equity, Higher Education, Inclusion

Are You Kidding Me?

Last week, as the news broke about the “admissions scandal,” I thought it was just old news.  The many, many ways that the wealthy have unfair access to, well everything, is just not surprising.  Inside Higher Ed has nicely summarized the list of ways that access manifests itself in higher ed in the article “Wealth and Admissions.” From good K-12 schools, to tutors, to summer programs, to family legacies, to just plain financial wherewithal, there is nothing equal about access to elite higher education.  We save a few spots for new talent (talent from families not already part of the elite) and get on with our protected pathways for those who have already made it to the upper middle class and above.

None of this is new.  None of this is surprising.  Some wealthy people have found a new way of garnering access, but really, what did we expect?  We set up the system this way and it isn’t pretty.

So here’s the “are you kidding me” part. Media outlets spent a week talking about this, as if that proportion of coverage was warranted in the sea of other news we should be attending to. Celebrities were involved, so were sports, so here we go. Meanwhile, legislators are considering ways to rectify the unfair advantages that this scandal unearthed.  The Wall Street Journal reports statements and proposals focused on limiting tax-deductions for university donors who have children attending the school; regulating early-decision since it undermines the ability for students to juggle offers and privileges those who can pay; fining colleges with the lowest proportion of low-income students; and, of course, limiting affirmative action.  Why are we allowing this bluster to go on? These practices have long been scrutinized, to no avail, and they are only focused on the lucky few.

It isn’t that I don’t understand how rigged the system is.  Nor is it that I don’t understand how invested we are in the notion that merit is the way that students get into elite schools. That belief helps us nurture the hope that upward mobility is real and pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps is the clearest path out of poverty.  Of course this belief is true, once in a while.  Some of the students admitted to those elite schools really did work harder than the rest to gain admission with a status of unknown, under-represented, and under-resourced.  I should add that many of the wealthy students enrolled also worked hard and had no idea of the advantages their socio-economic status brought them.  They were honestly engaged in the studying and volunteering and extra-curricular activities necessary for admission to an elite school.

What I don’t understand is why we allow this to pull our attention away from the daily inequities that plague the majority of students in the United States. Approximately 73% of all students in colleges and universities in 2016 were in public universities, and the majority of those institutions are focused on being accessible and affordable. Most of the students in these public colleges come from public K-12 schools.  In every one of these public colleges and universities, a portion of the students is truly struggling with finances or adequate academic support or navigating the mysteries of higher education with no family history of higher education to help them find their way.  Those colleges and universities are trying to manage decreasing funds to support the needs of their students. This is where our attention needs to be.

If legislators want to focus on education at all, then the focus should be on making sure that there is really access to our public institutions.  This means adequate funding from pre-K through 12th grade.  Let’s find ways to truly invest in primary and secondary education so that students from all neighborhoods are adequately prepared for college.  Then let’s reinvest in our public higher education.  The erosion in funding over the last 25 years is making it a challenge to meet the needs of all of the students enrolled. Frequently these gaps in funding hit the neediest students the hardest. This dis-investment needs to be reversed so that when those properly supported K-12 students get to college, the support doesn’t disappear.

You know, public education was one of the best ideas this country has ever had.  It has supported social mobility and, after many a battle, it is becoming inclusive.  But it isn’t perfect yet.  We aren’t meeting the needs of all communities and despite the progress toward greater diversity and inclusion, we are still leaving too many students behind. And we do so at our peril, because many of the jobs in our emerging economy rely on an educated workforce. When we under-fund accessible education, we under-invest in the economic health of this nation.

So, let’s not get distracted by the unfair access to the elite schools.  We can let the courts sort that out.  Let’s get obsessed with meeting the needs of the many instead of the few. Those of us working in public education are out here trying to make the promise of America real, but we could really use some more support.

Dialogue, equity, Inclusion

Graven Images

SUNY New Paltz recently announced that they will be changing the names of the buildings in the Hasbrouck Complex.  While the buildings were once named for celebrated founders of the region, their status as slave owners has come to the university’s attention.  After a lot of community conversation and input, the College Council voted to rename these buildings.  The history is no longer something the community can ignore.

