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The Policy, Research, & Practice Disconnect

(A. Solano)

The disconnect between policy, research, and practice is extraordinarily real for college practitioners. The intersection of policy, research, and practice at the center of this Venn diagram is often an illusion. Too many university researchers and policy makers simply lack a deep understanding of how colleges work to ensure their efforts land in the Venn diagram sweet spot. 

The unfortunate reality is better depicted by the visualization below, where research and policy often intersect and practice is aloof.

For example, some university researchers have convinced themselves (and policy makers too) that counting words on college documents and websites is an effective methodology to make assumptions about practice. A February 2022 research paper analyzed community college institutional research office mission statements. The results "revealed" that the mission statements didn't include sufficient equity terminology, which led the researchers to assume that institutional researchers have limited discourse about equity and race. Such sweeping statements, based on word counting demonstrate how tremendously disconnected university researchers can be from the reality on the ground at community colleges. College plans, documents, and graphics are often uncoupled from the day-to-day equity work that occurs on college campuses. In many instances, colleges with mission statements and planning documents that include a robust account of racial equity terms may be doing very little racial equity work and colleges with little mention of racial equity terminology may be doing robust racial equity work. Anyone who has a deep understanding of how colleges operate would know this.

Ironically, one of the university researcher's own university research office includes no mention of racial equity in its mission statement. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Are we to assume that the team of 17 university researchers in that office are failing the institution’s equity efforts? Are none of them equity-minded? They have limited discourse about equity and race? I think I’ve illustrated why the word counting methodology is problematic.

A more recent "report" from October 2023 has the same lead author conducting the same irresponsible methodology, this time by making assumptions about racial equity discourse among community colleges working on Guided Pathways. The checklist below in the report serves as a clear indication of how disconnected the "findings" are from reality. A place like Compton College is 0/4! I know for a fact that Compton College and many of the other colleges have had robust racial equity discourse and action in the Guided Pathways work. 

An appropriate title would have been, "Counting Words: Insufficient Racial Equity Terms in Guided Pathways Reports." There's a tremendous leap from counting words on documents to making assumptions about educators' actual on-the-ground discourse. Such reports have an impact. For example, an administrator who has been disengaged in the Guided Pathways work sent the report with an accusatory tone to a team that has been working very hard on Guided Pathways and racial equity. They've had more than meaningful racial equity discourse in Guided Pathways. They've moved forward with racial equity intentionality and action. One word the Guided Pathways educator used to describe how she felt from the administrator's message:

"Demoralized."

Her and countless over-worked, bullied and unappreciated Guided Pathways educators--many of color who are bullied by their colleagues of color--are the ones whom I have given voice to in the last few years. Some may say, "Well, include the racial equity words in your docs then." Fine. But let's be clear: colleges with abysmal racial equity outcomes don't a get a free pass because they have the correct word count on their documents.

The substantive issue is that instead of conducting a rigorous research methodology with random interviews, focus groups, and surveys to truly understand the equity work occurring on college campuses, some researchers shortchange rigorous research to catch the attention of funders and policy makers. This deficit-mindset and assumption-based approach is disrespectful and ultimately undermines the critical work college campuses are doing to advance racial equity. These practices deepen the divide among practitioners, researchers, and policy makers, as it discredits practitioners’ hard work in this challenging arena of racial equity and social justice. I can tell you as someone who works extensively with community college practitioners, that they are growing increasingly agitated at uninformed research focused on pointing fingers to capture headlines rather than inform and improve practice. These ivory tower research chastisements and innuendoes continue to offer no meaningful and practical advice other than to "disaggregate your data," "have more equity words on your planning documents," and general guidelines that lack much needed nuts-and-bolts information for the practitioner. As one seasoned community college institutional researcher added, "It's so easy for university researchers to tell us practitioners what we are doing wrong and then cite some theory they have no experience applying."

Another example. Take this criticism of an old Guided Pathways graphic.

This graphic makes no mention of racial equity. Yet, when Guided Pathways is implemented well, it has been extremely beneficial for students of color. People forget, especially in California, that developmental education reform is a cornerstone of Guided Pathways. Developmental education reform is considered "race neutral" by some university researchers because it helps all students, but students of color have benefitted immensely. How is counting words on this graphic productive? How does it advance racial equity? Why are positive student of color outcomes often ignored? Is there a hidden agenda that will never give any meaningful credence to Guided Pathways practitioners? It often sure sounds like it.

