Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Heroes and villains

Let's play "guess the other side of the story!" 

Recently, IHE's Confessions of a Community College Dean column presented a question from an anguished administrator who was worried that the math faculty were poised to "do tremendous and potentially irreversible harm to both students and the institution."

Irreversible harm? That sounds pretty dire, doesn't it? Almost unbelievable, in fact. 

Let's break this down:

Students at our community college struggle with math, a phenomenon common to many students, community college and otherwise.

Fair enough.

 Recently, our math faculty completely revamped the curriculum and implemented a new placement test (the latter with disastrous results and the exam was pulled). 

The placement test straighforwardly and accurately indicated that many students were not ready for college-level math. Administrators realized that the effect on their throughput and completion benchmarks would be "disastrous" and unilaterally put the kibosh on the math faculty's placement test.
Some of the parameters within the new curriculum are antithetical to student success.

Despite the setback of having their placement test yanked, the math department still refuses to hand out a passing grade and a trophy to every student.

 For example, in order to move from one 7-week class to the next, a student must pass an exit exam with a score of 70%. If she does not, she will earn a D or F in the course, regardless of her status prior to that test.

Competency-based assessment is all very well as long as students are not required to demonstrate actual competency.

Faculty own the curriculum; that point is never questioned. 

This AAUP-appeasing boilerplate must be repeated out loud every so often. It is about as meaningful as the corporate annual reports that proclaim, "our people are our greatest asset" right before trumpeting the cost savings realized by laying off thousands of workers.

However, what if the faculty decisions stand to do tremendous and potentially irreversible harm to both students and the institution? If other faculty approve the curricular changes in the shared governance process, what are the reasonable options that can also avoid irreparable damage to the relationship between faculty and administration?

"Shared governance" is all very well as long as faculty don't act like they own the curriculum.

Anyone have a more charitable interpretation? 


  1. I think the problem is with the wording. "Regardless of her status prior to that test" implies that some A student could potentially fail the course because the test was on a bad day, such as when the student woke up with a huge headache. However, the same result would seem more acceptable if the exam counted for a significant percentage of the total grade. It would be even better if the rest of the grading scheme provided some "opportunities" to be penalized for things like not completing the homework (or doing poorly on tests and quizzes based on the homework). Mind you, the typical failing student will not be the A student who, after working really hard, would have aced the course but for that exit exam. A failing student is more likely to be someone who really didn't perform that well and probably didn't do all the homework.

    Basically, it's the difference between making it mathematically impossible (or hard) to pass if failing the test and making it look like faculty can basically snatch away a deserving student's passing grade through some "exit exam" trick.

    I'm not saying that this is what faculty wanted to do. I'm just talking about how the idea was presented.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. This comment has been removed by a pneumatic staple remover.

    2. a pneumatic staple remover

      This is presumably what one uses to ward off Frod, a la cross, garlic, mirror, etc.

  3. My charitable interpretation is that the adminiflake is a textbook example of the Dunning-Kruger effect, and can therefore be forgiven somewhat for not knowing what zhe doesn't know.

    In support of my proposal, I offer the fact that Admniflake does not seem to understand the importance of omitted information. For example, "to move from one 7-week class to the next, a student must pass an exit exam with a score of 70%" is not, in itself, evidence of a "[parameter] ... antithetical to student success."

    Another interpretation is that Adminiflake has deliberately left out information that would cast a different light on hir bald assertions. But that would be less charitable.

    And I'm kind of frustrated that columnist Reed did not call Adminiflake out on this. Had I been writing the column, I would have said, "Bro, you've given me way too little of the straight dope. If you really want to 'avoid irreparable damage to the relationship between faculty and administration,' instead of seeking my unconditional validation, how about you actually ask the faculty to explain their curricular decisions (including weighting of assesments), and then fucking listen to them well enough that you can paraphrase their reasoning to somebody who you are asking to weigh in on your possible difference of opinion."

