Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Guest Post: Mobilizing Faculty toward Dramatic Curricular Change

Please welcome Katie Hern, Ed.D., an English Instructor at Chabot College, to Accelerating Achievement! Katie leads the California Acceleration Project, an initiative of the California Community Colleges’ Success Network (3CSN), with support from the Walter S. Johnson Foundation, LearningWorks, and the Community College Research Center. Bruce Vandal posted a great summary of the program and its results over at Getting Past Go yesterday; below, you can read what Katie has learned about motivating folks to take on the challenge of accelerated developmental education courses.

The California Acceleration Project has ambitious goals: getting the state’s 112 community colleges to shorten and redesign their developmental sequences in English and math.

The California community college system—if “system” is the right word—is among the most decentralized in the country. For those of us advocating change, this means we have to do more than provide good data to a group of high-level decision-makers. We have to convince individual faculty at all 112 individual colleges to pursue the change themselves.

On the face of it, this might seem a job for Sisyphus. And yet, faculty across California have begun doing exactly that.

The project is part of the California Community Colleges’ Success Network (3CSN), which provides professional development for the state’s Basic Skills Initiative. To date, more than 80 of California’s community colleges have participated in the project’s acceleration trainings, 19 colleges are working together on accelerated English and pre-statistics courses they will offer in 2011-12, and at least 12 more colleges are actively pursuing pilots for the following year. 

Bringing acceleration to scale requires us to think about what motivates people to change. Inside 3CSN, we talk a lot about a book called Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. Business writers Dan and Chip Heath stress that everyone has two competing drives influencing our decisions: “the rider,” or rational side, and the “elephant,” or emotional side.  Mobilizing change requires engaging the rider holding the reins and the elephant that the rider is trying to steer. “Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose” (Switch, p. 7). 

In making a case for acceleration, my co-leader Myra Snell and I ground our conversations in quantitative data. No one would listen if we didn’t show that acceleration can significantly increase the number of developmental students going on to pass college-level gatekeeper courses. But data are never enough. We also have to address the elephant. What is spooking faculty about acceleration? Where are the emotional sticking points? And what positive emotions can be harnessed so that faculty charge toward change, instead of sitting stubbornly by while would-be change agents seek “buy in”? 

Sometimes teachers’ elephants don’t move because they literally can’t see the way ahead. In faculty workshops, we show two classroom videos, five minutes from my open-access accelerated English class, where students engage an excerpt from Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and five minutes from Myra Snell’s open-access pre-statistics course where students grapple with a problem from a national statistics exam and prove that the exam’s answer key is incorrect. These videos give faculty a visceral, concrete sense of how developmental education might be different. They see that students who might have placed 2, 3, 4 levels below college in their own sequences have the capacity to do challenging intellectual work. They see that developmental education doesn’t have to be grammar workbooks or skill-and-drill math procedures. They get a vision of the possible, and their elephants respond. They want to be part of it. 

The California Acceleration Project is not arguing for small-scale changes—tutoring, student success courses, mandatory placement testing. We’re arguing that developmental education is broken; that community colleges must shorten and redesign our long remedial sequences; that our placement system is profoundly flawed; and that students are capable of so much more than developmental classes often ask of them. It’s not an easy case to make, and there are many opportunities for our riders and our elephants to derail movement. Yet the good news from California is that, when faculty elephants and riders get going in the same direction, dramatic change becomes possible. 

To see Katie Hern and Myra Snell make a case for acceleration and speak to both rider and elephant, check out their webinar “College Completion: Why Acceleration Developmental English and Math is the Essential First Step.” For more information about the California Acceleration Project, go to

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