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Transformational Change: Challenges & Opportunities

(A. Solano)

After more than two decades of coaching, keynoting, presenting, and conducting trainings, these high frequency asked culture-related questions from college educators have risen to the top. I address them in a Q&A format.

What is the most significant challenge to improving student success and equity?

Culture. By far. Exacerbated by an unproductive committee structure and my three-month rule.

How do you define culture?

Perhaps sociologists and cultural anthropologist will correct me, but in my coaching work to help colleges improve their practices—real implementation work, not just discussions and planning—it’s the pattern of behaviors, attitudes, customs, norms, and routines at a college. The saying, “Culture eats strategy for lunch” is spot on. Established patterns of behaviors, attitudes, customs, norms, and routines gobble up change efforts. Interestingly, “sub-cultures” also exist within a college. Some departments embrace change more than others. For example, I’ve found that English departments are far more ready to embrace developmental education reform than most math departments. At some campuses it’s the opposite, but by and large, I found English faculty’s culture more ready to implement student-centered, equitable change.

There's also another interesting sub-culture dynamic at many campuses: small but loud groups of racial equity educators who sabotage developmental ed reform, a cornerstone of guided pathways, egged on for years by some university equity researchers. Basically, they oppose any universal "all students" approaches. I've worked with colleges that have seen transfer English and math course completions increase by as much as 40 points for students of color, yet these saboteurs ignore the data because they can't get past their theories. Theories may give us the "why" and to some extent the "what," but they rarely provide practitioners with the 'how." Theorists also tend to have a difficult time understanding how culture change works and they highly underestimate implementation--the ability to bring racial equity yellow lighters (educators who are lukewarm about racial equity) to become green lighters (educators who embrace and enact racial equity), and with time, transition the red lighters (anti-racial equity educators) to become yellow lighters at the very least. They like to lecture and correct people's language, but they don't know how to move beyond theory-laden 'unapologetic' rhetoric. When many of them are done lecturing, they go meet with students of color to encourage them to enroll in remedial courses. The irony is spectacular. That said, I understand that equity gaps are stubborn and continue to persist at some campuses, but don't tell me students of color were better off prior to guided pathways. Completion rates for students of color were an abomination compared to the present. The outcomes are clear: students of color are better off with developmental ed reform and guided pathways. These sub-cultures do tremendous damage to real change efforts. It's worth noting again that not all racial equity educators (I consider myself one) feel this way about developmental ed reform and guided pathways. They lament their colleagues' constant obstruction and inability to move racial equity yellow lighters to green. In fact, they often contribute to anti-racial equity entrenchment. 

My point about culture is that when obstruction becomes part of the pattern of behaviors, attitudes, customs, norms, and routines at a college, students ultimately pay the price.

What is your three-month rule?

My rule is that the typical campus only has about three months in a year to get priority work done. Faculty are critical to transformational work. But most people are gone June, July, and August. September is too busy with the start of the semester. October is a decent month for priority work. November and December are busy with the Holidays and finals. People are gone again in January. February, like September, is too busy because it’s the start of a new semester. March is the second decent month to focus on transformational work and part of April, but there’s spring break. May is bustling with finals and end-of-the-year activities. When college leaders tell me, “Hey, Dr. Al, we have a year to work on this…,” I kindly tell them that they don’t have such time at their campus. When I remind them what happens—or more precisely, what doesn’t happen—in those nine months, reality sets in rather quickly. It’s a productive reality check because it forces them to be more intentional about how to address this significant time challenge.

How do colleges overcome the three-month rule?

Given that the typical college only has about three months in a year to get priority work done, my response is: don’t be the typical college.

First, don’t try to achieve the transformation through the committee structure. I ask this question frequently: “Have you ever left a committee meeting thinking it was the biggest waste of time?” I always receive a 100% in the affirmative. Committees are also where the equity work is sabotaged (and where ideas go to die). Too often when one or a handful of faculty say something at a meeting, then everyone leaves the meeting and spreads the word campus-wide that, "The faculty says...," as if their opposition or support of an idea or priority is representative of the majority of faculty. This also happens with administrators. For example, instead of saying "faculty oppose guided pathways," be more exact. "Jonathan Miles, math faculty opposes guided pathways." When institutions are more precise about who is obstructing positive change, they have a better chance of dealing with the individual(s) than the usual response of giving up or prolonging progress for another year or two because “all faculty” or “all administrators” supposedly oppose change. Unfortunately, I’ve witnessed too many times one toxic individual ruining it for everyone. That’s all it takes at some campuses—one person single-handedly sabotaging! Equally unfortunate, is how everyone failed to have a unified front to push back hard. Silence is also the enemy of change.