I grew up in that neighborhood and went to school with descendants of the families associated with the Hasbrouck Complex. I’m sure that they never thought about, or perhaps even knew about, this part of their family history.  They were like me, just kids going to school comfortable in the knowledge that slave ownership was something that happened elsewhere in the country.  Those days are gone.  While the scale of slavery was different in the north, and many of our ancestors fought on the winning side of the Civil War, our history is in no way pure.  I applaud the bravery of SUNY New Paltz in their tackling of this issue.

This has me thinking about all of the name changes and statue removals that have been occurring as the details of our histories become visible to us. Our understanding of discrimination, in all of its forms, has expanded every decade of my life.  While it is true that there have been enlightened people throughout history who have pointed out our hypocrisies and hideous behavior as they emerged, for the many, identifying the beliefs that have supported our bigotries has taken time. We discover our blind spots, we battle over their meaning, and slowly we change.

In my children’s school district, there is a tradition of studying the monuments in Washington, D.C. and then traveling there to see them in person.  I was a chaperone  on this trip (twice). As I hopped on and off of our tour bus, watching excited children see their monument (each had reconstructed and reported on one of them), it never occurred to me to see those monuments as vulnerable to new understandings of history.  They represented the celebrated leaders and conflicts that underpin our sense of America.  I should have thought about it as we traveled to Mt. Vernon to observe the home of one of our early slave-owning presidents, but I didn’t.  We weren’t in this moment yet.

What I did observe was the small museum tucked away under the Lincoln Memorial.  I wouldn’t have found it, we were focused on the steps and statue above, but two of my charges needed a rest-room.  As we poked around downstairs, I discovered a room full of protest memorabilia.  There it was, the waves of our awakenings to patterns of discrimination.  Marches for African-Americans, Women, LGBTQ, and more are remembered in this small room.  These histories are the moments that mark our readiness for change.  Much more has needed to follow those marches, but they are a record of our move from the enlightened few to movements for change.

As we go through the conversations that precede or accompany the re-naming of buildings or the taking down of statues, there is a sense of loss and conflict.  Some argue that these changes erase history.  I don’t agree.  These changes make the history more visible.  They require us to look more closely at the stories we are telling, and those we are not. Questioning our decisions about who we honor makes us more open to fullness of our histories.

Then there is the other protest… when will it end?  Are we just going to keep taking down names as we discover the faults in our heroes?  Probably.  It is unlikely that anyone we celebrate will be thought heroic forever.  Perhaps we should try to get  our minds around that.  Embracing our fallibility could make us more open to making the changes we need to make.

So, I’m thinking  about the Second Commandment.  The prohibition against graven images is frequently interpreted as a ban on idolatry.  It seems a good caution in today’s context.  We select our heroes at our peril, knowing that they will be fallible and may not bear close scrutiny over time.  Maybe we should avoid these homages to perceived importance and greatness completely.

I don’t think so.  We like heroes and it is important to celebrate greatness, even if our definitions of greatness change over time.  Indeed, we have to make room for the  heroes that emerge as we change, making room for the new values and achievements they represent. But we are going to have to let go of the sense of permanence that accompanies our monuments.  They reflect a moment in time: they are not forever, no matter how massive our tribute.

As for the names of our buildings, I think we should consider the meaning of the word “graven” in the 2nd Commandment. It is frequently translated as etching, and that something that is difficult to erase.  Perhaps, in the spirit of our openness to change, we should stop the etching and move to plaques. They’re much more easily moved.




Higher Education

Snow Days: Time to Breathe

It’s March 4th and we have a delayed opening today.  We had a proper snow storm last night, that is,  it was actually snow.  We’ve been plagued with snow/ice storms this year, so nice mushy, good for snow ball fights snow is kind of fun.  I put on my snow boots and shoveled my numerous steps (30 if you want to know), enjoying the feel of the snow and the wonderful silence that comes with it.

