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Courageous Conversations: Achieving the Dream and the Importance of Student Success

Courageous Conversations: Achieving the Dream and the Importance of Student Success

December 02, 2009

Benchmarking sets foundation for system-improvement efforts
For Achieving the Dream as an initiative, this exciting data and benchmarking work is just a starting point for state and college efforts to help more students succeed. Once student and institutional performance is more transparent and easier to analyze, then the truly difficult work of figuring out what to do to help more students succeed begins. Good data help practitioners and policymakers agree to the facts and spur more thoughtful discussions about the kinds of innovations that work best with which populations. Ultimately, though, analysis needs to inform state policy action designed to support, spread, and sustain effective practices. This has been a key component of Achieving the Dream across its fifteen participating states.

In the past several years, teams from the fifteen Achieving the Dream states have identified and set goals for themselves in four other high-leverage policy areas, in addition to data and performance systems, where state action can help community colleges improve student outcomes, particularly for low-income and under-prepared students:

1. Improving student success as demonstrated in performance measures that report on progress in meeting specific goals.
2. Improving developmental education, first-year outcomes, and student progress into and through credit courses and programs.
3. Better aligning standards, assessments, and expectations with K-12 systems through greater joint efforts to improve the college readiness of high school graduates, as well as with four-year institutions through more coherent and transparent transfer policies for community college students.
4. Expanding need-based financial aid structured to promote retention and success.

Achieving the Dream states have secured a range of policy gains, such as:

• An emphasis on student success goals in state community college strategic plans.
• New performance indicators in state accountability systems that reward developmental education students’ progress.
• Performance funding mechanisms that begin to shift funding toward performance rather than enrollment—for instance, that
reward the intermediate progress of students past key milestones.
• Increased capacity of state agencies and systems to provide institutions with more and easier-to-use information about their students’ progress.
• Creative efforts to help assess high school students’ basic skills and to support skill development so that more students finish high school ready for college courses, and reassessment of developmental education placement-test policies so that they are more coherent and systemic.

As the Achieving the Dream colleges begin to show results from programmatic innovations designed to increase student success, participating states will be watching carefully to see if certain promising innovations—like the student success courses in Florida, for example—should be supported and expanded statewide. (For more information on state goals, plans, and progress, see http://www.achievingthedream.org/publicpolicy/default.tp).

Back in Virginia, state system administrators involved in the Achieving the Dream cross-state data work group are analyzing their improved data. One of the most significant lessons they gleaned from the experience has been that developmental math is a serious, statewide sore spot but also that students who complete the required developmental math courses and a gatekeeper math class have an 80 percent chance of success. Progress in mastering college math appears to be the single biggest predictor of student success.

For Virginia, as for other Achieving the Dream states and their institutions, the challenge now is to figure out how, exactly, to help more students make it through that full course sequence. To this end, representatives from all of the state’s community colleges recently met to discuss new approaches to developmental education that can repackage the current curriculum more effectively, including creating short, focused topic modules that students can complete “just in time” instead of having to labor through an entire 16-week course that may cover information they’ve already mastered. A statewide task force has been established to examine such new options.

Regardless of what Virginia ultimately decides to do, the state has made a clear commitment to use the levers of policy to drive dramatically improved student outcomes—starting with good data and vigorous public reporting of how the state’s students and institutions are doing in helping students succeed. The commitment to using data for improvement, not just reporting it for compliance, has changed the discussion across the system and its institutions. More accurate metrics developed by Achieving the Dream’s cross-state data work group are helping the state generate more useful information about its students. That young Indian immigrant at Northern Virginia Community College can now be counted as a success story.

The real challenge, though, still lies ahead. As one top administrator recently said, “These new numbers aren’t good enough. We have got to do a better job of helping students cross the finish line… If we were producing widgets, we would have a hard time staying in business [with these numbers]. It’s not okay.” This recognition, and the commitment to change that comes with it, is at the core of Achieving the Dream. In fact, for both colleges and states, this may be its most lasting accomplishment.

Susan Goldberger is director of New Ventures and Richard Kazis is senior vice president at Jobs for the Future in Boston, Massachusetts.

The Success of Our Future Workers—And the American Economy

by Arthur J. Rothkopf

Over the past months, the United States has experienced a serious downturn in our economy and extraordinary turbulence in our financial markets. Millions of Americans are anxious about whether their skills are going to provide them with job opportunities in a volatile economic landscape.