Category Archives: Trends in Education

It’s Time to Accelerate Acceleration: The Future Is Now


On Thursday, January 9, City College of San Francisco held its first official professional development day of 2014. Amid our trepidations over accreditation, the excitement about teaching another group of students permeated everything.  With the New Year ahead of us, it’s only fitting that we start to look at the many ways to innovate and remain relevant. There’s no question that the English Department’s Accelerated Learning Program, ALP, is a clear way to accomplish institutional, state and educational goals where everybody wins, students, teachers and the college, included.


In an informative Flex Day Workshop, the English department’s Michelle Simotas and Caroline Minkowski presented an overview of accelerated classes, revealing just why ALP course are so popular. From the driving question of the course, which is printed in the schedule, to project-based, research-driven and inquiry-based learning, these courses are enticing and attractive prospects for most students; accelerated classes are empowering from the starting block. Furthermore, from the perspective of a teacher, it’s clearly one of the best ways to teach, engage and promote critical thinking. Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs) are addressed in the backward design, making sure that the courses are providing students with required course content. Reading materials remain relevant throughout the semester since the entire curriculum is connected to the driving question. Students think about the real purpose of rhetoric, giving life to the concept of audience when they publish blogs and present to their classmates. Minkowski’s pride was evident when she showed off her students’ projects. She beamed with good reason. The numbers don’t lie. Student pass rates are 2.2 times higher than in the regular sequence. African American students are fairing even better. Acceleration is working.


With all this good news, why aren’t we implementing this model in all English classes? After seven semesters of experience with an extremely popular and successful program, it’s clearly time to hit the gas on the Accelerated Learning Program. We need to train more teachers and grow the pool of eligible and qualified teachers so that we can offer more of them each year. In a conversation with one of the ALP leads, she explained that the cohort is looking at creating a mentorship program. New teachers can shadow experienced teachers and current ALP instructors in the lower sequence can get the training they need to teach the transfer-level course. With success rates in accelerated classes doubled and tripled in some student populations, there is no question that we should grow the program now.


ALP is just what our college needs to meet the new state mandates for repeatability because it can eliminate that factor altogether. The rare student who doesn’t complete both levels can still take the subsequent course in a following semester. Students will move quickly through the sequence with the potential of finishing their English requirements in two semesters or less, depending on where they enter the sequence. The California Acceleration Project has trained a cohort of over 20 City College teachers. We should now take the next step in getting the entire department on board. We’re the only community college that has acceleration in a transfer-level course. If we can double the number of classes offered and train more teachers to teach in the ALP, we’ll be meeting the future with the progressive and innovative pedagogy that great institutions should aspire to.



Increasing college completion and closing achievement gaps: my experience in Metro Health Academy

There has been a lot of discussion in recent months at the national and local levels about the so-called “completion agenda” and, to a somewhat lesser extent, about closing achievement gaps for underrepresented students. My experience working with Metro Health Academy at City College of San Francisco (CCSF) has led me to some observations about how City College, and colleges more generally, can more effectively address the goals of increased completion and decreased achievement gaps.

Meto Health Academy’s mission — “to increase equity in college completion through engaging, supportive, rigorous, and socially relevant education”– speaks directly to the completion agenda. And,  as their website says, the program supports diverse students in:

  • Completing general education requirements with a small cohort of students who are interested in real world issues.
  • Preparing in an engaged learning environment to write effectively, speak powerfully, and think critically.
  • Building a solid foundation for meaningful work in public health, social services (from social work to mental health to the non-profit sector), the health care professions, or community organizing.
  • Helping our communities move toward health and social justice.

 In Spring 2013, I taught two sections of college level statistics — one section predominantly Metro students and one general population section. Materials, assignments, classroom activities, and evaluation for the two classes were essentially identical. A comparison of Metro students to general population students suggests that Metro is doing something that helps students succeed when they otherwise might not.

Although it’s not a random, controlled experiment, a few numbers are still useful to consider. In the Metro college-level statistics course:

35 Metro students began the course.

  • Two Metro stopped attending by the end of the semester (5.7%).
  • Nine Metro students stayed in class to the end, but didn’t pass (25.7%).

20 non-Metro students began the course.

  • Four non-Metro students stopped attending by the end of the semester (20.0%).
  • Four non-Metro students stayed in class to the end, but didn’t pass (20.0%).

By comparison, in the general population college-level statistics course:

42 students began the course

  • Six student stopped attending by the end of the semester (14.3%)
  • Seven students stayed in the class to the end, but didn’t pass (17.7%).

