A Review of Reports that You Know You Should Read


Like you, I am inundated with useful reports from policy institutes, organizations, grant-funded projects, and professional organizations. I'm sure you have a stack of these reports, piled high on or near your desk, which you plan to read when you have time, which you rarely do. At our recent Academic Senate plenary session, Jane Patton and I gave a breakout on recent reports, and for those of you who were unable to attend, it seems only appropriate that I try to assist with your workload by providing you with an overview of these and other even more recent reports.

I begin with the related three reports by Nancy Shulock and Colleen Moore at the Institute for Higher Education Leadership and Policy at California State University, Sacramento. Rules of the Game: How State Policy Creates Barriers to Degree Completion and Impedes Student Success in the California Community Colleges came out in February and sets up the basic argument described in the title. The paper engendered quite a bit of criticism from the system both for its content and its timing. In terms of content, the paper uses a methodology to calculate degree completion that differs significantly from that used in the Accountability Reporting for Community Colleges report, one that puts the community colleges in a much less favorable light. This sets the context for the argument that existing policies create barriers to student success. Among the barriers that she cites as contributing to low degree completion are the regulations supporting the 75:25 ratio of full-time to part-time faculty and limiting part-time faculty to teaching 60% of a full-time load. The report was issued just prior to the release of the Accountability Reporting for Community Colleges (ARCC) report and during the campaign to qualify what is now Proposition 92 (aka the Community College Initiative) for the 2008 Primary Election. Needless to say, the completion data, which showed the community colleges as doing quite poorly and which conflicted with the data in the ARCC report, did not endear Shulock and Moore to the system.

The two reports that followed in August and November essentially build on the ideas presented in Rules of the Game. The first, Beyond the Open Door: Increasing Student Success in the California Community Colleges, focuses on policies that relate more to student services support, including outreach to high schools and assessment for placement. While the information in this report is substantively the same as in Rules of the Game, the presentation of the information is less didactic and there is a different tone, one that acknowledges the need to work with the system to approach these questions. Invest in Success: How Finance Policy Can Increase Student Success at California's Community Colleges focuses on the finance policies introduced in Rules of the Game and how they often incentivize behaviors on the part of institutions and students that are not supportive of effective practices that lead to student success.

Taken as a whole, the reports present some compelling ideas.

I am sure that faculty would strongly support the contention that regulations do not always prompt colleges to behave in ways most conducive to supporting student success.

An example is the funding of apportionment based on third-week census data. This approach incentivizes an almost exclusive focus on initial student enrollment and dis-incentivizes districts from limiting late registration and imposition of prerequisites that might discourage enrollment. Shulock and Moore suggest that shifting the focus from enrollment to include other factors, e.g. course completion and financial aid awards, would incentivize colleges to broaden their focus in support of successful student behaviors.

At the same time, the reports suggest that raising student fees will support more successful student behaviors, contrary to the findings in the Academic Senate paper What's Wrong with Student Fees? Renewing the Commitment to No-Fee, Open-Access Community Colleges in California. The reports also support removing any limitations on the employment of part-time faculty. The Academic Senate is on record in its resolutions in opposing such an action and remains committed to strengthening the hiring of full-time faculty.

How should colleges approach these reports? While the Academic Senate has issue with some of the data and arguments presented in the reports, we also support engagement with the recommendations in the reports. Use the reports to spark local discussions just as we do on a statewide level.

Colleges continue to face challenges in how to best address issues of student equity and diversity.

The issue of race remains an emotionally charged topic, and colleges by and large still struggle with efforts to make progress on student equity and embracing diversity. Another report, America's Perfect Storm: Three Forces Changing Our Nation's Future, addresses these issues through the lens of the need to work with rapidly changing student demographics. While most of the information in America's Perfect Storm is not new, the report brings together three trends which, taken together, threaten the social fabric of the United States; the report also makes the argument for the central role of education in preventing this "perfect storm."

The three trends are (1) the increasing disparity in literacy and numeracy skills among school-age and adult populations, (2) the shifts in the workplace away from manufacturing and unskilled jobs to jobs requiring literacy and numeracy skills, and (3) an increasingly older and diverse population that is increasingly less educated.

It is important to note that the report does not present recommendations for action. Rather, the report is a call to action. For those of you who are looking for a fresh approach to engage colleagues in discussions of equity and diversity, America's Perfect Storm provides an accessible resource to continue the dialog and self-reflection.

I want to finish up this overview of recent reports with two on the topic of academic freedom.

Only two years ago, the Academic Senate was strongly combating the insidious attack on academic freedom cloaked in the framework of the "Student Bill of Rights."

While this attack on academic freedom orchestrated by David Horowitz seems to have lost momentum for the moment, recent federal efforts to impose nationwide curricular standards on higher education make it clear that respect for academic freedom is not universally held or supported.

I call to your attention the recent report on "Freedom in the Classroom" issued by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and the statement Academic Freedom in the 21st Century College and University: Academic Freedom for All Faculty and Instructional Staff, released by the American Federation of Teachers. Both documents present a cogent review of the issues under the heading of academic freedom and provide excellent resources for your next battle in defense of academic freedom.

The AAUP report addresses and counters the four main tenets posited by the "Student Bills of Rights" movement: (1) that many educators indoctrinate rather than educate; (2) that educators are obligated to be fair and balanced in their presentation of all sides of an issue; (3) that faculty often create a learning environment that is hostile for students with particular religious or political views; and (4) that faculty introduce irrelevant material into the classroom to support personal agendas.

The AFT statement has more of a union perspective, which is to be expected. Nevertheless, the statement complements the AAUP report quite nicely.

The AFT statement outlines the value of academic freedom in the areas of instruction, research, and governance.

It also discusses threats to academic freedom and the processes that protect academic freedom. The statement concludes with recommended actions to support academic freedom. These actions include clarifying for policymakers what happens in the classroom, promoting dialogs about academic freedom on college campuses, supporting collective bargaining efforts to protect academic freedom, and engaging in legislation and political activity to uphold principles of academic freedom. You can now remove these reports from the "to read" pile and file them away as useful resources for future reference.