Case Study Number 1: A System Based on Biases

Becky was always really good at doing school. Two skills were especially helpful.

  • Memorization was almost effortless. If she could hear and see something, it was basically memorized.
  • Visual processing and abstract thinking was super fun for her. Symbols on a page were like pieces of a puzzle that could be moved around in limited ways. Figuring out those rules and learning to work within them was a lot like life was. Figure out what’s expected and do it.

Everything outside of school was gritty and hard and real and tough. But in school, she got to live in her head, where everything was clean and fluffy and imaginary and easy.

She made it look like her teachers were doing a really good job. She reinforced their whole belief system of how to learn:

  1. Show up
  2. Pay attention
  3. Do your homework

Nothing could be clearer. Wasn’t it obvious to everyone? Why didn’t everyone just do those three things?

Becky did so well and was made to feel so special that she became a teacher herself. And because she cared about her students’ success, she made sure she shared those 3 secrets to learning. Over the years, she sometimes got an uncomfortable feeling about her teaching, but she couldn’t really put her finger on what it was. And then one day, a thought occurred to her. For years, society had been telling young people that the only path to success was a college education. And boy! Had enrollments grown over the years! To encourage and accommodate all of that growth, the college had switched to block scheduling, had put in a one-way road, and had started offering online classes. The problem was, those new students were being directed to college even though they hadn’t necessarily thrived in school like she had. There was talk of educating “The top 100%.” She felt discouraged because her success rates were down around 60%. Then program review sheets came out and she saw that department-wide the numbers were even worse! She thought to herself, “I cannot live and work in a system that considers this acceptable.” She considered walking away. She thought about it a lot. She felt very alone. Then she heard that there was a nationwide movement among math educators to rethink the curriculum and pedagogy available to college students. What an opportunity! When she joined that movement, she met other people who felt as upset by the churn in the current system as she did. She learned about modern learning science, influenced by brain research, psychology, and sociology. And she started the work of learning how to use that in her teaching. And as she worked, she learned a lot from her students. And she learned that many other faculty in her department and across campus were very supportive and also interested in changing the system to better serve students, the local community, the state, and the nation. She learned that she wasn’t alone at all!


Helping Students Achieve Their Goals

What if instead of thinking about what a new student is proficient at, we think about how we can help them achieve their goals?  How would this be different than what we currently do?  Here’s a thought experiment:

Charles enrolls at the college. He declares a major that requires statistics. How can we decide whether he is ready for that statistics class? Traditionally, we’ve given a test or two and we’ve said, “Hey, if you remember the algebra you’ve studied, then you’re probably going to be OK in a statistics class.” And we were probably right about that. But were we right when we concluded that NOT remembering the algebra you’ve studied means you’re probably NOT going to be OK in a statistics class? And were we right when we concluded that algebra skill was a good indicator of whether a student is prepared to engage in “higher order thinking?”  Were we right when we told students to take a couple algebra classes and “call us in the morning”?

Is it possible that algebra is completely uninspiring to many people? Is it possible that in the past, we were willing to say that those who were uninspired were not “college material?” Is it reasonable that for decades, completion of intermediate algebra was the very DEFINITION of college-ready, mathematically speaking?  The numbers that I have heard vary, but the percentage of students who start in “basic skills” and complete a college-level math class within 3 years is VERY SMALL. So that path is proven unsuccessful at helping students achieve their goals. Some states have insisted that their community colleges not provide “developmental education.” Their premise is that if the student doesn’t know basic arithmetic, they can go to adult ed., but if they just don’t know algebra, then educators need to build and offer co-requisites to support those students in their college-level classes.

So let’s go back to Charles. If he places into beginning algebra or below, he has very little chance of completing that statistics class over the next 3 years. Can we offer him a better option? As a matter of fact, our math department has been working with the Carnegie Foundation for Learning for 6 years now…participating in a nationwide movement to develop, implement, test, and improve upon a new pathway that would allow Charles to immediately engage in college-level work, rather than going through the hazing process we call algebra. Since fall 2011, we have run this new option, called Statway, at least twice each year. And it was painful in the beginning. But from that very first cohort, the folks that taught it could see that some students who were not well-served by our traditional path could grow and develop intellectually in the new pathway.

One of the challenges of this work has been articulation. Understandably, the UC system has been reluctant to grant articulation without proof that the curriculum and pedagogy was effective. The CSU system approved it (temporarily) for articulation quite early because it saw the promise and wanted to try the curriculum and pedagogy out itself. They do research in those 4 year schools. And they have data suggesting that Statway graduates do better in the next statistics class than do graduates of a traditional intro to stats class. So now, just this year, the UC system is willing to articulate statistics classes that do not have algebra as a prerequisite. So now we have to figure out how to change the course numbering system to indicate that it’s UC transferable. And we have to nail down the details of that announcement. For example, do they mean effective immediately? Retroactively? Or at some point in the near future? And then, once we are perfectly clear on those details, we have to communicate all of that to counsellors and help them understand the options available to Charles and other students. Then, we need to provide the professional development to educate and prepare more teachers to teach this new pathway…the work goes on and on.

