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Closing Equity Gaps Is Not Enough

(A. Solano)

Colleges across the country have been hyper-focused on closing equity gaps. They consistently talk about it as the end goal. It's in their strategic plan, equity plan, guided pathways plan--you name it. I've argued that closing equity gaps is an extremely important and meaningful short or mid-term goal, but not the long-term goal. If colleges require high standards and expectations from students, then institutions need to set the example. Holding up as the gold standard to have all students at the highest completion rates from a specific student population demographic fails to set the example. Why? Depending on the campus, the highest completion rates can range from 20% to 50%!

Should we be fully satisfied when a college closes equity gaps that brings all students to, for example, a 40% completion rate?

Let's think about this for a moment. At its root, what constitutes a completion rate? Grading. It's also known as assessing student learning.

Yet, many faculty continue to use antiquated grading policies they experienced as students that they, in turn, pass on to their students. I've lost count of situations whereby a faculty member has 80% success rates and another faculty member teaching the same courses with the same student body demographics (and with student challenges such as food insecurities, holding multiple jobs, etc.) has 20% success rates. Sadly, the immediate response tends to be, "The faculty with low success rates must consistently have a weak batch of students." The response is more often than not focused on external attributions and rarely about internal attributions. What is rarely discussed is that the cumulative effect of grades across courses is what, in effect, determines completion rates. 

If grading is the root, then instruction is the life-giving nutrients. Don't expect excellent or passing grades when the nutrients (i.e., quality, caring instruction) are lacking. I've received quiet, under-the-table applause (people didn't want to be seen clapping), when I've stated that student learning outcomes (SLOs) are meaningless. I added that they're meaningless unless we focus on instruction that will lead to student learning. It's similar to K12 education. K12 went through its state standards revolution in the 1990s. Standards are not bad per se. They help to set a target for student learning. But what good is a target (learning) when the arrow (instruction) consistently (and systemically across the institution) misses the mark?

What can institutions do to keep the equity gaps closed and continually improve student success? Here are some strategies to consider. I want to emphasize that each strategy begins with "Collaborating job-a-like faculty..."

  • Collaborating job-a-like faculty reimagine how to assess student learning. They will be creative and think about equity in grading, especially with remote teaching here to stay for the unforeseeable future. 
  • Collaborating job-a-like faculty will work to reside at the intersection of data analysis and instructional analysis to continually improve their practices.
  • Collaborating job-a-like faculty will learn how to frame instructional planning and delivery using the constructivist approach to learning via the "5 E Model" of Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, Evaluate.
  • Collaborating job-a-like faculty will actually implement, evaluate, and share lessons learned from workshops on culturally-responsive and race-conscious teaching practices.

Why job-a-like faculty? College teaching is a lonely profession. When faculty come together to collaborate they will ultimately hunger for their content.

Given some of my coaching work to facilitate faculty pedagogy inquiry teams, I'm always so impressed by many faculty's exceptional pedagogy and creative ways to assess student learning. I'm equally elated when their fellow faculty learn these new practices they wouldn't have learned about on their own. But if it wasn't for the settings we established to do this meaningful inquiry work, other faculty would not benefit from their colleagues. Unfortunately, these settings rarely exist in higher education. Therefore, more should be done to establish and nurture collaborating faculty job-a-like inquiry settings. I understand that not every faculty member, especially part-timers, will want or have the opportunity to participate in such settings. However, if a campus can get a coalition of the willing to begin this meaningful work, they can share their findings and promising practices across the campus for all faculty to learn. 

Lastly, I understand that student services play a critical role in student success. However, they are often the go-to student "fixers." Students need help with certain content, send them to the tutoring center! Students are struggling, send them to counseling! And on and on. Student services shoulders too much of the work. They even feed and clothe students! Where do students spend most of the time in their college journey? In the classroom. Who grades and teaches them? Faculty.


Feedback from a faculty member about this article:

I often ask people to read my articles ahead of time for input. Below is the response from a faculty member. I thought it was a meaningful compliment to the article.

The goal should be 100%, and if we as faculty don’t reach that, we need to ask ourselves why we couldn’t reach each of our students.

I think one of the reasons this piece hit me so hard is that it reminds me of once when, many years ago, I taught Ed Psych to a small group of aspiring counselors, all of them much older women of color, in Watts. They all planned to stay in Watts and help their neighborhood schools. They were all genuinely, truly, legitimately brilliant people, but most of them sometimes stumbled on English grammar, syntax, or spelling, probably because they went to school in segregated times and weren’t always taught what the rest of us were. But so what; they were going to be counselors, not English teachers, and they were astonishingly insightful. But I was told by the course lead instructor, who I thought of as a racist even before that term, that I must fail most of them for their English skills. I ended up giving them all “A”s because they demonstrated wonderful expertise in Ed Psych, and as a result, I was never allowed to teach for that person again. She also later prevented a few of them from graduating. Thankfully, she’s now long retired. But I often wonder how each of those women are, and what they’re doing.

We should never be giving tests to see who didn’t know an answer, but rather, to see what we failed to teach properly. I truly believe that, as long as a student is at least of average intelligence, and honestly tries hard, they should be capable of learning whatever content we throw at them IF we deliver the material in whatever way they best learn. (That's what UDL is best used for, to give one example.) Delivering the content in a variety of ways to begin with, and then discerning that "best way" for each individual student (which can be quite different for each of them), and then adjusting to fill the gaps of whoever still needs something different, is far and away the most difficult thing about teaching.

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