In sum:

  • Of 35 Metro students, 24 passed (68.6%)
  • Of 62 general population students in both sections, 36 passed (58.1%).

The evidence is not overwhelming, but the higher persistence and overall pass rates for Metro students are suggestive. And numbers aside, I often say that during an 18-week semester, something kind of bad is going to happen to pretty much everyone. These classes were no exception. There were deaths in students’ families, serious illnesses, and other personal crises that interfered with students’ abilities to focus on their schoolwork.  Yet, from my observation, Metro students were more resilient and more likely to seek out help when they struggled, either from me or from other resources. Even in the face of poor grades on tests or other work, Metro students were more likely to persist, whereas non-Metro students were more likely to disappear.

Consider also that Metro Health Academy students are disproportionately (compared to the general student population at CCSF) first-generation-in-college, underrepresented students. Thus, the program appears to close and even reverse achievement gaps that we usually see.

Comparing the support I see Metro students and faculty receiving compared to outside the program suggests some reasons for these improvements:

  • Attention to and support for students’ affective issues beyond the instructor
  • A community of teachers and learners that know each other and work together
  • Tutoring resources dedicated to the course
  • A directed, focused program of courses that link together and provide a clear pathway for students to transfer to a four-year school
  • Support for the instructors in the program from Metro staff in the form of both meaningful professional development and problem solving on the individual student level

If we’re really serious about making sure our students succeed, I think these are the kinds of qualities and interventions we need. Moreover, these are some of the qualities you see in elite private schools where failing students is basically not an option. And while the per-student cost for Metro students is a little higher than for general population students, we owe it to students to provide the extra support they need to succeed. After all, it’s not our job to act as gate keepers to degrees and certificates; it’s our job to do everything we can to help students achieve their educational goals.

The perils of conflating testing and accountability

Everyone wants a great education. And our city deserves a great community college. To do that, City College has to stop trying to keep everything the same as it’s always been and start finding what really works. We have to embrace our responsibility to our community and accept accountability. That isn’t easy, but it’s a fight worth having.

Teachers all over the nation and at every level decry the wrongs they see perpetrated by the so-called “testing” movement in public education. They explain that teaching and learning are complex activities, eluding simple tests of effectiveness. People do not usually learn in linear, easily monitored ways – the true result of a semester’s work may not be realized for a year or more. In addition, standardized tests have been repeatedly shown to be biased to people from different socio-economic groups, ethnicities, first-languages, and other issues of identity. And many teachers object to being evaluated based on students’ test results, because of the complexities mentioned above.

While I agree with much of the criticism of standardized tests (see also The Coming Revolution in Public Education in the Atlantic), I also see that the move toward greater accountability, which is at the root of the testing movement, is positive. More accountability means more information for students, parents, and the public in general. More accountability means there is less chance of failing systems and schools continuing to function without change. More accountability is good for students.

Conforming to the national trends toward greater accountability in education, the California legislature and our accrediting commission (ACCJC) are asking community colleges to be more transparent in our work, to assess our selves and our students more effectively, and to provide data to the public about our success and failures with students. They are also asking us to be more efficient with public dollars and to concentrate on job training, transfer to four-year institutions, and basic skills. Despite my belief that money spent on education is almost always a good investment, this is a reasonable request. More importantly, we are public servants in a public institution and we have to listen to what our society is telling us.

Unfortunately, some community college faculty don’t want to be more accountable. Some want desperately to protect the status quo at our colleges, even though we fail, both metaphorically and literally, way too many of our students, especially if those students are African-American, Latino/a, Filipino/a, or Pacific Islander (see the Student Success Scorecard for data). Those faculty sometimes conflate the testing movement with the trend toward increased accountability. Whether the conflation is intentional or not, the effect is to scare other faculty into fighting against both testing and accountability – that is, into fighting for the status quo – even though many of them believe change in higher education is needed.

At no community college in California is the conflation and fear of the testing movement and the trend toward more accountability stronger than at City College of San Francisco, where many faculty have been fighting the statewide Student Success Task Force, the subsequent Student Success Act of 2012, and now the ACCJC sanctions. There has been less protest about the standardized testing movement, but it comes up occasionally as an example of what’s wrong with the reforms being asked for by the ACCJC.

But it is false to equate the testing movement with the accountability movement. No one, neither the ACCJC nor the California state legislature, is trying to force community colleges to administer the kinds of standardized testing that K-12 public schools must use or to be penalized for how students do on them. Community college faculty are not in danger of losing our jobs or of having our salaries based on student test performance.

