How Community Colleges Can Keep Sacramento Pols Off Their Backs

ALICIA DOWD, associate professor, Rossier School of Education, and co-director for Center for Urban Education, and ESTELA MARA BENSIMON, professor of education, Rossier, and co-director of CUE.

This op-ed originally appeared at the Huffington Post on April 30.

The recently released California community college system’s Student Success Scorecard has rightly drawn praise. The web-based scorecards contain comprehensive information on students’ performance at each of the state’s 112 community colleges, making details about student outcomes the most easily accessible in the nation. The Scorecard reveals how colleges are doing in retaining and graduating students, remedial education and job-training programs, with data broken down by gender, age, race and ethnicity. The added information about race and ethnicity, new to this accountability report, is crucial in a system in which latinos and other students of color form the majority.

While students can use the scorecard to pick a campus, its main purpose is to provide data to community college leaders that they can use to zero in on what is impeding students’ performance and design remedies. But as important as the Student Success Scorecard is as an accountability tool, it does not ensure meaningful change because neither rewards nor penalties are attached to using the data or to improving scores. College presidents and their respective trustees only need to attest, within a year, that they have had “interaction” with the data.

But the presidents can — and should — do more than ask their trustees for a rubber-stamp review of their scorecard. Indeed, they have every incentive to do so. Last year, many of them opposed an accountability plan, pushed by some Sacramento legislators and think tanks, that would have tied their funding to the scorecard’s performance measures. The move was deflected, but the idea of funding-for-performance continues to hold appeal for budget-minded legislators and may resurface.

The scorecard offers these college presidents an opportunity to show leadership and pre-empt legislators from imposing more stringent accountability policies. Using its data, they should, in conjunction with faculty and staff, set their own campus’ student-performance goals and devise methods to achieve them. The annually updated scorecard will show them if their changes are working over time. Such an action would signal their willingness to hold themselves accountable for their students’ achievement.

Using a scorecard and data similar to the Student Success Scorecard, we have advised leaders at more than 80 colleges and universities across the country on ways to improve college performance. Based on that experience, California’s community college presidents need to take four steps to improve their campus Scorecards.

First, they should communicate to media, political representatives, communities and students what the Scorecard data represent and don’t represent. The aim is to set a tone that emphasizes how the data will be used to improve institutional effectiveness. As important, this step is an explicit sign that college leaders are serious about their intentions to be held accountable.

Second, they should join with their local academic senate and union leaders to set up a process to examine performance problems spotlighted by the Scorecard data. The improvements sought by legislators, statewide education officials and students ultimately depend on faculty and staff because they will be entrusted to implement proposed changes.

Third, college presidents should convene a college-level task force composed of faculty, administrators and counselors to provide campus-wide leadership in interpreting the college’s Scorecard and recommending remedies. At first, faculty and administrators tend to react defensively to bad news, criticizing the quality of the data or blaming students for poor outcomes. The task force should direct the magnifying glass on the college’s own policies and practices.

Finally, they need to ensure that the task force addresses differences in student outcomes among racial/ethnic groups, equity issues that were a driving force for the current calls for greater accountability and faculty effectiveness. “How is the college doing in serving black male students?” should be a question, as should “What does our Scorecard tell us about Latino success rates?”

What kind of changes does this approach produce? At some colleges we worked with, evening writing and math labs were opened on campuses, faculty office hours were extended and web sites overhauled to provide more clearer and relevant information. Faculty at campuses with low transfer rates to four-year colleges provided transfer information in class and created transfer academies. These seemingly small changes can boost student persistence and credit completion by focusing faculty attention on how students fare both in and outside their classrooms.

California’s future is inextricably linked to the upward mobility of its community college students, the majority of which are students of color. Too few of them persist to graduation and even fewer transfer to earn a BA degree. The scorecard makes it possible for the 112 community college presidents to shape their own stories of success and close equity gaps among their minority students.

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