I’m old fashioned about snow.  I like that is slows us down a little.  I use a regular shovel because the snow blower is too noisy. It ruins the way that snow dampens sound, helping us hear things that are often drowned out by the bustle of the world around us.  Not the least of this is the bustle of tasks that can’t be done because roads are not yet passable.  For me it is delay to be grateful for… a pause that makes room for thinking.

We need more room for that pause… in our lives and in our classrooms.  In a world that seems to run on overdrive, education is one of the few places where we should make time to think and explore.  As I shoveled, I started thinking about the structure of what we do in higher education.  We’ve organized undergraduate education into 4 years, with 8 semesters and an average of 15 weeks in each.  It seems like a nice amount of time to explore ideas, build some beginning expertise in a major, and develop the habits of mind that will help us continue learning for the rest of our lives. Yet somehow it isn’t.

We’ve over-filled this experience.  So afraid of missing something important, we have bulked up the major requirements so there is less room for exploration of minors and electives. We’ve hidden requirements in the general education curriculum as a way to add more to the majors.  We’ve created new courses for every outcome required by the various accrediting bodies. In some majors, every single course a student takes as an undergraduate is a requirement. There’s no room for thinking and there’s no room for mistakes.

Now consider the fact that students are generally taking five courses in a semester, each with sufficient reading, writing, and application of concepts to merit a true college course, we might be less surprised that our students are having difficulty doing more than skimming their work.  In an effort to cover it all, we’ve encouraged them to be acquainted with concepts instead of trying to really know them. Oh, and they have jobs, and would like to participate in campus life, and maybe do an internship or study abroad!  Whew!

In the last decade, many of us have done curriculum mapping.  We’ve tried to figure out reasonable pathways through majors to achieve the learning we think is essential.  These were good thoughts, a start to an important transition from lists of courses to take, to a vision for what our majors and alumni should take with them as they go.  This curriculum mapping came to us as a series accountability demands that we were not happy about, but in the end a lot of learning came out if it. We started to notice things we hoped for as outcomes, that were not being adequately addressed in our courses.  We closed loops and had retreats and tried to imagine the best for our students.

Well it’s time to revisit those degree outcomes on a larger scale. Instead of just thinking about the major, we need to think about the total undergraduate experience.  We need to ask questions about the kinds of opportunities we want our students to have, not in isolation, but as a whole.  How will their courses influence and inform each other? How will they integrate their work in the classroom with their work and co-curricular experiences?  When will we encourage independence and decision making?  How will we make room for the learning to sink in?

This is the educational mapping I’d like us to consider.  Let’s pull a representative sample of student course schedules, and examine the course requirements.  Is there really enough time to complete the work well, when they are combined?  Is there room for reflection? Is there room for mistakes, confusion, and recovery?  Now, add to those requirements some hours for a part-time job and some hours for clubs or sports or just hanging out.  If what we see is something we can’t imagine completing each week, we will know it is time to design a more holistic curriculum map.

The undergraduate experience has a lot of responsibility for preparing students for life-long learning.  Our graduates are entering a world where they will change jobs numerous times.  Technologies change weekly and their ability to adapt as needed will depend on deeply ingrained skills and habits of mind.  We can’t be distracted by the sheer volume of human knowledge, accelerating at an ever-increasing pace.  It is ever-expanding and easily accessed. Instead, we should be making room for reflection, deep engagement with ideas, and opportunities for some unexpected discoveries.  We need to do less and think more.

The snow storm has passed. The shoveling is done.  The sun shines on the white blanket that mother nature spread last night.  I’m moving back into the bustle of things.  But I’m grateful for the pause and the deep breath it inspires. I’m hoping we can find some ways to build those deep breaths into all that we do at the university.


Innovative Pedagogies

Differentiated Instruction

In the K-12 world, there is a great deal of focus on differentiation of instruction.  Teacher education programs are grappling with ways to support the diverse needs of their students, understanding that what makes perfect sense to one, may be baffling to another.  This expectation is the essence of moving from teacher/content centered to student/learning centered education.