So back to the question, “How can we help Charles achieve his goals?” That depends on how prepared Charles is to jump into a traditional statistics class. It also depends on what we are willing to do as an institution to support him in that class. But asking the question is a good starting point. Working on improving placement is a good step in the right direction, as is asking the institution to consider new means of doing business. And why stop with Charles? What about Jenny, who needs GE transfer-level math but not necessarily statistics? What about Raul who doesn’t know what he’s going to major in but wants to get started with his education? Can we offer him a better option than we offer to Lyn, who knows that she needs to eventually study calculus? These are the questions we are working on. And they are all tied up with articulation, CID-Transfer Degrees, and development of multiple-measures. But if we have the fortitude to keep working on this, even as we teach a full class load, then in 2 – 4 years, we may find ourselves in a much better position to help our students reach their goals.

The Value of Professional Development


The Value of Having a Break From Day-to-Day Duties

A few years ago, maybe 2010 or so, our community was invited to read the book, Drive, by Daniel Pink. One theme in that book was the idea that people are more likely to be productive and loyal to an organization if they feel cared for. Money was a factor, but only up to a certain point. It seems that once a person has “enough” salary to support themselves and their family, he or she becomes more interested in non-monetary benefits. I remember one of the examples being a company that designated certain Friday afternoons as “free time.” The employees were free to set their normal workload aside and work on a project of their own devising. This turned out to be an incredibly creative time for many of the employees and the company reaped the benefits of increased loyalty (less turn-over) and innovation. I think that professional development leave provides similar opportunities. If you tell me that for one year I can set aside my normal duties and focus on anything that I think will benefit the college, you are likely to get a great deal out of me—not the least of which will be my appreciation and gratitude to the institution.

The Value of Taking Classes That You’ve Taken Before

Careers that require professional licenses often require continuing education. Appraisers, for example, are required to complete a certain number of units (~20) every 3 years in order to maintain their license. While the candidate is free to select most of the units, two classes must be taken EVERY THREE YEARS. One pertains to legal requirements (which have the potential to change over time) and one pertains to ethics (which, I think, does not really change over time). My point is that in that profession, candidates MUST retake courses that they’ve studied in the past, just to be allowed to continue in that profession. It surprises me, therefore, that in applying for professional development leave, I came in contact with the idea that retaking classes would not likely benefit the college, except in special cases. Playing devil’s advocate, I think, “There are bound to be appraisers who agree, who think that retaking those classes every three years is stupid and adds no value to their qualifications.” But I also think:

  • Retaking coursework can remind you of knowledge and skills that have atrophied over the years.
  • Retaking coursework as a more mature adult can develop a deeper understanding than was possible to achieve during the college years.
  • Retaking coursework after teaching can allow you to study from the perspective of teacher rather than student.

The Value of Taking Classes That You Actually Teach, Yourself

I’ve been thinking, also, about whether it could be valuable for a teacher to take classes that they actually teach themselves. I’m thinking at this point that it could be very valuable.

  • Last spring, I sat in a colleague’s algebra class for an entire quarter—for a total of about 45 hours—because I felt that it was going to be beneficial as I prepared to work with a new population of students. I got no professional development credit for this, but it was profoundly beneficial.
  • If I were a student in a class that I normally teach, I would get more honest information about how students interface with the material.
  • If I were a student in a class that I normally teach, I would get to see how another teacher prioritizes, structures, and supports student learning.
  • If I were a student (in any course), I would be able to feel what it’s like to be in that role again.


Can you add to these lists? Have you found or can you imagine additional benefits of taking coursework that you’ve either taken before or is similar to what you teach?

Pieces of a Puzzle

While the college consists of many individuals, it also consists of groups: students, faculty, staff, administrators. There can be value in classifying individuals into groups such as these, because presumably, members of each group would share certain roles. But there can also be danger. Because when we do this sort of classification, we risk seeing each group as separate from and possibly at odds with the others. I believe that every member of our community came to the college in hopes of a richer, more purposeful life. For employees, that may be good pay, a nice working environment, and the opportunity to make a difference in the world by supporting the development of young people as they become the future of our country. For students, that hope may be for a better paying job or a dream career or it may be more elusive…they’re not sure what they want, or why they’re here, but there is some vague promise of transformation that they don’t want to miss out on.

Those hopes can likely be summarized as follows:

We all want meaningful work for which we are fairly compensated. And we all want to be successful in achieving the personal and professional goals that we set for ourselves. And in these endeavors, all members of our community are inextricably tied.

We are more alike than we are different. We are FAR more alike than we are different. But our labels sometimes obscure that. Can we agree on this? Without compromising our individuality, can we agree that we are all part of something bigger and in a very profound way there are no sides, but rather, just interconnecting pieces that together make up the whole?

If we come at our conversations and our work from this perspective, then with practice, we can get good at talking about places where we are doing a good job and places where we are not doing a good job. And if we get good at talking about those things honestly and openly, then we can improve. And the conversation is about US as a system. And there is no THEM, because we are all part of the whole. And individually, we each have a role to play and we can explore what those individual roles might look like.   And we can improve how we function together and that can reduce the friction that we experience—as students, faculty, staff, and administrators–when we work in isolation.

I want to have a conversation about roles. I want to have a conversation about vision. I want to have a conversation about communication. In this living system called Foothill College, I want our work to be guided by visions that inspire.