After a year-long process, the Student Success Task Force (SSTF; formed in response to Senate Bill 1143, Liu, 2010) completed its work in December. Shortly thereafter, the California Community Colleges Board of Governors accepted the recommendations and then adopted a legislative agenda based on them. While some of the recommendations require neither legislation nor regulation for implementation, others would require changes in statute, and new bills must be introduced no later than February 24, 2011.
While we can debate the impact of the recommendations if they are implemented, argue for more holistic and nuanced definitions of student success, and bristle at the effective modification of our mission, we also need to consider our own agenda for student success and how can we can move that agenda forward. Prior to this effort, faculty were already actively pursuing new avenues or modifications of existing routes to ensure success for our widely varied student population.
Every college has made efforts with respect to improving basic skills, a focus of the SSTF. The Basic Skills Initiative (BSI) was born from the need to raise standards while not leaving anyone behind. BSI dollars resulted in local changes intended to ensure that students would still be able to meet their goals when new graduation requirements for English and math were implemented; these were changes deemed necessary by the faculty in order to make our degrees more meaningful. At the time these changes were made, everyone was cognizant of the potential to impact degree completion. But the need for a degree to have meaning, quality, and appropriate rigor trumped a focus on counting degrees. Community colleges are not certificate or degree producing machines; they are institutions of higher education that must maintain standards. The Academic Senate is the body that guards these standards and advocates for changes that improve the circumstances of our students in meaningful ways. Our role with respect to academic and professional matters requires that we advocate for the highest quality in what we do in order to ensure the best possible experience and education for our students.
A long-standing challenge in any California community college classroom is the diverse preparation of our students. Open access to the colleges has long meant open access to courses for which a student may or may not be prepared. This practice, of course, negatively impacts student success. California has historically required statistical validation in order to implement many prerequisites. In other words, we must create an environment in which students do not succeed in order to justify restrictions that ensure students are prepared for a course prior to registration. As a consequence, students who are prepared may not be able to secure a seat in a course that they need, and the students who are in the class may not have the skills necessary to succeed. Furthermore, the overall quality of instruction and the overall course-taking experience may be diminished for all students as the instructor strives to teach to the course outline of record and provide additional assistance to students who lack the requisite skills.
Less than a year ago, a Title 5 change was made to permit a simpler approach to the establishment of prerequisites. Unfortunately, individual colleges, the Academic Senate, and the Chancellor’s Office were then occupied with the SSTF and its work, as well as responding to other legislation that mandated curricular changes at the local level (i.e., SB 1440). As a consequence, necessary guidance was not provided for using a new means of justifying prerequisites, and the attention and efforts of colleges became consumed by other efforts.
Community colleges are poised to see an increase in outcomes even in advance of new prerequisites and the implementation of any element of the SSTF recommendations. The current challenge to students of gaining admission to needed classes and recent changes in the rules regarding withdrawal and repetition for a substandard grade are likely to lead to changes in outcomes as the stakes of every course enrollment are increased. As these factors combine with access issues at the UC and CSU that will likely direct more truly college-ready students to our colleges, savvier students are more likely to get into the classes that they desire in an environment where the demand for classes far exceeds the supply.
What should colleges be doing now to implement the SSTF recommendations? The more progress that can be made absent changes in regulations or law, the less justification there will be for such changes – and the more ready we will be when they happen. Currently, there is no mandate that students begin their basic skills instruction early. This is a tragedy. Students should develop the skills they need to succeed in transfer-level courses before they take those courses; college-level coursework should require college-level skills. Faculty need to begin the process of identifying and implementing prerequisites. This process requires a robust dialog among faculty in the discipline to ensure that there is consistent rigor across sections and dialog between disciplines that ensures that the right prerequisite is selected. Faculty also need to be prepared for the shift in course offerings that these changes will require.
Establishing more prerequisites will necessarily push the use of college resources in the direction that they need to move. Students will have to seek assessment and enroll in basic skills courses sooner. All faculty will have a vested interest in ensuring that students are proceeding through basic skills sequences in a timely manner. Colleges should consider implementing prerequisites and employing approaches that have demonstrated effectiveness. One way to phase-in prerequisites is to begin by making selected preparatory courses prerequisites or corequisites. This practice would permit an identified preparatory course to serve as one-half of a learning community for the target course, offering students a means of entry into the course they desire, a seat in a course to simultaneously develop the skills needed to succeed, and the benefit of being a part of a learning community. This approach is just one example that could be used to impose a structure on student schedules that might facilitate student success.
We do not need the SSTF recommendations to force us to refocus, realign, or make whatever other adjustments have been proposed by its 22 recommendations. But the recommendations do provide us with an incentive to be more proactive with our success efforts and to ensure the most effective use of college resources.