The CTE Way: Decisions that Affect Student Success

Chair, Occupational Education Committee

Senate Bill 1143 calls for the Board of Governors to develop a plan for improving student success. What is interesting is that SB 1143 (Liu 2010) presumes that student success is in such a dismal state that legislation is needed to direct the Board of Governors to fix it.

Fortunately for our students, this idea could not be farther from the truth. In the relatively specialized world of career technical education (CTE), for a variety of reasons, students commonly achieve their end goals. This does not mean that retention (finishing the course) and persistence (returning each semester) cannot be improved upon. However colleges also need to be careful to not do the opposite by implementing practices that impair students’ ability to progress to their end goals.

Academic Senate Resolution 21.01 F05 calls for the Senate to research best practices “regarding the impact of matriculation, placement efforts and course registration practices on occupational education students.” At the heart of this resolution was the practice of changing enrollment rules in the last week of registration, which had a major impact on the ability of returning students to enroll in CTE courses at one particular college. This almost killed several programs at that college; one wonders if that was the intent.

But in the broad scheme of things, colleges often make decisions that impact CTE programs’ capacity to serve students very negatively. For example, many colleges rely very heavily on part-time student services faculty to serve their students. From the part-time faculty’s perspective, they are likely freeway flyers who do not have the time to gain an adept base of knowledge about any one college’s specialized CTE programs. They focus on being qualified to counsel in the broad transfer and GE patterns that are the most likely to move students from many colleges to many universities. While this will help them serve the majority of students they serve, those few CTE students that seek guidance may not equally benefit from the college’s decision to rely so heavily on part-time faculty.

Another choice colleges will make is to impose minimum class sizes. This does not work for CTE programs, particularly in their advanced courses. The ideal productivity for any class (which is calculated from a variety of factors) is unrealistic for some programs where at maximum capacity they might only be able to achieve a productivity of two-thirds the desired goal, or less. This means much smaller classes, even when full. Also, these programs rarely offer many sections of a course at one time, so to cancel that course stops any students needing it from reaching their goals.

So from the counseling perspective, I always advise my students to take their CTE courses ASAP. That way if a later course is canceled, they can always still pick up a GE course to fill in until that critical course is finally offered. Of course this breaks down if the student is only interested in a certificate.

Another problem that goes with many CTE programs is they do not offer every course every semester. They do provide very sequential tracks that a student can easily follow, which is almost impossible for the GE side of our academies. However, once one of these classes is canceled, that entire track becomes disrupted. So instead of a class of 15 students getting dealt a bad deal, all 150 students in the program get mashed around for the next three to five semesters.

A related practice is to cancel the course before the semester starts. This is a huge mistake for CTE courses because CTE students tend to register late for a variety of reasons. In another instance a college decided to impose (the week before the semester started) a requirement for placement testing to be completed prior to any registration. This stopped a number of returning CTE students from being able to register because it is not uncommon for CTE students who know where they want to go to have skipped any placement opportunities.

Changing automatic drop for non-payment deadlines can greatly affect CTE students, particularly if the word does not get out. Making different rules for late adds can deal students out. In one district, due to the recent boom in enrollment, they implemented two conflicting practices: no late adds beyond two weeks would be accepted for any reason, and 16-unit maximums were imposed that could not be violated. Many CTE students will take one or more semesters above 16 units. However, resolving these appeals took more than the two-week allotment for late adds so many students were denied access, even though there were empty seats available.

The list of broad sweeping policy changes is infinite, and how that can negatively impact your students is completely unforeseeable. However, there are some things that you can do to be prepared that will improve your effectiveness in remediating these disasters.

The first is to have a strong, functional rapport with the following individuals: your academic senate president, your dean, and your Chief Instructional Officer. This means you have to go to the various governance meetings and participate. You need to pony up to the plate and be involved in campus and district activities.

It is also important to know who the players are and how decisions are processed through the chain of command. In the latter case of hard lines about late adds and unit limitations the fact was that this did not start out as a “No Exceptions” set of rules when it was first discussed at the higher levels. But it translated to that by the time it flowed downhill. Thus the savvy faculty department chair was able to make a few calls to inform the top brass of this disconnect, and some of these students were able to get into the classes they critically needed to graduate.

One of the ironies of being large institutions is the need to be fair and treat all students equitably. What is good for the goose should be good for the gander, and all the other ducklings we serve. However we are way too complex for this to be a functional model without some means for reasonable appeal, without some means to assure the unique exceptions, which are often the majority, do not get cut out by these equitable decisions.

Hopefully, we place the following concept at the top of the list in our planning for improving student success: Every student we serve is unique, and each one has a unique set of instructional and support needs, of which many are critical to the fruition of their ultimate success.