Efforts to Improve Basic Skills Instruction in Community Colleges Show Promise


With well over fifty percent of community college entering students assessed as being underprepared to do college-level work in English, mathematics, and/or reading, according to our 1998 basic Skills Survey, California community colleges face a monumental task of providing effective basic skills instruction. This challenge seems daunting when we consider the degree to which many of these students lack rudimentary skills in reading, writing, and computation-usually after completing high school. With drop-out rates among these students extremely high, how much success can we expect in the future?

Surprisingly, we can expect a great deal of success, but only when our institutions commit to improving basic skills instruction and student success at these levels as a top priority. We already know what practices yield improved results. Both Hunter Boylan, of the National Center for Developmental Education (sponsor of the Kellogg Institute), and Norton Grubb, Chair of UC Berkeley's Community College Cooperative (sponsor of the Basic Skills convocations), have published work and presented workshops describing best practices that have been documented successes and that we can replicate on our local campuses-of course, with the necessary institutional commitment.

And come of our colleges are making impressive progress in basic skills instruction. To get a picture of what practices have been in place in recent years in the our community colleges, the Basic Skills Committee has completed a second comprehensive survey, with a 60% return to date. This survey reveals what our institutions are doing to help students make critical gains in precollegiate basic skills. With a Board of Governors grant to follow up on this survey, the Senate's Basic Skills Committee-along with a number of college administrators, representatives from the other public higher education segments, a K-12 representative, and research advisors-will use this data and the available information on best practices in basic skills to identify programs in the California community colleges that best achieve student success. This expanded committee will determine ways to use data-some subjective-to demonstrate success in basic skills instruction. We hope to develop data collecting models that might be useful for all colleges to demonstrate the successes of their efforts.

We already have a good idea of best practices. They include having highly integrated instruction and student support services, the use of a variety of instructional approaches, faculty development activities that encourage sharing successful strategies, providing support for part-time faculty and promoting their full integration into instructional approaches, the use of a variety of learning communities, designing curriculum that allows for clear steps of advancement in skills levels, and many more.

We need to increase our efforts in identifying those practices in our colleges and using them as models we can replicate at adapt to other colleges. We also need to develop better means by which we document our successes. To this end we must maintain control of the design for collecting and using data that help us promote what works. With the Board of Governors grant and the help of bright, dedicated administrators and others from the other systems and segments, the basic Skills Committee looks forward to a very productive period.