Test For Success
MPC, Hartnell leaders question state task force recs for community colleges.
Thursday, December 22, 2011
It’s hard to find an area of California’s infrastructure that’s not facing a bleak future these days. But even as public safety and parks and rec departments take big budget hits, it’s arguably the state’s community college system that faces the most upheaval in the near future.
That’s due in part to Gov. Jerry Brown’s recently announced $980 million in mid-year budget cuts triggered by lower-than-expected tax revenues. Most of the cuts go into effect Jan. 1, 2012, including a $107 million hit to the community college system.
Monterey Peninsula College President Douglas Garrison and outgoing Hartnell College President Phoebe Helm aren’t necessarily worried about the latest cuts: As Garrison puts it, “We ate it already,” laying off about a dozen professors last March and cutting this academic year’s offerings by nearly 6 percent. Helm, meanwhile, says Hartnell staff budgeted for a worst-case scenario that didn’t pan out, so Draconian cuts to courses and student services aren’t necessary.
But what has her and Garrison – along with community college leaders and faculty statewide – more worried is a set of recommendations from the California Community Colleges Student Success Task Force aimed at increasing graduation rates and creating stronger common core standards.
“These recommendations would completely alter the mission of community colleges without any dialogue,” Garrison says.
The task force, created by legislation last year, published a 73-page report in September replete with recommendations for upping the academic ante at community colleges. Among them: developing strategies to increase the rate of students completing an associate degree or transferring to a four-year college, and establishing statewide core curriculum standards developed in collaboration with the state’s K-12 public education system.
It’s an attempt to address a vexing problem the state’s struggled to solve for years. Of all first-time CCC students, 70 to 90 percent require remediation in English, math or both. Dropout rates are high; a 2010 report by the nonprofit Campaign for College Opportunity found fewer than a third of the 250,000 students tracked over a six-year period had earned an associate degree or transferred to a four-year institution.
It all adds up to a shortage of adequately educated workers, at a time when the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics projects occupations requiring an associate degree will grow faster than any other job group in the next six years.
Dr. Ronnie Higgs, vice president for student affairs at CSU Monterey Bay, views the recommendations as a proactive step to help both community colleges and four-year institutions like the CSUs, which get 55 percent of their students from state community colleges.
“This ensures students will acquire basic skills, and save them money by not having to take an extra semester taking prep courses,” Higgs says.
But Jonathan Lightman, the head of the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges, points back to the budget cuts.
“How do you make qualitative changes without additional resources?” he asks.
Garrison agrees that community colleges need to improve outcomes, but takes issue with the report’s assumptions of how to achieve them. He’s expressed his concerns in writing to CCC Chancellor Jack Scott and the Board of Governors, citing, among other things, the prioritization of remedial courses at the expense of offerings in physical education and the arts.
“If it’s not part of a degree program, it’s now marginalized,” Garrison says.
This approach, he believes, hangs “life-enrichment” classes and their faculty out to dry and ignores the large population of part-time students who take classes not for a degree but to improve their professional skill set for current or future jobs.
The school’s board of trustees unanimously passed a resolution in November urging CCC’s board to postpone adopting the recommendations until they’d conducted more thorough discussions with community college faculty, CEOs and students.
Humanities faculty have vocally opposed the recommendations.
“There’s a direct impact on people who teach arts courses and students who would avail themselves of those courses,” says MPC Theatre Arts Chair Gary Bolen. By limiting students to 16 units of any performance course within the creative arts area, he adds, the Student Success Initiative would prevent theatre arts students from earning enough credits to transfer to a program at a four-year institution.
Both Bolen and MPC English professor Alan Haffa compare the task force’s aim to align the community college curriculum with California’s K-12 Common Core Standards to education’s biggest Bogeyman.
“Many of the specific proposals are ideas that have been implemented and failed under the auspices of No Child Left Behind,” Haffa writes in the Dec. 2011/Jan. 2012 MPC Gentrain Society newsletter, which caters to “lifelong learners” not pursuing a degree.
Haffa cites CCC’s recommended “score cards” prioritizing career-oriented students as an attempt to emulate a federally mandated program – NCLB – that many view as a failure.
Helm feels a greater emphasis on remedial courses could hurt successful programs at Hartnell, such as its two-week intensive math academies that give students a semester’s worth of math in a fraction of the time.
“One of my fears about this process is there will be no money to fund our math academy,” Helm says. “But if we put students through two semesters of remedial math, we’d have more state funding. It’s a waste of time; it keeps students out of the employment line.”
The moment of truth comes Jan. 9, when the CCC board votes on the revised recommendations.
The board on Dec. 8 released a series of revisions to its original recommendations, ditching proposals to charge more for non-degree classes and limiting non-credit classes to those designated for career development. The original recommendations incensed some educators, who saw the proposal as a threat to ESL and citizenship courses – just two examples of classes taken by community members with specific needs that don’t fit into a degree program.
Garrison notes the irony of emphasizing collaboration between the state’s K-12 schools and community colleges when there’s not a single K-12 representative on the task force.
“I just think this process isn’t on their radar screen,” says Garrison of local K-12 district leaders, who have not been part of any discussions with MPC about the Student Success Initiative. “They have their own world” – not to mention nearly $80 million in mid-year cuts – “and this isn’t an immediate issue facing them.”
“The intent of the report is right on target,” Helm says, “but the methodology is too simple.”
This story has been amended to reflect the following corrections:
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that a report issued by the California Community Colleges Student Success Task Force recommended tying college funding to matriculation rates. In fact, the report discourages performance-based funding, instead recommending a stronger investment in basic skills education to improve matriculation rates.