Graduation Requirements in English and Mathematics with Apologies to Andrew Marvell

March
2005
Richard Mahon,

Had we but data enough, and time, this coyness, lady, were no crime. In the 2003-04 academic year, I had the privilege of serving on the Curriculum Committee of the Academic Senate for the California Community Colleges. I do not say this ironically. Like most of us, I have pursued a career in community college teaching out of a foolish idealism that I could make the world a better place, and on last year's Curriculum Committee I found, I think, like-minded individuals. Strange, to think that fiddling with Title 5 language could lead to such an outcome.

In addition to the Committee's more traditional work (preparing sessions for fall and spring Plenary Sessions and preparing the July 2004 Curriculum Institute), our primary charge last year was to prepare a paper that would help to guide discussion of the Academic Senate toward a decision regarding the proposed changes in Associate Degree requirements in English and mathematics.

I was disappointed, therefore, when discussion at the Fall 2004 Plenary Session focused more on the shortcomings of the informational document our Committee drafted rather than on the real though focused guidance it offered. The document reflects both the strengths and vagaries of our system and our students. Our paper was a genuine collaborative product of last year's Committee. We sought to better inform our research through hearings held in Glendale and Oakland in January and February. We organized discussions among faculty and delegates at the fall and spring Plenary Sessions as well as at the summer Curriculum Institute.

From very early in our process, we recognized that our greatest challenge would be assembling quantitative data that would help local senates and delegates reflect on the issue in an informed and thoughtful manner. We were told by faculty from institutions that have already raised their graduation requirements that they had seen little impact on graduation rates in their own institutions: chicken little was wrong, they said.

In order to gather empirical information as intelligently as possible we met with staff from the Chancellor's Office to better inform ourselves as to the kind of data that is available at the system level, how it is obtained, what it measures, and, perhaps most ominously, what it fails to capture. That data is presented, more or less as effectively as we could organize it, in the document.

Via a liaison on the Research and Planning (RP) Group for California Community Colleges, we tried to supplement the Chancellor's Office data by obtaining more detailed and institution-specific statistics. After emailing to both the group's general membership as well as sending a targeted mailing to RP Group members at institutions with increased graduation requirements, we received no additional useful information. Using the roster information in the Senate directory, we emailed both Senate Presidents and Curriculum chairs at those institutions we understood to have changed their requirements, and again received few replies.

One of the virtues and curses of our system is its lack of centralization and the ongoing reality of local control. It is much easier to collect the kind of information local senates and delegates desire were we in the University of California or California State University system, but collecting data in our system is much more daunting.

I have the deepest respect for my colleagues' desire to have sound empirical data for making a decision as serious as changing graduation requirements. I do not believe, however, that assigning the research we conducted last year to another committee will produce qualitatively different results. The empirical data in the informational document is not ideal, but it is consistent with the data that can be collected by a dedicated group of faculty volunteering their time on top of their teaching and local institutional responsibilities, from a decentralized system of higher education, which enrolls students pursuing an enormous range of educational goals.

We are aware, nonetheless, that the informational document we provided the field has inspired intensive discussions among faculty at local senates, that many more faculty-within and beyond the affected disciplines have now read that document. Such wide-spread discussion is essential and healthy as we reexamine how we teach and how students learn. I hope now that faculty attending the Spring Plenary Sessions will work toward closure on this topic and put this issue behind us.

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