Taking AcCount: On Sacred Cows and Other Stock
It's been my distinct joy to visit so many of your campuses during the past year; those travels will continue during the remainder of my term of office. I've been impressed by your programs in the culinary arts and advanced transportation technology; by exciting model UN activities and ultra-responsive supportive services; by remarkable honors programs and learning centers that, whether loaded with electronic devices or person-to-person contacts, operate throughout the weeks to serve our students.
At the heart of our noble enterprise are these students whose varied educational goals bring them to our classrooms, office, libraries, and counseling centers. What we do, we do well. But conveying that to others? As I've noted in past Rostrum articles, we've not done that so well.
As a result, today we feel threatened by a host of forces, riding down upon us, armed with vengeance, seeking to rustle from us our sacred cows-or more likely, to round them up and send them to slaughter. Attacks on Perkins funding, on the 75:25 ratio, on retirement, tenure and academic freedom, on faculty evaluations not tied to student learning objectives and outcomes, on our very mission. Those folks seem eager to strip from us what meager treasures we faculty have left-beyond the inestimable joy of riding this range.
The response we're likely to get from our "rustlers" is simply this: "You've been given funding and opportunity, but you've not generated better "products," there is no evidence that students entrusted to your care actually learn, and you cannot demonstrate their revised behavior to our satisfaction. So we're going to rustle from you your purpose, your funding, your ability to speak honestly, and your ability to hire more like you."
At this point, having milked my cow metaphor for more than it's worth, I'm going to drop that image momentarily because I don't want any reader to confuse that poetic license with the true faculty-centered values with which we address the flesh-and-blood students with real lives and honest needs that the rustlers never see.
And so, in this stand-off, the Academic Senate for the California Community Colleges offers the Spring 2005 Plenary Session. At our gathering April 7-9, we invite you to take stock: Who are we, and what is it we actually do? How well do we do so? What exactly do we contribute to the economic and social fabric of this state? What do we contribute to our communities-and how do we manage to do so more effectively than other agencies or services? What evidence substantiates our claims? How can we be accountable for what really counts?
First a word about the concept of accountability. The "accountability movement" has now become the accountability industry, with hosts of consultants and experts eager to tell us how to "measure" students learning. These highly-paid hordes have found support in legislation such as AB 1417 calling for our System to identify district-level performance; and they use the 2002 Accreditation Standards as justification for helping us be "accountable" to others. "Accountability" too often seems a pretext-for others to make profits or to mete out punishments.
Faculty, however, have frequently called for what I'd like to call Reverse Accountability:
1. What is the responsibility others have for all the dollars spent on these accountability efforts, what value has been added to students' education or learning? What demonstrable evidence is there that student learning is actually improved by this work? As Ian Walton asks elsewhere in this Rostrum, how has all the time and energy spent by districts and colleges on reports "accounting" to others directly contributed to the learning-or, even more important, the education of our students?
2. What is the responsibility legislators and administrations have to us and to students-to fund our work appropriately, to offer students services at hours they are truly needed, to ensure appropriate mixtures of courses to enable timely completion of degrees or certificates? To remedy problems of equalization? Faculty have been branded "arrogant," and "presumptuous" to raise such questions. However, Gerald Hayward, former Chancellor of the California Community Colleges and now a principle at Management Analysis and Planning, Inc., noted at last year's Ed Source Forum that accountability must play an important role "in the push for adequacy," and it is imperative "to connect adequacy and accountability." "Finance and expectations in this state," he concluded, "don't match."
Supporters of the accountability movement welcome this shift of the pendulum from "in-puts" to "out-puts" exclusively. From faculty's perspective however, the absence of those inputs (new faculty hires, numbers of volumes in our libraries, dependable funding levels) restricts the quality and quantity of any "out-puts." Perhaps in the years to come, all can agree that it is not a matter of one model or another but an acknowledgement that the two are intertwined because education occurs between input and out-put. Neither model alone can measure and evaluate education, let alone "student learning."
Another problem with these accountability models is that they focus only on a small part of the educational undertaking itself. Public education was not originally intended to produce a cadre of workers for business and industry -it was to prepare adults for effective participation in their communities, to broaden attitudes and views, to render critical thinkers, to promote literacy-and, perhaps, even a love of literacy.
We cannot, over the course of the few years they are with us, measure how such an integrated educational experience affects our students. But can we realistically measure any part of our students' performance apart from the whole experience? Maybe. In a recent conversation Greg Gilbert and I had with Barbara Beno and Deborah Blue of the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC), Beno noted that measurable student outcomes should be reconceived as observable student outcomes. That denotative shift is significant because it enables us to focus not only on countable, assessable, finite learning but also on the whole person and the whole educational setting and experience as well. Thus measuring student performance is, in part, measuring student behaviors, over the short term (retention, persistence, graduation and certification), and over the long term (setting and meeting goals, achieving objectives, acquiring new appreciations, demonstrating long-term support for community and arts and social endeavors, voting, participating in civic life, supporting public education). Yet, while these "results" may better reflect an integrated education, they do not reflect the kind of discrete learning outcomes that accountability wants to measure.
ACCOUNTABILITY: AS EASY AS 1-2-3, A-B-C?
Though Reverse Accountability may not be realistic to expect, faculty are nonetheless accountable-over and over and over: to our colleagues at the universities to which our students transfer; to the employers who seek out our graduates; to the communities and the families who seek our advice and counsel and our intellectual challenges; to one another, for most certainly the quality of my instruction bears directly on the students who then enter your classes. And most certainly we are accountable daily to our student-taxpayers-who are asked to bear the tax burdens on several fronts, including increased fees.
We are accountable, and we do so successfully in some venues, given the 52 districts that have successfully passed bond measures in recent years. Somehow faculty have joined with students, staff, and administrators to persuade local voters that their community colleges are excellent, are fiscally responsible, are successful at meeting their missions. What is it we said then? How can we carry that message to legislators or others who are less convinced?
There is help; certainly we can turn to those in our community who have led successful bond measures; and we can consult our vocational faculty who for many years have provided evidence to state and federal agencies, to their grantors, and to the communities' businesses and industries; we can learn from one another.
And thus I return to my bovine metaphor, hoping to corral you into the Spring 2005 Plenary. We have rounded up experts who will share their tips and strategies on effective diversity hiring, on the proven value of individualizing responses to student needs; we will address strategies to counter those who would lasso our sacred cows, and will suggest how our local senates are accountable through their development of new curriculum and their use of new technologies. We've invited visionaries and pragmatists, and our elections for you Executive Committee members will permit you to shape the direction this organization will take, the trail on which they will embark for the next few seasons. Come, join us, partner with us to protect what we value for those we truly value.
Ed Source Online. (2004, April.). Proceedings of Ed-Source 2004: Forum focused on overhauling school funding in California. Retrieved January 15, 2005, at http://www.edsource.org/forum04res.cfm#afternoon
The articles published in the Rostrum do not necessarily represent the adopted positions of the academic senate. For adopted positions and recommendations, please browse this website.