@mvcc.edu.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Choice & Student Success

A number of conversations of late have me thinking about the psychology of choice. I don’t know much about what the research says, but I’ve heard others talk about how people can, at times, be overwhelmed with too many choices. For example, I remember being a first-generation college freshman sitting with my advisor at Mott Community College. My initial goal was to make every credit to count toward whatever degree I might someday receive. He said, “take these 31 credits and they’ll transfer to any of these five state universities – they’re all good schools.” I took those classes, transferred all 31 credits to one of those five schools and graduated three years later. With my advisor’s solid advice, I was not only able to make every credit count, I was able to achieve my big goal of graduating with a college degree.

My recent blog posts on performance funding and student success prompted a few comments from people. Increasing student success and completion is a complex endeavor. Efforts are underway to redesign our ED 100 College Success Seminar curriculum that is part of a multi-year effort to bring intentional strategies to enhancing the first-year student experience. While a number of wonderful accomplishments have been achieved, like a new student orientation and the development of DegreeWorks – a new advising tool. However, like so many college freshmen across the country, new students at MVCC face a similar wide array of curriculum choices that I did all those years ago at Mott. Students are asked to choose from a long list of possible courses when the first year of a college curriculum is, arguably, pretty standard across most colleges and universities.

Over the past twenty years, higher education curriculum has expanded to accommodate the information explosion. As more research is conducted and information shared via the Internet and other means, specialized courses have been developed with increasing frequency. Commonly justified as “elective” credits, these boutique courses have satisfied the academic interests of many undergraduate faculty and staff, but have added unnecessary complexity to an already convoluted student transfer mobility process. This came to light recently when I was speaking with a couple of Presidents who mentioned the following article in the Washington Post (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/01/21/AR2011012104554.html). Although the author certainly writes from a somewhat unique perspective, the article posits that higher education has become so segmented that even today’s Rhodes Scholars graduate with such specialized knowledge and limited world views, that they are unable to entertain many of the major questions facing the world today. 

We need reflective practitioners with a strong liberal arts background. However, one way to increase student success is to get each degree-seeking student off to a clear, productive start through a more narrow set of choices to begin pursuit of a college degree. With the ever-growing difficulty some students face when pursuing a degree, and the escalating price of a college education the collective tolerance for wasted credits that don’t apply to a degree is diminishing with each passing semester. It’s not so much that we should make the choices for first-year degree-seeking students, but narrowing those choices early in their studies will provide them with the focus and foundation to more likely achieve the larger goal of graduating. If you have any thoughts on this post, please contact me at presblog@mvcc.edu.