On the other hand, community colleges are in danger of losing some state funding if students don’t want to take our classes or if students don’t stay in our classes through the whole semester. Community colleges are also in danger of losing accreditation if we plan and prioritize poorly and don’t have clear links between our finances and our plans.

Being more accountable, more transparent, and more responsible is a good thing. We are public employees and we are paid through public funds, so we are and should be accountable to the public. Information about how classes are taught, what students learn, and how well students do should be generally available and we as teachers and as institutions should be held responsible for our work. If we’re not responsive to the needs of our students and community, we should be penalized.

When we conflate standardized testing with accountability, fighting both, we fight the good of accountability rather than just the bad of standardized tests.

So rather than fighting to save a failing status quo, CCSF and community colleges broadly should be fighting to save our students by providing really great classes they want to take, with excellent support both in and out of the classroom. Many at CCSF and at other colleges understand that if students come to our colleges and succeed, the state will be happy to fund our work. If students don’t come or don’t succeed, the state has every right to put the money somewhere else.

ARCC 2.0: A new scorecard for CA community colleges to be released

Since 2007, the California Community College Chancellor’s office has been putting out the Accountability Report for Community Colleges (ARCC) in response to Assembly Bill 1417 (2004), which asked the Chancellor’s office “to design and implement a performance measurement system that contained performance indicators for the system and its colleges.” ARCC is a convenient, one-stop way to measure how well all of California’s 112 community colleges are doing.

The new version of ARCC is, in my view, a significant improvement over the original, because it includes outcome  and persistence measures that give students, educators, and the general public a truer sense of a college’s performance. Among the metrics — all of which can be broken out by gender, ethnicity, and other demographic information — will be:

  • Student Progress and Attainment Rate
  • Persistence Rate
  • At Least 30 Unit Rate
  • Basis Skills Progress Rate
  • Career Technical Education Progress and Attainment Rate
  • Career Development and College Preparation Rate

(Click here to download the definitions of these rates and other details.)

This new report will be an important measure of every college’s work and, at CCSF, we look forward to its release. The report should be available here on Monday or Tuesday (4/8 or 4/9).

MOOC-Proof Your Classroom

I’ve been reading the news, just like everyone else. Some of us are really scared that we’re not going to have jobs, soon, owing to MOOCs and the “privatization of education.” Well, as far as I’ve observed, the “private” has always been a big part of education, especially the part that seems to benefit its constituents most. Out of my roughly 21 years of formal education, only four years have come from private education. One of those schools was far more superior than the other. I paid dearly for one; the other paid me. In both instances, I walked away with a degree. The more we do that for our students, the better. Instead of sitting around worrying about Phoenix University taking our students, I say now’s the time to up the ante on our classroom pedagogy—make today count; it’s the only way to MOOC-proof your classroom.


Engage your students. One of the big differences between online education and a traditional classroom is the people in the room. Where else can you get a police cadet sitting next to a nurse and a fashion designer? Only in a community college classroom, that’s where. It’s time for us to capitalize on that dynamic. Student voices need to be heard—regularly. bell hooks talks about teaching to transgress. When we examine this concept, we can see that it’s possible to commit transgressions against ourselves, against the artificial barriers we’ve erected within ourselves, such as the internalized beliefs we carry about who is capable of learning what material, and in what ways. We need to punch through those boundaries into uncharted territories until we are all thinking critically about what we’re doing in our classrooms every single day and how we could do it better. Our students need to get woken up from their morning stupor not by coffee but by the stimulating atmosphere in the room, and they need to love walking into your morning, afternoon or evening classes because of what’s happening in that physical space. Anything less and you’re plumb MOOCed.


It’s vital to get derailed regularly. This could be an ingenious way to employ the concept of “connectivism” (acquiring information from a network) that MOOCs capitalize on so well. We all understand how important it is to have a lesson plan. I usually know what needs to happen each week and each day. When I first started teaching, I’d count every minute of each lesson and cram it in. That meant that even one student question could interrupt my lesson plan. To a certain extent, that still happens. What has changed is that I’m now willing to let my students take charge when there is momentum. I allow an interesting discussion to derail my plan or students want to understand how to punctuate a quote instead of selecting one: Give in periodically! Switch gears; let students explain to each other while you observe. Those sparks of excitement and student-driven learning are what they will remember most. Even though you will sometimes need to say, “Let’s not today,” your students will know that if they really want it, they will win. Suddenly, you’ve entered into a collaborative partnership with your students in which they are agents of their learning, and they feel emboldened to ask, assert and interrupt. No MOOC can do that.