Therefore, as I have posted on social media, the graphic below represents some racial equity ivory tower researchers who can't bring themselves to give Guided Pathways the credit it deserves for helping students of color, but they want to remain focused on criticizing a graphic for not having specific terminology. They think they know everything there is about Guided Pathways (which they don’t), but most practitioners have the good sense to set their egos to the side to know the work is hard and complicated.

Here's another harmful example. Four-hundred participants were misinformed in a "Decentering Whiteness in Guided Pathways" webinar that resulted in unnecessary bullying and caused setbacks at some campuses. Stating that Guided Pathways is a "deficit mindedness frame that focuses on what racially minoritized students lack" is not true. 

Guided Pathways focuses on what institutions lack to better serve their students, who are primarily disproportionately impacted populations at community colleges, which of course include minoritized students. Disengaged people who've been sitting on the sidelines in the Guided Pathways work used such misinformation to heckle overworked and underappreciated educators working on Guided Pathways and racial equity. For example, an ethnic studies instructor lambasted the educators working on Guided Pathways for perpetuating racism. He even called Guided Pathways, "Guided Pitfalls." Not helpful. Highly unproductive. Plus, this person and so many others at campuses have been unwilling to help with racial equity intentionality in Guided Pathways. They attend meetings to correct language and bully, but do absolutely nothing to advance the work of racial equity within the Guided Pathways framework. Another example. One of the most dedicated and passionate Chicana/o/x Studies instructors I've ever worked with was conducting truly meaningful work to help with racial equity intentionality in Guided Pathways. Her chair was so upset that she was helping with Guided Pathways (he warned her not to get involved) that he did everything he could to make her life miserable. He succeeded. She quit the college and had to find work at another institution. She was a remarkable adjunct teacher. Anyone who diminishes these stories and countless similar untold stories is heartless. They only care about their ego.

A significant portion of my work focused on helping colleges intentionally implement equity throughout their Guided Pathways work. I understand that additional perspectives are required. It's fine to be critical of Guided Pathways--I encourage it--but let’s at least be fair and tell the whole story. If Guided Pathways was hurting students of color, these researchers would have a point, but the data suggests otherwise. Being an unapologetic racial equity educator doesn't mean one should abandon rigorous and meaningful research methodologies, effective pedagogy to teach others of HOW to implement equity, and basic common sense. And the approach definitely needs to move beyond misinformation, counting words, and elementary data disaggregation suggestions.

The final example of the disconnect is illustrated by an unfortunate introductory paragraph of a report that was initially tasked with embedding racial equity into Guided Pathways.
 

In my efforts to fight for those who have been working hard to implement culture-changing work with equity impact, my words were twisted and thrown back at me in what a college president of color who brought this to my attention called, "petty." The introductory paragraph in a report on racial equity and Guided Pathways is rich given that the Commission abandoned its charge of embedding racial equity into Guided Pathways. I firmly stand by my statement that closing equity gaps is not enough. Read more here. If we close gaps and all students are at, let's say, 40% success, are we supposed to be satisfied? Mission accomplished?

Moreover, I maintain that many self-described racial equity warriors did nothing for years about the alarming rates at which black and brown students were failing in developmental education. It took developmental education reform, a cornerstone of Guided Pathways, to finally address the issue with positive impact. Yet, the truth is uncomfortable for some. They prefer to criticize from the sidelines rather than engage in the difficult work of changing the ineffective practices and processes that worsen the very equity gaps they claim to care about.

To be clear, I was genuinely pleased to see many dedicated members on the Commission, those who didn’t just sit on the sidelines but actively worked to implement Guided Pathways with equity in mind. When the Commission started, I predicted that they would abandon their charge of embedding racial equity into Guided Pathways because I understand firsthand how challenging it is. The approach varies significantly by campus, division, and even department. While I appreciate how the report utilizes the four Guided Pathways pillars, the irony is not lost on me and the many college leaders who reached out to me to share the report: many of the ideas for the pillars are race-neutral. So much for that introductory paragraph, written by an individual who I know for a fact doesn't represent all Commission members. Many of the members understand my work and didn't appreciate this person making me out like some sort of anti-racial equity villain. The point in sharing this example is to speak up. As a hard-working practitioner, don't be afraid of being labeled. Don't fear the unwarranted cold shoulder by the few. In the policy, research, and practices disconnect, it is the on-the-ground practitioner who needs to push back against unproductive webinars and reports. 

