Basic Skills: A Conversation

Chair, Basic Skills Committee

That all of our students are basic skills students has been a consistent assertion and reminder at breakouts and discussions throughout the California Community College System for the past couple of years. Yet, in my day-to-day teaching, I had not often thought about basic skills students in my classes, largely because courses in my discipline, History, have an advisory that students be eligible for college-level English. When students have done poorly on their out-of-class essays or in-class essay exams, I have asked them what level of English they are taking, and almost none are in basic skills. (It's dismaying how many students who are taking English literature courses have not mastered fundamental elements of college-level writing, but that's another story.) However, as chair of the Basic Skills Committee in 2007-2008, I have begun to think about basic skills students and their needs within the context of the larger college community, which gives me pause as our colleges undertake the Basic Skills Initiative to think of ways to open up the conversation across disciplines on our campuses.

According to the Academic Senate committee charge, the Basic Skills Committee reviews policies and makes recommendations on positions and actions on issues related to meeting the needs of underprepared community college students. If my college's framing of basic skills is any indication, those needs largely center on English/ESL reading and writing and math skills. As colleges move forward with the Basic Skills Initiative, the potential exists that these disciplines could comprise the bulk of what is considered "basic skills." However, there are other concerns that go beyond these basic skills, such as oral communication skills or larger college initiatives that should also be considered in meeting the needs of underprepared students. I would like to give a few examples for consideration.

Recently, one member of my local board of trustees told of her experience buying a new cell phone. She went to her carrier's local store, where she was assisted by a young man who mumbled and was difficult to understand. In her discussions with him, she mentioned that she needed the phone because she was going abroad as a Santa Monica College trustee. The young man said that he had taken classes as SMC but dropped out because he found the classes too difficult.

We discussed whether or not oral communication and good oral communication skills could be considered a basic skill, especially since so many of our students work in the service sector.

I have also spent some time thinking about how broader college initiatives, such as global citizenship or diversity and American cultures graduation requirements, should also meet the needs of underprepared students. The president of my college has asked the college community to engage in a discussion on global citizenship that could lead to a global citizenship graduation requirement. Don't we want all students, regardless of their preparedness for college-level courses, to be engaged in meaningful discussions of global citizenship? Is it possible to show students that being able to convert from the U.S. system of measurement to the metric system is more than math, but also a different way of looking at and understanding the world? Don't we want all of our students to understand the ethnic and racial diversity of this country? Don't we want them all to be able to navigate the tricky and difficult ethnic and racial terrain of their communities?

Finally, the Organization of American Historians held a three-day symposium at El Camino College on teaching U.S. History for community college instructors. Many of the topics intersected with the current state of scholarship in U.S. History, such as infusing a more global perspective into the Americas' colonial origins, teaching contemporary U.S. history, teaching U.S. history on-line, or comparing 19th and 21st century immigration issues, patterns, and concerns. But in keeping with the oft-stated quote that began this piece, that "all our students are basic skills students," perhaps the most critical presentation was from an El Camino history instructor who focused on how to teach U.S. history to underprepared students and to focus on key ways to cultivate student success.

As we begin a new academic year with the Basic Skills Initiative, this is an opportunity to begin a larger conversation on the issue of basic skills across college campuses.

As a history instructor, I am watching declining course offerings in my discipline as an increasing number of classes are being devoted to underprepared students. It is for self-interested reasons I want these students to succeed. And in order for the underprepared students to succeed, the conversation must extend beyond those who have traditionally wrestled with the issue -it must include all faculty.