Now this is no small task.  Already charged with knowing something about everything (just look at an elementary education program and you’ll see what I mean), the teacher must also be comfortable enough with the material to present it in many different ways.  Take, for example, my own children. One  of them seemed to have been born with an intuitive knowledge of phonetics.  One small explanation of how they work and it was clear Alex would master reading  quickly.  Michael, not so much.  Phonetics made no sense until many years after he had begun to read.  Reading came to Michael at a  different pace and different strategies were needed. It was also important to ignore arbitrary deadlines about what Michael should do when. That’s just two folks.  Think of figuring that out for 15-30 students.

But this differentiation isn’t just needed in K-12.  We need to grapple with what it means in higher ed.

We’ve made some adjustments in terms of students who may have some gaps  in their reading  and math skills.  At WCSU we  have what we call P courses. These are courses are assigned an extra credit hour and in-class tutoring to help students meet the learning outcomes.  The structure acknowledges that students who do not place into Writing 101 or Math 110 can reach a the outcomes expected in those courses if we adjust our  teaching strategies.

Now, the extra credit buys the time, but it also directs our attention to the way we organize curriculum.  The co-requisite or embedded remediation approach encourages us to think about filling in particular gaps in knowledge instead of requiring a one-size fits all preparatory course.  In the case of writing, that might mean the student just needs some help with a particular grammatical construct (often true for the many students at WCSU for whom English is not a first language). In the case of math, it may be that a few foundational pieces of algebra need to be reviewed, instead of an entire course.  This is helping our students not get stuck in the remediation loop, never progressing to their college curriculum.  It also honors what they do know, instead of designing entire courses as if they know nothing at all.

This targeted (perhaps adaptive) learning offers a good start to a conversation about differentiated instruction.  But it is important not to think that computer generated adaptations are all that is needed. I recall my own experience of taking statistics.  I enrolled in an online course to add the skills that statistical research can give to my qualitative inquiry repertoire.  I was an adult with a PhD.  I knew how to take courses and how to study.  I passed college math a long time before that so I was probably rusty on some fundamentals, but I thought I could learn as I went along.

Unfortunately, this online course had no interaction in it.  There was a book, a set of exercises, several exams and that was all.  Well, there was a concept that eluded me.  I needed a different approach, an alternate explanation, a new way of looking at the concept.  I got none of this, just instruction to re-read the passage in the text and try the exercises again. This is the pedagogical equivalent of speaking louder and more slowly to a person who doesn’t speak your language.  Some instructional differentiation was in order and it needed to be from someone who could hear what was troubling me so that the adaptation was more targeted to me. I passed the class, but I never understood the concept.

Math may be the most advanced discipline in terms of developing adaptive tools to support differentiated paths through a curriculum.  Unfortunately, the tools are frequently seen as a substitute for the human interaction that the professor brings.  Leaving students alone with the tools is likely to leave them passing a course but not necessarily understanding the material. We need to be looking at these tools together with the instruction.  Yes, modify the questions for the level of the student, but also modify the interactions between student and teacher.

What I’m trying to say is that it is time to be truly learner-centered, modifying and adjusting our explanations and exercises until we meet the needs of everyone in the room.  Instead of arguing about the importance of the credit hour, we should be arguing about how to best achieve relative mastery of a concept and then think about the time necessary to do it.  Instead of arguing about competencies, we should be looking more closely at what we need to do to move students from foundational skills to higher order  thinking and what practice they need to get to that point.  Instead of trying to determine what “regular and substantive interaction between students and faculty” should be, we should by trying to imagine how to create enough freedom in our scheduling and curricular constructs for students and faculty to rely on each other as needed. And yes, we need to discuss outcomes, but those outcome should not be kept at the foundational skill level.  They must contain a true understanding that comes from the holistic experience of education.

In other words, as we engage with the higher education landscape and the perceived threats to academic integrity, we should not get distracted with what was, but instead plan for what should be.  It is clear to me that the faculty-student relationship is still at the heart of this enterprise.  But it is also clear that the way in which learning unfolds has to shift. This is hard work, and it will require us to re-imagine all that we do at the university.  Like our K-12 counterparts, we’re going to have to think about systematic differentiation of instruction. But just think how satisfying it will be to know that we’ve done that hard thinking and we’re finding new ways to teach the students we have, not the ones we imagine.

