Thursday, April 7, 2011

From the ground up

I recently read an article about an independent evaluation of Achieving the Dream five years after its inception.  Despite all the efforts made by ATD, some things are virtually unchanged.  The premise of the problem is that ATD is a top down approach.  The evaluation encourages the integration of faculty to lead and create change in community colleges.

This article is particularly interesting to me because it supports a belief I've had for a while.  That is, real change that works and sticks usually starts with the stakeholders.  In this case, that's faculty.  I work with colleges on a regular basis who are in the process of redesigning their developmental math curricula.  Some just want to do it, like our department did, because they see problems and they want solutions.  We knew there were problems for years and definitely our administration noticed.  But redesign started when we said we had had enough. 

However, some departments are being mandated from administration to make change and increase pass rates and retention.  Often the faculty are skeptical and suspicious of such efforts.  They feel put upon and left out of the decision making.  My goal is often to help them make the redesign work on their terms, to show them how it can be successful but in ways that they support.  Redesign means so many things and is not one size fits all.  And thankfully, it can be incredibly successful but have many looks to it.  But until faculty "buy in", change doesn't really occur.  Or it might temporarily, but it may not last.

The way I look at making change in education differs from conventional wisdom.  We did our redesign without a grant and without any large agency funding or guiding us.  That's certainly a hard row to hoe.  Money helps, obviously, and benefitting from someone's experience can save time.  But we didn't need much money, research and reports from other schools were abundantly available, and we could see interest and momentum building.  Grant applications and processes were going to slow that excitement and curtail our control.  As any faculty member knows, we like to do things on our terms.  So we forged ahead using what we had on our timeframe and unlikely as it was, it worked.  We saw huge gains in pass rates and have had a very successful redesign that we're using lessons from to help other schools on their terms.  It's not perfect, as is the reason for developing the new course, but we have solved some problems that existed a mere 3 years ago in our school.

One key to that success was the initiative started with faculty AND stayed with them.  We weren't pulled off the project once things got moving.  We led the task force, made the changes, and worked with various areas on campus to make our vision a reality.  It definitely took a village but the leadership were the people in the classroom who were going to be implementing the project.  Our administration was supportive, so we were very fortunate.  As long as we continued to show commitment, they did as well.

Part of making that change is working where change really happens:  in the classroom.  Professional development, mentoring, and training are large components of our program.  Yes, we use MyMathLab and we have a math lab facility.  All great things that support our goals.  But our redesign is founded on the premise that the vast majority of the classes are being taught with direct instruction.  We don't use the self paced, computer based instruction model.  It works for some, but it didn't for us.  Nearly 10 years of trying that model showed us that.  So if your biggest change is going to be in how the course is taught, working with the teachers has to be a big focus.

We're continuing to use this "from the ground up" model as we work on the new MLCS course.  The work started with faculty and is moving up through the chain of command.  I'm now working with state leaders to hopefully eventually have this course in our state articulation guide.  The state didn't come to us and say, "fix the problem and here is the solution."  We said, "we know there's a problem and here's one way we want to fix it.  Will you work with us?"

One of my main reasons for believing in this model of change is that faculty know their classrooms better than anyone.  Research and money are great and they can help.  But if all it took were research studies and funding, the problem would have been solved 20 or more years ago.  Problems get solved when the people affected by them come together, work on them and keep working on them.  Commitment matters, in other words.  And great things can happen with that approach.  Because teaching is an art as well as a science.  Let the artists hone their craft.

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