What is a Good Education?


As a faculty member, do you find that your students today are as well prepared as they were when you were a student? Has the preparation, with which students have come to you, improved or deteriorated with each passing year? My guess is that you would say the latter. Who or what is to blame for this state of affairs? If we believe that the high school curriculum is lacking in the rigor or design to produce well prepared college freshmen, then we may look towards who exercises the most control over that curriculum. A comparison between the control of curriculum in K-12 with that of our colleges is revealing. In the K-12 sector, under the mantra of accountability, parents, government, business and industry, and school administrators each try to have a say about what goes on in the classroom, despite any objections the teacher may have. After a teacher (at any level) has been trained, only his/her peers and students should evaluate how the job is accomplished. Too often, a parent or an administrator unfamiliar with the discipline will try to second-guess a teacher's performance in the classroom. Add to that mix, the drive to have students at various stages of their education tested with so-called "standardized" tests, and society has effectively emasculated not only creative, quality education but also those that were specifically trained to purvey it. Is it any wonder that so many K-12 teachers quit the profession in frustration?

We would find such practices antithetical to effective education at the community college level. Who do we believe understands best what comprises a quality liberal arts education at the community college level? Who do we believe knows best what the content of a course in our respective disciplines should be? Students, administrators, classified staff, and the community can all provide valuable input to help us evaluate our courses and programs, but ultimately it is faculty that must maintain hegemony over the community college curriculum.

On the other hand, community college professors tend to stay, sometimes far longer than is fiscally wise, given the size of their potential pensions, and sometimes even after being offered lucrative retirement incentives. Why is that? Unlike K-12 educators, California community college professors have more opportunity to retain control of their classrooms, have more academic freedom, and through their faculty organizations definitely have more say about how their institutions can help them perform their tasks effectively.

While it is true that K-12 teachers have union representation, there really is no equivalent to our local academic senate, an organization that when I started teaching I viewed as little more than a social club. The passage of AB1725 into Education Code and the consequent changes in Title 5 regulations not only empowered our local senates, but have also produced a salutary effect on community college education in California. "Shared Governance" entered our vocabulary.

In a paper, Participating Effectively in District and College Governance (accessible at: http://www.asccc.org/node/174908), the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges (ASCCC) and the Community College League of California (CCLC) write:

"Shared governance" is not a term that appears in law or regulation. Education Code 70902(b)(7) calls on the Board of Governors to enact regulations to "ensure faculty, staff, and students . the right to participate effectively in district and college governance" and, further, to ensure "the right of academic senates to assume primary responsibility for making recommendations in the areas of curriculum and academic standards.".

Consequently, the more precise terms call for the governing board to assure effective participation of students and staff and to consult collegially with academic senates. The term "shared governance" can take on many meanings and it is suggested that its use be curtailed in favor of the more precise terms.

AB1725 was a remarkable piece of legislation in that it acknowledged which constituencies have expertise in which areas. As the jointly authored paper goes on to say:

How the administration is organized may be a matter for wide participation by the affected parties but is outside the scope of the district's responsibility to consult collegially with the senate. However, organizational changes which affect academic and professional matters such as curriculum or faculty role in governance would require consultation with the academic senate.

Ours is a remarkable system. With adequate funding, we could perform even more miracles. What we provide, dare I say it, is the answer to the title question. Almost all of us are in our positions because we want to educate, not driven to do research in our disciplines, as are so many of our university colleagues. Most of our students are there because they want to be educated, despite what it may seem like at times. After all, they have many other choices of how to spend their time. And the whole system is run through effective participation of all constituencies.

However, participation can only be effective if those involved, well . participate. If we wish to continue to provide what I believe is a good (if not the best) education, we need more than just "the magnificent seven" (those that seem to be on all committees) participating at each campus. The whole will run more effectively if each of us assumes a part.

I would argue that the ingredients in an institution providing a good education are:

a well-qualified faculty with the academic freedom to impart the material as they see fit;
a faculty that has the right and responsibility to participate effectively in how the institution's education is delivered;
a student body genuinely interested in learning; and
funding at an adequate level to keep the institution running.

Unfortunately, there are forces at work that jeopardize the great work that community colleges do in educating our students. For example, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) in June 2002 adopted a new set of standards by which to accredit community colleges. Do these standards promote "good education"? Repeated requests by the Academic Senate for research to substantiate their premises that collecting and analyzing student learning outcomes enhanced student success fell on deaf ears. We still view the adoption of these new standards as a serious mistake, but it is up to the faculty to take control of the process, up to the Academic Senate to provide statewide leadership, and up to local academic senates to ensure campus leadership in that endeavor. Title 5 lists accreditation processes as one of the ten-plus-one academic and professional matters that come under the purview of the academic senates.

Even more importantly, it is our responsibility to help future generations continue to provide what we understand to be a good education. We can congratulate ourselves on providing a good education, but we ought not to sit back on our laurels. Instead, we should make sure it continues, while striving to find ways to make it better. We have only to consider the performance of K-12 to see what happens when faculty lose control of curriculum decisions.