Now I’ll switch gears from researchers to policy makers. Policy maker funding deadlines often show how fantastically disconnected they are from how colleges work. Intentions are nice, but policy makers often set colleges up to fail. As I have explained in Why Colleges Struggle to Implement Priorities and What To Do About It, inputs such as policies are injected into the institution represented by the center box. In the center box, college educators are supposed to make sense of all of these inputs, plan and implement them ideally through a continuous improvement cycle so that the desired outcome is improved student outcomes and closed equity gaps.

Unfortunately, that is not what typically happens.

Why do inputs rarely turn into significant campus-wide increases in student outcomes and equity gap reductions? In a nutshell, colleges tend to have a weak structure and support system that hinders the most important foundational and recurring action colleges need to undertake: continuous improvement. After years of being neck-deep in the work of institutional change, embedded with a multitude of colleges to help them get results, and parachuting in at countless other colleges on a temporary basis to facilitate difficult conversations to get the work of change moving, I have concluded that there are six factors that describe why colleges struggle to implement priorities (unpacked in the free guide).

I liken my work to cooking. I will help calibrate the oven, ensure the pots, pans, and other tools are in order, and even help sequence how to cook a delicious meal. However, I don't provide the food. That's up to the college. Having worked for years in both K12 and higher education settings, I know the dish won't be that good when the food is cooked in a broken oven, and with cooking ingredients past their expiration dates. I'm the process and structures guy who’s constantly strategizing about the means in order to ensure positive outcomes for disproportionately impacted students. I reside in the planning and implementation box. It's the college's oven, if you will. That oven is often broken. When the oven doesn’t operate efficiently with continuous process checks to ensure the temperature is just right, it makes that delicious dish--equity and racial justice--an uncooked dream. Providing colleges with millions of dollars and unrealistic timelines actually makes the situation more chaotic for colleges.

I'm an equal opportunist who is willing to point out hypocrisy and/or call out anyone or any group that wittingly or unwittingly hinders student success and equity work, but know that it comes from a kind heart. I'm cautiously optimistic that positive change is possible at every single college. Although imperfect and there's still much work to do, a promising policy, research, and practitioner Venn diagram is California's AB705 developmental education reform legislation. Thanks to Guided Pathways researchers such as Dr. Davis Jenkins who vigorously pushed for the elimination of remediation which hurt students of color the most for decades, the leadership of Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley whose own community college student experience and student-centered approach guides him, and Assemblymen Bob Blumenfield who introduced AB 705, there are more California students of color taking and succeeding in transfer-level math and English than ever before!

So, here are parting recommendations to help the intersection of policy, research, and practice become a reality.

- Policy makers: Take the time to learn how colleges operate. Many of us learned, as accurately described, "how the sausage is made" at all levels of government. Learn "how the sausage is made" at colleges. It will provide a clearer picture of how to enact practitioner-focused policies. Also, vet research methodologies before making policy decisions based on ivory tower researcher assumptions.

- University researchers: Those with vendettas against Guided Pathways, more and more practitioners are seeing right through it. I can't begin to express how incredibly destructive this has been at so many colleges. California, for example, invested $150+ million in Guided Pathways. I've lost count of how many college leaders (who include faculty; faculty are leaders too), many of color, have told me, "There's obstruction at my campus 'cause university researchers poisoned the well with 'Guided Pathways is terrible because it's race neutral' talk." They attribute these researchers for contributing to wasting millions of dollars by fueling anti-Guided Pathways obstruction efforts. Guided Pathways is a framework to help colleges get their shit together. By getting their shit together, they will be better equipped to address equity.

Instead, work to make meaningful and practical implementation suggestions that helps to strengthen equity intentionality in the Guided Pathways work. This means learn how colleges work. Please conduct robust, meaningful, and nonpartisan research that will actually help practitioners.

- Practitioners: Culture change and continuous improvement is hard. I'm with you. I get it. Continue to work hard and treat each other with kindness along the way.

Oh, by the way, to funders: Please reconsider relying on counting words too. If a proposal comes from a federally designated "minority-serving institution," rate the proposal on its merits for the potential to make significant positive changes to practices. Think of it this way, let's say developmental ed reform--an "all students approach" at many minority-serving institutions was just getting started. Instead of incorporating a word counting proposal-rating system, focus on the practices articulated in the proposal for the institution to implement transformational change where the outcomes will be significant for disproportionately impacted students.

Onward…

 

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