The Wizards of Oz


Posted on behalf of Michael Heathfield

I am still trying very hard to get my head around what is happening to us at CCC.  Since we are approaching the end of semester, I felt the need to do a little post-modern lifting of the curtain. So the first wizard I encounter is Dr. Josh Wyner, who has a wonderful “four domains framework” on which he believes community college excellence must be based.  It seems eminently sensible to me and the same thinking was clearly behind CCC’s reinvention goals.  For us to be “excellent” we must drive changes in four domains:

  1. Completion
  2. Equity
  3. Learning
  4. Labor Market

It is very difficult to argue with this and Dr. Wyner should know what he is talking about.  He wrote “What Excellent Community Colleges Do: Preparing All Students for Success” (Harvard Education Press, 2014).  Wyner is Vice President and Executive Director of the College Excellence Program at the Aspen Institute.  Unsurprisingly, his text uses extensive data drawn from the finalist colleges in the first two years (2011-13) of the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence. The word “reinvent” is used to describe what colleges will need to do if they are to meet the challenge required of them in the 21st century. He uses the word without any of the branding ballyhoo it acquired in Chicago.  You can take a look at Josh’s profile here.

The second wizard behind that curtain is Dr. Davis Jenkins, a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College. He is a prolific researcher and publisher on Community Colleges.  He is the originator of the pathways approach to community college education. There is a very strong workforce and employment emphasis to his work, strongly evidenced by his role as Data Coach for the Achieving the Dream Network.  This organization makes no small claims about itself and the change potential it represents:

Achieving the Dream—the national, nonprofit leader in championing evidence-based institutional improvement—has seen firsthand what happens when there is a long-term, sustainable commitment to improving student success. Achievement gaps close. Momentum builds. Lives change. Neighborhoods flourish.” See here.

There is no disputing completion and labor market issues are the primary drivers for this organization, alongside the grandiloquent claims about significant community development and change. Dr. Davis is clearly a metric guru and makes a good living from using numbers to make things happen for other people.  You can find his profile here.  I will provide a pint of Boddingtons or Smithwicks for anyone who can be bothered to scour Board Reports to see if CCC has paid him anything for his expertise in our reinventions – one through seven.

This is entirely possible since Dr. Jenkins lives in Chicago. A lot of his research and writing confirms much that I know and have experienced about higher education and student learning on both sides of the Atlantic. Some of his writing shocks me though. I hope it does not signal the future direction of CCC. As many of us know, Chicago reality if very far from a dream for the majority of residents. Dr. Jenkins is clearly the main wizard writing the script for Chicago and, unfortunately, my gut tells me he may remain so. Since Campus Zero has zero academic leadership, how could anything else be in the cards? Brace yourselves.

Davis believes that speed is essential, as are restricted workforce proscribed choices.  Indeed, general education courses are very much in the way of his imperatives.  According to a 2015 article by Anya Kamentz for NPR Ed (here), serving as PR for his new book, his solutions to increase completions include:

  • Getting rid of remedial courses and moving students straight into credit-bearing classes with support for those who need it.
  • Getting rid of general education and creating a small number of exploratory majors that require all students to choose a distinct path right away.

Sound familiar to anyone? There is much to commend in Dr. Jenkins work, but there are also some startling omissions and assumptions.  He is insistent on the ingredients required for success to happen “to scale” and he appears untroubled by the requirement that students must complete 30 credits in one academic year to be “on plan”.  He is honest about the lack of any real research evidence to support the effectiveness of his strategic imperatives.  Dr. Jenkins appears very happy to use evidence provided by key administrators in HE institutions already onboard with the initiatives he recommends.

The whole discourse seems circular, self-feeding and staggeringly instrumental in the simple worldview of student lives.  Not one sniff of sociology forces its way into this version of change.  Students are certainly not agents of anything, simply objects to be structured, guided, and supported by those wiser than they.

Remedies to the ills of community college education are written about as if before “Pathways” there were no such things as degrees, certificates, and programs with required pre-requisites, course sequences or indeed any idea of levels, sequencing or cumulative learning.  This is hogwash.  It is also, primarily, a political discourse.  For students, in K-12 public education, the strategy for unsatisfying and inequitable results is more choice, through as yet very unproven Charters.  Magically, for community college students, the answer for unsatisfying and inequitable results is less choice through as yet, very unproven Pathways.  There is nothing data-driven about any of this.

For sure there is much that is good and useful in these expert analyses and strategies.  There is emerging evidence that highlights the strengths of these ideas in action. There is hardly any evidence of the downsides, as yet. Both these national wizards are very clear that successful change must happen in partnership with faculty. So how does this wizard expertise and wizdom play out in Chicago?

Curtain down, lights up. Intermission. Who will be the first Campus Zero wizard to be revealed?  Coming soon…

Mike Heathfield for FourSee faculty


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