Faster is Not Better; Better is Better


During one of the meetings of the SB 1143 Student Success Task Force, as the task force was engaged in a debate regarding one of the proposed recommendations, one of the members stated directly, “What we are doing here is trying to find ways to get students through faster.” While I do not believe that most of the task force members explicitly shared this view, the remark highlighted a general premise that not only appeared at other points during the task force deliberations but has also become a common assumption in many discussions of education both statewide and throughout the country: Speed is good, and the more quickly we can move students through our programs and our institutions, the better off everyone will be.

The prevalence of the “faster is better” philosophy is obvious in numerous discussions and positions regarding curriculum and educational practices. Arguments regarding excess units, enrollment priorities, student advisement, program and degree development, and basic skills instruction all frequently adopt this assumption as a basis for their positions. In doing so, the advocates for this philosophy privilege speed over both academic quality and academically reliable data. The potential damage to students from decisions or changes based on this philosophy is frightening.

Current discussions of developmental education frequently involve the concept of acceleration. The standard claim, which is almost always supported by research from a paper written by Bailey, Jeong, and Cho1, is that students who are placed into long developmental sequences of English, math, and reading tend to drop out along the way, even if they pass the classes they do take. The data in the Bailey, Jeong, and Cho paper does support this claim. However, many follow-up studies to this report and curricular decisions based on those studies have rushed to the conclusion that the problem is simply the length of the sequence without further analysis of the reasons that students drop out. Such studies often claim that long instructional sequences have too many “exit points,” or too many opportunities for students to become frustrated and drop out, and they therefore assume that the solution is to shorten the sequence.

Certainly students should not be subjected to developmental sequences that are longer than necessary, and many of the programs that fall under the heading of acceleration include potentially valid and useful approaches to basic skills instruction. However, the a priori assumption that the root of student success issues in basic skills lies only in the length of the sequence is deeply misguided: students might fail to complete a developmental sequence for many reasons. Lack of proper pre-requisites or prerequisite enforcement, academic difficulties in related areas (such as a student struggling in math due to problems with reading), severe lack of preparation for college work in terms of both academic and study skills, personal or family circumstances, and a host of other factors may also contribute to the low completion and semester-to-semester retention rates in developmental courses. All that is certain is that the length of the sequence is far from the only explanation for this problem, and thus proposed solutions that assume the number of levels in the sequence as the cause of student difficulties without further evidence are inherently flawed.

In addition, while some students may benefit from courses presented in accelerated time frames—for example, half-semester classes intended to allow students to complete two levels of the sequence in a single semester—such a structure may actually hinder the academic achievement of others. An accelerated developmental design may exacerbate the problems with time constraints faced by many of our students: when a course moves twice as fast as normal, students must do twice as much work in any given week. What might have been a manageable reading assignment in a two week period becomes an unreasonable demand in just one week for a student with a job and with family responsibilities, and such a student will likely either continue the class without completing the required work, thus increasing the likelihood of a substandard grade, or become frustrated and drop the class altogether. Without taking into consideration the realities of our students’ lives, accelerated programs have the potential to set them up for failure.

Yet, despite arguments that other factors should be considered in redesigning or reconsidering basic skills delivery, many individuals and groups continue to press for speed as the primary aspect of basic skills revision. Such an attitude is evident in the SB 1143 Task Force Draft Recommendations published on September 30, 2011, which include a proposed “alternative funding system” for basic skills designed to provide financial incentives for colleges to move students through the curriculum more quickly. When speed is the driving force in curricular discussions, proposals like this one that could so dramatically place quality in a secondary role are almost inevitable.

The push to move students through the curriculum more quickly is not limited to basic skills; in April 2011, the Community College Research Center published a paper titled “Get with the Program: Accelerating Community College Students’ Entry into and Completion of Programs of Study.”2 This report states that “Research suggests that individuals presented with many options often do not make good decisions, and there is evidence that community colleges could be more successful in helping students enter and complete a program of study if they offered a more limited set of program options with clearly defined requirements and expected outcomes” (p. 1). In other words, we allow students too much freedom, and they would be better served if we limited their options and forced them to choose a program of study immediately upon or shortly after they enter our institutions.

The Student Success Task Force Draft Recommendations promote the same philosophy: Recommendation 2.5 states that we should “encourage students to declare a program of study upon admission and require declaration by the end their second term.” The draft recommendations go on to say that “Declaring a program of study is much more specific than declaring an educational goal… A student who is unable to declare a program of study by the end of their second term should be provided counseling and other interventions to assist them in education planning and exploring career and program options. If these interventions fail to meet their desired end, students should lose enrollment priority after their third term.” In other words, we would force our 17 and 18 year-old students to declare a career goal and a focus for their education within a year of entering the college, leaving little room for exploration or to consider the many options that are spread out before them.

The “faster is better” attitude is also apparent in Task Force Draft Recommendation 3.1, which would deny enrollment priority to students who accrue more than 100 units or who do not declare a program of study within three terms and follow a formal education plan. The Task Force report clearly states a specific desire to “limit the student wandering through the curriculum” (p. 8) and eliminate “policies that enable students to wander around the curriculum” (p. 28). The vision of those who propose such changes is to diminish student choices and design specific, predetermined pathways for the purpose of moving students through the system more quickly.

What the proponents of this view fail to realize is that, in the words of J. R. R. Tolkien, “Not all those who wander are lost.” While some students may indeed accrue units that are not necessary for their educational goals, they often do so for reasons involving financial aid or other obligations that require them to enroll in a certain number of units and because the classes they truly need or want are already full. Moreover, exploration of educational and personal possibilities is a legitimate use of units by students who have not yet decided on a career or educational goal. If we can no longer allow such exploration by students who are still searching for their paths in life, then we have indeed diminished the services we provide.

In its origins, SB 1440 was based on a similar philosophy: transfer degrees would be limited to 60 semester units, with no local requirements, in order to move students through a transfer path as quickly as and with the fewest courses possible. Operating under this mandate, the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges and the California State University worked together to design transfer degrees that would truly serve student needs and remove obstacles to transfer. Faculty in both systems are proud of the progress we have made in creating transfer degrees and believe that our efforts have truly created transfer curricula that will work in our students’ interest. Yet, despite the impressive progress we have made and the positive outcomes we expect, these degrees would have been in many cases easier to create, and perhaps more qualitatively sound, if we had not been constrained by the unit maximums that were set in order to limit the students’ time in their programs and move them through more quickly.

None of this is to say that we should not look for ways to make our curriculum and our system more efficient. Innovation in basic skills delivery and in other aspects of the curriculum, clearly defined educational pathways for those students who are ready to follow them, and assistance for those students who are searching for a direction are all subjects that we should explore and goals we should strive for. But the conversation should be framed in terms of educational benefit and quality, not speed. If we ask not how to move students through our system faster but instead how to do so more effectively, we will be much more likely to provide our students with the higher quality academic experiences they deserve from us.

1 Bailey, T. , Jeong, D. W., & Cho, S. (2010). Referral, enrollment, and completion in developmental education sequences in community colleges. Economics of Education Review 29 , 255–270.

2 Edgecombe, Nikki. “Accelerating the Academic Achievement of Students Referred to Developmental Education.” CCRC Brief 55. Community College Research Center. May 2011.