  4. I've said it before and I shall undoubtedly say it again.

    Administrators have zero fucking business deciding curriculum, requirements, etc. This administrator's concerns are very telling: The test does not impact whether or not the students are prepared. It just sheds a light on it. So it's not changing anything, it's just showing us what's already there.

    I fucking hate this idiocy. Administrators became a thing because professors, who ran the colleges and universities, didn't want to do administrative work. When the fuck did they become more powerful than the academia?

    Deans should have to be professors, first of all...

  5. Dean Dad writes this in his answer: "It sounds like you’re facing the clash between immediately visible, in-class success, and success over the sequence."

    While I often agree with him and have no wish to take him and his ardent supporters on in the IHE forum, I think he is way off base here. This is about success in the class, full stop. An exit exam such as the one proposed is probably desired because faculty suspect some in their ranks are not assessing student mastery of the material comprehensively. Some of them, they have realized, are slackers or softies or for some other reason are passing students who have not learned what they are supposed to have learned. The faculty in charge of the department define student success as students mastering the outcomes on the course outline, and they have created an exit exam they feel accurately assesses whether that has happened.

    Administrators always say otherwise, but most of them define student success by their grade alone. Too many of them simply don't care whether students have mastered the learning outcomes or not, at least in my experience (although they will passionately claim this is not true).

    Case in point---the letter writer did not even mention the efficacies of the exit exam in developmental math courses, even though there is a lot of scholarship on this subject. The truth is, a lot of people working directly in the field don't think exit exams are particularly effective or helpful. Why is this administrator not talking about what kinds of exit criteria might work instead (since he is so terrified by the prospects of the exit exam)? And why is he so sure the exit exam will have a negative effect on student "success" (pass rates, obviously)? Is it because he thinks his students are not actually learning? Isn't this a bigger problem he ought to be worrying about (since he seems convinced it is the case)?

    I'm surprised that Dean Dad did not suggest that the terrified administrator investigate other ways to ensure all students across a department have achieved adequate mastery of a course, ones that he feels are more effective and fair. (I do remain confident that Dean Dad, who I have long admired, actually does care about learning outcomes being mastered.) Such an approach would, in my opinion, hold sway with faculty every time.

    Incidentally, I agree with the decision to ditch the entrance exam. At my college we have seen that students can and do overcome immense learning deficiencies in the course of a single semester with the right support (and work ethic/personal motivation/time to spend on task). They should be allowed the opportunity to try.

  6. All my thoughts involve time machines (and probably, as Annie points out, a different institutional relationship between/professional track for faculty and administrators, so the two aren't drawn from two completely different groups of people with completely different professional experiences). Ideally, the faculty instituting the change and the administrator [supporting? overseeing? implementing? impeding?] it [what do administrators do, anyway? and what should they do? this is the key question, and Three Sigma's thirsty above makes clear] would have been talking from the very beginning, and would at least understand, and ideally agree on, each others' reasons for making the change, and the goals they hope to achieve.

    That way they can measure whether it's actually producing the results they want it to produce, whether that's greater certainty that students coming out of the first course in the sequence will be able to handle later classes (in the sequence, elsewhere in the department, or in other departments -- e.g. the math department might be hearing from economics or sociology that a prerequisite isn't doing its job), or greater certainty that the student "taking" the class actually took the class (with more and more online instruction, the high-stakes test taken in more-secure conditions can play roles beyond making sure that instructors are upholding the same standards. I'm not generally big on high-stakes tests, but I think they can play a role in that situation, as long as a reasonable number of do-overs -- I'd say three in total -- are available).

    It seems to me that, at a lot of institutions, hashing out a definition of student "success" to which all stakeholders (not my favorite word, but it works in this case) can agree would be a useful exercise. Ideally the conversation would include not only faculty, administrators, students, and student support personnel, but also potential employers, potential colleagues and supervisors, parents, and, at least in the case of public institutions, legislators.

    Actually, a national conversation on the conversation could be useful. Maybe an idea for the next president, or at least the next educational secretary?


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