Teach your passion. Doing what I love gives me juice in the classroom. I literally catch fire when I’m talking about books, ideas and writing. Even a grammar lesson gets me to my loud-Latina place. If I didn’t sleep the night before or am having a hard day, I can forget about my own stuff when we start discussing quote interpretation or when to cite. We all know fire is catching. If you love what you do, so will they. So even if they don’t end up head over heels for coordinators and appositives, they’ll at least remember that crazy glint in your eye when you talked about punctuating sentences. Take your heart into the classroom with you; it won’t let you down.


It’s critical to self-evaluate often. Self-evaluation means you need feedback. When my all of my students’ eyes glaze over, I know it’s time to change my strategy. If only one is nodding out, I know I need to talk to her after class. We also need to be willing to listen to student criticism. This doesn’t mean we need to internalize everything we hear or even try to modify our practices every time we get some feedback, but we should be able to listen to how we can be more effective educators, better partners in the learning process. If three students give me the same feedback, I know it’s time to adapt and adjust, not because I’m forced into it, but because I want to be a collaborator in the education process. I may hold a Master’s degree in English, but I’m not perfect.


If all else fails, start designing your online class, now. What do you have to lose? If MOOCs are the future of education, shouldn’t we at least try not to get left behind? I believe the good practices we employ in our classrooms today, will cross over into the online frontier.


Teachers talk about productive struggle and persistence

Getting students to struggle with challenging and meaningful problems is, I would argue, the most important thing we as teachers can do. In order to do that, we have to support them both intellectually and emotionally. Here are a couple of videos with teachers talking about the importance of productive struggle and persistence and how they help students do that:

As City College moves forward, emerging from our accreditation crisis, productive persistence is one of the ideas we must engage with to improve our work with students and their success.

Is Innovation the Answer?

Last week I had one of the best professional development experiences in my entire career at the “Big Ideas Fest” in Half Moon Bay. The BIF is a 3-day gathering that brings together educators, entrepreneurs, and reformers to brainstorm innovative solutions to challenges in K-20 education.

So what’s so unique about BIF? The BIF uses design thinking to help participants create innovative solutions as a team, and then helps those teams bring the best concepts to reality. Conference attendees are assigned to teams (called “Action Collabs”) that go through a process of designing a solution to a challenge in real world education. Our team’s challenge was improving educational supports for adults seeking better employment opportunities, and after two days of intensive work (or was it play?), our team’s concept was chosen to move forward as a supported project throughout the year (see a description of our project “MYNE”, and the other projects here).

What was it like?  Although I’ve always been an education reformer, I’m new to design thinking and I was a bit intimidated at first (both by the process and the participants). I was one of only a handful of community college/K-12 educators at the Fest, and as much as I love teaching at City College, it’s hardly a place that supports innovation.  In fact, our resistance to change is a major factor in our current accreditation crisis. Had I spent too much time in a culture that all too often says no instead of yes? Would I be able to find my creativity again?

Thankfully, BIF’s structured design process squelched all my fears.  The best way I can describe the process is to say that it promotes purposeful creativity – by asking questions and facilitating activities that lead the team to solutions we hadn’t thought of before.

What did I learn? I learned a few really important lessons over the 3 days:

  1. Innovation is about crossing boundaries. In order to come up with the best ideas, you need to hear and cultivate many different perspectives. Our team members are from vastly different institutions in different regions of the country, and we play a variety of different roles in education – no one of us could have come up with such a great idea on our own.
  2. Innovation is about risk and, surprisingly, failure.  In order to encourage innovation, you have to go beyond traditional solutions and be willing to fail. The design process encouraged us to take risks with our ideas and to support each other’s risk-taking.  When an idea failed, it made room for another, better idea. Failure has never felt this good.
  3. Innovation is about curiosity, imagination and asking questions.  Too often in education we dispense information to students, rather than encourage their passion and inquisitiveness. My three days in the Action Collab was full of passionate, imaginative dialogue – it was truly a model learning experience, one that I already have brought home to my classroom.

What does it mean for CCSF? So, here’s the $64,000 question: is it possible that the design approach used at BIF could help us meet the extensive challenges we face at City College? This is my first experience with design thinking, and I don’t know enough yet to say resoundingly “Yes!!” What I do know is that we need new approaches, and creating a culture that supports innovation is a fundamental first step if we are going to survive.

Thanks for BIF2012 for helping me get a glimpse of what that future might be like, and inspiring me to help bring it about in any way I can. (And GO TEAM MYNE!!!!)

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