Acceleration: An Opportunity for Dialogue and Local Innovation

April
2013
David Morse, Academic Senate Secretary
Tom deWit, Co-Director, Acceleration in Context

The concept of accelerated courses in English, math, and more recently in ESL has variously caused enthusiasm, apprehension, and confusion throughout the California community colleges. The term “acceleration” can be applied to a wide variety of different curricular approaches, yet it has often been connected to very specific instructional models or associated by faculty with pressure to conform to pre-determined revisions of their curriculum. Yet acceleration need not indicate a limiting or restrictive approach to basic skills instruction; rather, it should be an opportunity for an exchange of ideas and exploration of ways to improve student performance. Accelerated settings should encourage our students to learn in ways that are highly transferable to their other GE courses, that sharpen their identity as learners, and that increase their connectedness as vital participants inside of academic culture.

And yet, for some faculty, the concept or even the word “acceleration” implies a focus on speed rather than on quality. Repeated calls from both inside and outside the community college system seem to reinforce this emphasis on pushing students through as quickly as possible. However, a majority of the innovators of accelerated instructional approaches are indeed focused on student success rather than mere speed. They encourage data-informed qualitative and quantitative experimentation with various pedagogical and curricular approaches in the search for better ways to serve basic skills students. This perspective is the more useful and effective way to view acceleration: neither as a single cure-all for basic skills students in all cases nor as an administrative push for speed over quality, but rather as an opportunity for faculty to work together in exploring a wide range of possible strategies in order to better serve students according to the needs of a college’s specific local population and circumstances. While one result of such approaches is that students may in fact move more effectively through redesigned sequences and be more likely to stay on the path to completion and transfer, the emphasis on the curriculum and actual work in the classroom should not focus on speed.

Tremendous pressure, on many fronts, is being brought to bear on the role of basic skills instruction and by extension on basic skills students. These pressures must not be allowed to destroy faculty innovation nor our students’ chances to gain entry into higher education. Thus, in the process of responding to these pressures, faculty need access to a constructive and analytical space, steeped in questions of pedagogy and practice.

The key to any meaningful curricular exploration is a process that provides space for faculty to be vulnerable, reflective, creative, and sometimes off balance. In a safe atmosphere, existing assumptions about student capacity and the delivery of basic skills instruction can be challenged. When given the right setting and support, faculty can bridge differences and bring about, with stunning creativity, effective new models and practices. Faculty in some acceleration dialogues, for example, consciously break down old paradigms about remedial students—paradigms steeped in deficit and the belief that remediation mandates a step-wise, hierarchical, skills-for-skills-sake approach. In rejecting such assumptions, faculty have developed strategies for addressing students’ affective domain, leveraging students’ capacity for doing far more than what is often asked of them. With freedom to explore and with trust placed in their professional expertise, faculty can do incredibly transformative and even courageous work with their colleagues, their departments, and across their institutions.

Faculty members are devoted to their disciplines and their students, and colleges must embrace and tap their passion and capacity. The best work on acceleration is happening in this spirit, and this work is neither self-serving nor trifling. Acceleration in Context (AIC), a statewide grant-funded initiative1, promotes the concept of “Best Persons as a necessary complement to Best Practices.” Practice must be the focus of the acceleration discussion, as it is core to improving student success, but practice only becomes “best practice” when the best instructors bring it alive. Faculty too often have reform efforts forced upon them, and many finally become immune to new ideas and approaches, feeling that they can simply wait the fad-reform out. Engaging faculty inside the space of their “Best Person”—raising questions of how they fell in love with their discipline and how they might manifest that possibility for their own students—brings about interesting conversations about content, practice, and curriculum design that inform many of the new accelerated expressions.

Acceleration strategies, models, and practices are burgeoning all across California and indeed throughout the country in many disciplines, including ESL, math, counseling, composition, and reading. Some common themes center the work:

  • Challenging assumptions about how students best learn so-called “basic skills.”
  • Raising expectations of our students by increasing the difficulty, relevance, and complexity of the content and work.
  • Redesigning curriculum while not only paying attention to the number of levels and the developmental education sequence but also attending to how basic skills can be subsumed in a deeper, more holistic learning experience.
  • Shifting the locus of curriculum design from a deficit-based model focused on what students do not know to a capacity-centered approach that challenges students to do all that their abilities allow.

A focus on these themes can lead to effective expressions of redesigned curriculum and practice that are created and incubated locally while in conversation with other practitioners. But “locally” does not mean whimsically or arbitrary. The work in these disciplines is supported and guided by a number of inputs: data from other schools already engaged in implementation of accelerated curriculum, student voice multi-media products that share students’ learning experiences, statewide and regional networks and workshops that put faculty members in contact with each other, faculty inquiry strategies which give faculty tools to reflect on their innovation as they shape and implement it, and local administrative support and perspective. Employing the many available resources such as these, faculty must work together on a local level to develop and make sense out of curriculum they will end up teaching.

Further, when faculty design curriculum based on deeply considered professional development opportunities, their innovations and successes are more likely to spread inside departments and, crucially, across disciplines. In community college settings, all faculty teach basic skills students. Through open and honest discussion of new curricular and pedagogical approaches, faculty can work across disciplines to remove impediments to student success.

