What if you had never gotten a report card in your life, and then you were suddenly handed a really detailed one—with some pretty low marks?
That’s what’s happening to colleges as they start to analyze their own institutional data and look harder at student achievement on their campuses. The findings can be tough to digest for professors and administrators, especially at community colleges, where admission is open to all.
That’s one of the insights found by the nonprofit group Achieving the Dream, which works with community colleges around the country to try to create a more data-driven culture. Someone recently described the group to me as “the biggest reform network in the community college world,” so I wanted to learn more about its model and where they see the future for community college going.
We recently sat down with Achieving the Dream’s president, Karen Stout, for a candid discussion about how community colleges are wrestling with their data. And it sounds like it can get a bit messy.
The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. We encourage you to listen to a more complete version below, or on your favorite podcast app.
EdSurge: Community colleges are at a critical moment. On one hand they are the centerpiece of free-college efforts in some states, but I also hear that a lot of community colleges are facing declining enrollments, in part because fewer students are graduating high school in some states. How would you sum up the state of community college?
Karen Stout: I think we're facing a new access-and-completion call to action. We need to think differently about reaching new populations and figuring out how to be better at what we call completion. It's not just opening your doors to people, but to really do more.
When I talk to people, and mention Achieving the Dream, I think people have heard of it. But for those who may not even know that much, can you outline the basic strategy for your work with community colleges? What is the model, in a nutshell?
Well, our strategy is to work side by side with them. I had a college president call us her training partner; her personal training assistant. Because we go in, and we provide coaching support to help colleges with building the data infrastructure that they need to move forward with data-informed decision making. In other words, to find the gaps in educational attainment around different types of student populations, and then we provide leadership coaching to help the colleges move through a change-management process that's very important to shift the culture to be focused on student success, as well as student access.
We have seven capacities for change that we believe lead to a student-focused culture. One is leadership. The strength of leadership throughout the organization; presidential leadership, board leadership, faculty leadership, faculty-union leadership—you know, the range of stakeholder leadership that’s really important, all combined need to be strong.
Equity is another capacity. Are you looking at disaggregated student data and understand where the educational attainment gaps are in your college? They vary from college to college. Then, are you designing strategies to get at those educational attainment gaps? And you’re being systematic in addressing them, and really paying attention to them.
Before you were in this role you were president of Montgomery County Community College in Pennsylvania. It sounds like there you were an early partner and a beacon of what this looked like, so can you tell the story of how that one campus experienced Achieving the Dream?
Well, at Montgomery, we joined Achieving the Dream in 2006, and the college is still in Achieving the Dream, so this is not just a three-year initiative, this is a journey.
When the coaches came to Montgomery, they helped us to understand ourselves through the lens of the student experience with the data. One of the early big takeaways is we really looked at the success rates of students in developmental math, which forced us to fully redesign the developmental math sequence, and the way students entered developmental math.
We started to see some real progress in moving students into college-level math in a faster way. Our faculty went through a long conversation and governance process to change the way we went about placement for students, which accelerated the movement of students into college-level courses exponentially. The first Fall semester that we changed our strategy with placement, 1,200 students were able to go into college-level English right away, where previously they had been in developmental English. Those types of things really started to, as we say, move the flywheel.
We also started to put data in the hands of faculty, and that was very powerful. At Montgomery, most of our work was around the teaching-and-learning space. Once we placed the data in the hands of the faculty, they started to see their student success rates for the courses they were teaching, and when students dropped their classes. And we created a gateway course academy, and they were able to share pedagogy, share insights, and there was a lot of redesign of courses as a result of that.
So it was just trying to take an engineering approach to these gateway classes?
Yeah, I think it's a design-thinking approach. It’s using the data, and thinking a little bit differently about design.
And when you start taking the data-driven approaches, in this engineering model, what is the thing that surprises the faculty and administrators the most?
There are certain stages that you can observe colleges going through. The first thing is that the colleges and the professors fight with their data. They say, “That’s not good data; where did you get that from?” Once you get past the fact that no data is perfect, but this is your data. It’s coming out of your system, and it’s pretty clean.
Once you kind of prove that, they get into a phase that I call the "cause to wonder phase," where they start to look at the data, and they start posing questions. That’s when the magic starts to happen because that’s when faculty start to look at verifying the data in some really, really wonderful ways. They’ll start focus groups, and you see the faculty then engage with students, and they hear the students’ stories; the stories that they don’t hear when they’re in the classroom. You know, about the reasons that the students may not be performing well in their class. All of a sudden, the faculty say, “Wow, it may not be, actually, their level of academic preparedness, It’s something else, and maybe I can have a role in helping to connect the dots.”
The other thing that’s surprising is that usually professors had not previously understood how a student progresses through the rest of their experience at the college. They’re just looking at all these students in English 101, and they’re not thinking, “I wonder how they did later in English 102? I wonder if their goal was to transfer, and if they really reached their goal.” They start to see the full student experience, and they get better connected as to why they work, the ripple effect of their work.
When you say professors argue with their data, what is it that they see that they don't want to be true? I mean, in a nutshell, without naming any names of institutions?
They don’t want to see their own course completion data. They don’t want to see that the class enrolled 32—this is just a hypothetical—and three weeks in it’s down to 25, and at mid-term it’s down to 18. While they have may have observed that, potentially for years, to see it quantified, and made public is uncomfortable.
It’s also uncomfortable when the completion rates are made public, and then when you begin to disaggregate the data, and you see that some student populations don’t do as well with the completion rates as others. Then, when you look at the income, low-income, students and the completion rates, and you begin to really get a picture of where your own gaps are, it’s hard. It's hard, and some colleges haven't really looked at it that way.
I know there are still plenty of people who question whether technology should be brought into teaching. If you encounter that at colleges you work with, and what’s your comeback for them?
There is a tendency by our colleges to say I just want to buy something; can I buy that? Well, no you can’t buy that. It’s a business-process design that has to be tailored to your college. You don’t buy the technology without thinking about the human design. We are confronting it head-on right now, and trying to work with colleges to help them understand how they go hand-in-hand.
How did you get into this work yourself?
I have been in community colleges since, maybe, a year and half out of college, and I stumbled into it. I don’t think many of us think about having a career as a community college president right out of college. My mom cut out a classified ad out of the local paper where I grew up, and they were looking for a coordinator of high school recruitment. I was working in my first job; I was an English major in college, and I was doing legislative relations for a chamber of commerce with small business issues someplace else, and my mom wanted me back in my hometown. I applied, and I was rejected three times. It kept being advertised over and over. Then I got a call one day, and they said, if you can come in tomorrow, the search committee would like to meet with you. I said yes. The power of the yes; I said yes, and I walked out that afternoon as the coordinator of high school recruitment at Hartford Community College, in Bel Air, Maryland, and that's where I started my career.
I had great mentors. I fell in love with students. I fell in love with the range of things you can do on a community college campus as an administrator. You're not siloed, you know. There's not a lot of vertical work at a community college. It's mostly horizontal because we're leanly staffed.
Sounds like somebody else could interpret this as overburdened, but you were excited about these things?
I was excited, and I learned about strategic planning, and writing Title III grants, and I moved up in the organization. I got my master's degree at night. I started to teach part-time. I had someone who said, you know, you could be a community college president if you really wanted to be. I thought, I think that might be something that's fun to do. So I worked at four different community colleges over the course of the time that I was in, you know, on the ground with community colleges, and for almost 15 years I was president at Montgomery County Community College. I landed here because I was really attracted to the work of Achieving the Dream, and the energy that we bring to a campus on the focus of students, which is what attracted me to the community college to begin with, and kept me at the community college.