Dialogue, equity, Inclusion

Diversity in the Curriculum: What do students see?

Like many universities, WCSU has identified cultural understanding as an important core value.  We have indicated this in two of our values statements:

  • Dialogue. We value the conversations that explore diverse perspectives and encourage shared understanding.
  • Respect. We value the  right of all people to be  treated  with dignity and fairness and expect this in our policies, classrooms, and community.

We have also included Intercultural Competency in our general education requirements:

Intercultural competence is defined by the following general characteristics: (1) knowledge about cultures, including knowledge about issues that can arise when members of diverse cultures interact; (2) receptive attitudes to learning about and maintaining contact with diverse others; and (3) skills required to draw upon both knowledge and attitudes when learning about and/or interacting with others from diverse cultures.

These statements are great, but what are we doing about it? Do we foster understanding and dialogue enough to support these learning goals and values? In several of my earlier blogs I have asked questions about whether or not our curriculum is sufficiently diverse. Today, I’d like to focus on student input into this conversation.

Now, I’m guessing that most students have not spent much time thinking about our values statements.  They arise more from the vision of faculty, staff, and administration, than from our students, and they serve as a guide for how we should conduct ourselves.  All of our students should know that their general education curriculum requires a course in Intercultural Competency, but many of them may not think about looking at the entirety of their education through a cultural lens.

I think it is time we ask our students what they think about our curriculum, as it pertains to ongoing interactions with ideas from cultures other than their own. Here’s what I’d ask:

  1. How many of the classes required in your major include cultural perspectives that are different from your own? List all relevant courses.
    • Did you know this from the course descriptions?  Please paste the relevant passages here.
    • Did you discover this in the syllabi? Please paste relevant passages here.
    • Did any of the courses have an Intercultural Competency (IC) label? Please list those courses.
    • If a course was an IC course, do you remember how the learning outcomes were addressed?
  2.  Have you taken courses outside of your major that included cultural perspectives that are different from your own? List all you can remember.
    • Did you know this from the course descriptions?  Please paste the relevant passages here.
    • Did you discover this in the syllabi? Please paste relevant passages here.
    • Did any of the courses have an Intercultural Competency (IC) label? Please list those courses.
    • If a course was an IC course, do you remember how the learning outcomes were addressed?
  3. Thinking about the classes you’ve taken so far, how many of them included opportunities to discuss cultural perspectives different from your own? List all you can think of.
  4. How were those discussions approached? Check all that apply.
    • Debates
    • Presentations
    • Small group discussions
    • Part of routine class discussion
    • Other (please describe)
  5. If you were to look for a course that included discussions of cultures different from your own, how would you go about finding that course? Beyond the IC label, are there specific words that indicate a cultural perspective different from your own?
  6. Looking at all of your responses above, do you think there are sufficient opportunities to learn about cultures different from your own in the WCSU curriculum?  Please explain your answer.
  7. Are there ways that WCSU could improve on the opportunities to learn about cultures different from your own?

This survey could form a baseline read on our success at living up to curricular goals and university values.  It might help us create better titles and course descriptions.  It might reveal that there are gaps in our offerings.  It might also give us some insights into what students are perceiving even before the register for a course.  The question of the impact of these experiences should come later.  First, we have to understand what our students are seeing in the curriculum.

You may notice that I haven’t asked if students want to learn about cultural perspectives different from their own.  Given the diversity on our campus, the diversity in the workplace that students will experience after graduation, and the questions of cultural perspectives that arise within the political landscape both locally and nationally, I’m willing to commit to the need for this kind of education.  I’m just not sure we are achieving the levels of exposure and engagement with cultural perspectives that we are hoping for.

There is one more thing that I should consider asking about though.  I haven’t included a question about the cultural group the respondent identifies with.  I probably should at the very end.  I don’t want it to shape the responses, but it may be very telling in terms of their perceptions of our curriculum. We have a wonderfully diverse student body at WCSU, and that question might be really important to the interpretation of the results.  So, I’m thinking about it.

What I do know is that I must provide a definition of a “culture different from your own.” That will be a project in inclusiveness, but I’m ready to take it on.