Many programs and curricula have been grouped under the heading of “acceleration.” Some of these expressions emphasize a relatively imposed structure and an emphasis on “getting students through.” In contrast, a more productive acceleration model should emphasize creating curriculum with foundations of context and depth. The argument around context and depth is that students should not be warehoused into lower level coursework alone while they brush up on, fill in the gaps of, or in many instances are expected to perfect their basic skills. Basic skills students indeed lack academic exposure and preparedness, but they come to college as adults hungry for relevant learning that resonates in their lives. Basic skills students thrive when context, depth, relevance, and relationship are core to the learning experience2.

Colleges should not look to any specific pedagogical model for a cure-all or silver bullet that will be successful in all situations. In fact, much of the research regarding accelerated programs remains inconclusive or indicates a need for further study: Nikki Edgecombe’s paper Accelerating the Academic Achievement of Students Referred to Developmental Education (2011)3 offers a detailed analysis of statistical information regarding numerous accelerated approaches and concludes that “Available evidence on the effectiveness of accelerating students through developmental education is promising, though not plentiful, and it suggests that there are a variety of models of course redesign and mainstreaming that community colleges can employ to enhance student outcomes. Research also indicates that acceleration may not be the optimal approach for all students referred to developmental education.” Edgecombe in no way dismisses or criticizes accelerated instruction, but her findings indicate some important truths regarding such programs: no single approach to reforming developmental education will succeed in all cases, and further data regarding any approach is needed.

For these reasons, colleges should consider carefully both published data regarding accelerated programs and their own local situations before committing to any curricular or pedagogical revisions. Faculty should work with college research offices to compile and analyze information regarding any accelerated approach to basic skills, scrutinizing both the validity of the data and its applicability to the college’s specific student population. All relevant aspects of the acceleration strategy under consideration and the college’s specific circumstances should be included in the discussion, including institution and program size, student demographics, local college culture, and other factors. Colleges must also be careful not to limit themselves to a single approach but rather should consider the various possibilities that exist for improving basic skills instruction. When colleagues become familiar with a variety of acceleration expressions and models, they are freer to critique and simulate their own expressions. Only through such an open, inclusive, and thoughtful dialogue will institutions be able to reach decisions that will truly benefit their instructional programs and, more importantly, their students.

Educational reform has a tendency to champion a “proven model” or a “best practice” absent the practitioner and with too little time and space allotted for meaningful professional development. Simply bringing a codified model, approach, or practice to a campus does not engender the more dramatic change and transformation required to achieve significantly different outcomes. In the preface to the nonpartisan education and social policy research group MDRC’s report “Unlocking the Gate: What We Know About Improving Developmental Education,” Gordon Berlin, president of MDRC, writes, “The research demonstrates that minor modifications in developmental education programs are unlikely to produce dramatic improvements. Given that current programs succeed at moving less than half of their students into college-level courses, more substantive and transformative changes are needed.”4 Substantive and transformative changes happen inside the consciousness of faculty. This process takes time and must be nurtured by the institution.

Any push from the top or from the outside toward one best model or set of practices signals a distrust of faculty. Imposing a model implies that faculty are incapable of addressing educational challenges, including the very serious ones colleges face in basic skills; it implies that faculty cannot be trusted to engage in such a challenge creatively and seriously. Actual experience belies this distrust, as is demonstrated by the many examples of colleagues within departments and across campuses who are engaging in a conscious, deeply considered discussion of acceleration. When the completion agenda runs roughshod over faculty expertise, none of the new reforms, including acceleration, will be sustainable or scalable, at not least in the best sense of those words.5

Sustainability happens when faculty can feel themselves and their relevance inside the process of change and creation and when they see their voices and creativity reflected in the expression that ultimately becomes their curriculum and their practice. Scalability has already happened. The institution itself is scaled; the schedule of classes and the curriculum, for example, exist on a massive scale. Many of the work products coming out of the acceleration discussion are reforming at the core of what is already scaled, the curriculum itself—the course outline and the courses that make up a program. And when this process is done in an honest, open, and vulnerable manner, the new curriculum thereby produced becomes sustainable.

This open approach to educational reform can be challenging, but it is the only feasible way to truly impact student success because it is the only meaningful way. Our task as faculty is to claim this kind of collegial and dignifying space, including in the current discussion of acceleration. One fundamental truth about such an approach to curricular and pedagogical revision, where practices and models are grown locally and dialogues are happening horizontally, is that it taps and leverages the truly amazing faculty expertise that exists throughout California so that the dialogue itself becomes a deep resource. When so-called authorities attempt to dictate the reform, the model, the structure, or the best practice, an incredible opportunity is lost, and faculty do not create new approaches and become that deep resource to each other. The future sustainability and scalability of acceleration in this state will be positive in so far as faculty and their students are engaged around their incredible capacity to be creative and effective.


1. For more information on AIC, visit http://the-initiative.accelerationincontext.net

2. For a taxonomy of various approaches to basic skills instruction being practiced throughout California community colleges, visit http://the-initiative.accelerationincontext.net/2010/10/12/a-taxonomy-of...

3. Edgecombe, N. (2012). Accelerating the Academic Achievement of Students Referred to Developmental Education. Columbia U.: Community College Research Center, February 2011. Retrieved February 18, 2013 from http://ccrc.tc.columbia.edu/media/k2/attachments/accelerating-academic-a... .

4. For the full MDRC report see http://www.mdrc.org/unlocking-gate

5. A recent debate around some of the Completion push in the CUNY system is very instructive in this

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