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Moving quality down to the detail level, where teaching really matters

Grade chart for one developmental mathematics assessment
Grade chart for one developmental mathematics assessment
Mia Kalish, PhD, using Microsoft Excel

The serious lack of improvement in skills acquired by students at all levels should not be a surprise to anyone. But it came as a huge surprise to the Lumina Foundation for Education, when, after drafting and implementing one of the largest and most ambitious education improvement programs in history, met with equally large failure. The $76 million dollar project focused on developing what it called a “culture of evidence by using data to track students' performance over time and to identify barriers to academic progress” (Chronicle of Higher Ed, 2/9/2011). Although there was a plethora of recommended approaches, many to most of which involved handing the problem off to others, especially advising and student services, what was critically missing was any sharp, clear focus on pedagogy. The sad, little-seen assumption was that “a tool was a tool” and that all teaching should produce learning; if not, the problem was student-related.

The results of the Achieving the Dream effort were documented in a report, "Turning the Tide: Five Years of Achieving the Dream in Community Colleges." MDRC, a nonprofit social-policy-research organization, and the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College tracked the progress of the 26 community colleges from 2004 to 2009. Spokesperson Thomas Brock was no stranger to the popular externalizing-the-blame paradigm: "Ultimately," he said, "the success of Achieving the Dream is dependent on the colleges' own commitment to the work" (Quote source: Chronicle). It was apparently easy to decide that the 20% of participants that “struggled with many of the recommended practices were hindered primarily by weak institutional-research capacity.” And what is truly odd is that few educators have taken a critical look at the inside details.

Margaret Miller, Executive Editor of Change, astutely but subtly notes that Achieving the Dream is about policy, educational policy at the state and national levels. Carol Lincoln, senior program director at MDC, Inc., in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and national director of Achieving the Dream: Community Colleges Count, observes that “the discovery process brings up difficult questions about teaching” but careful examination of the various publications reveals an almost non-existent focus on what it means to “teach” and what it looks like to “learn.”

It’s time to take a close, careful look at the teaching and learning processes, not just at the macro-level, institutional research stats.