Second, create nimble and agile workgroups that work twelve months of the year or until they accomplish their outcomes. Does it mean that every single workgroup member can make every single meeting? No. But they can be brought up to speed in between meetings and with virtual shared docs. The key is to keep the momentum going.

Each workgroup needs a lead, data-informed purpose statement, and well-articulated outcomes and activities. I’m a big proponent of each team establishing a logic model where the outcomes are aligned with the college’s strategic plan. These activities are inputted into a project management action plan with specific actions of who does what, when, and how. I hear all the time about how colleges have workgroups, but when I dig, I learn that too many of them are stuck because they don’t know how to project manage. They also don’t get much accomplished because leadership doesn’t invest in them to operate all year. Compensate faculty—the coalition of the willing—to be a part of these teams over the summer and winter breaks. I can’t emphasize enough how critical it is to keep the momentum in the summer. I’m not talking forty hours per week. Three to six hours per summer month of team time is sufficient. It doesn’t mean critical decisions will be made over the summer, but there’s plenty to do so that the momentum continues at the start of the busy fall semester. Leadership can hold these teams accountable by reviewing what’s been accomplished in their actions plans. But I would hope college leadership would take a teaching and supportive approach than one of punitive compliance. Action plans are, after all, fluid. Colleges are dynamic places. Problem-solving the fluidity is key.

As I've said often, colleges lose critical momentum when leaders neglect to behave like teachers and faculty neglect to behave like leaders. Leadership and teaching go hand in hand.

How can colleges avoid established patterns of behaviors, attitudes, customs, norms, and routines—culture—from thwarting transformational change efforts?

Three words: Do the work!

UCLA Professor Emeritus, Ron Gallimore, from my graduate school alma mater, conducted extensive research on culture change in education. According to his research, change in attitudes follows or accompanies gradual change in behavior. For example, the faculty member who has had low expectations of students can adopt higher expectations if the faculty learns how to successfully teach toward that expectation, then sees student progress.

Research supports, and I can attest to this as a coach who’s deeply embedded in college settings to implement change: attitudes and behaviors change through the work! It takes time and patience, but they really do!

But this is how the work doesn’t get done at colleges: endless committee meeting discussions; discussions that lead to no meaningful action; allowing one or the few loud people to block the work with endless pontification; student-blaming and deficit mindsets; performative racial equity talk that always fails to provide nuts-and-bolts tactics; and poor leadership.

I go back to highly productive year-round project workgroups. Start with the coalition of the willing. Let their good work serve as a catalyst for campus-wide change. It seems simple but it’s highly underestimated—it all starts by doing the work. The aggregate of well-coordinated and executed projects lead to a positive culture change over time.

Can you provide an example of these workgroups?

I’ve established what I call “inquiry & action teams” at many colleges. These workgroups spend the first two or three meetings on student equity data analysis. The remaining meetings are all about action. For people who have experience writing comprehensive grants, the grant development process begins with the “why” (i.e., student data and identified equity gaps). Then create an action plan, explain how implementation will be measured, and conduct a cost analysis to develop a budget. It’s a similar process with inquiry & action teams, except that we ask for student input on our action plans and not every action plan needs a budget. Infusing equity intentionality in the work is also key. I work with the team lead and institutional research to have the equity gap data ready for the team’s kick-off. Unlike other teams, we don’t spend a semester or in some cases, years, staring at and discussing dashboards and moving forward with little to no meaningful action. Inquiry & action teams meet three hours per month with up two hours of outside meeting time. The meetings are highly productive, and of course, we keep the momentum going over the summer. Again, not everyone can be at every single meeting, especially in the summer, but because members find the time highly rewarding, team member attendance is high. Guided Pathways funding, for example, has paid for faculty participation in inquiry & action teams. The teams are institutionalized by making participation as part of college service. Faculty who appreciate continuous improvement have expressed that they would rather serve on these action-based teams than on large, politically charged committees.

What are some action plan topics that these teams have developed?

It’s important to note that we always start with the coalition of the willing. We communicate the inquiry & action workgroup model, then teams begin to form around key areas of the campus. For example, I have job-alike teams such as groups of faculty from one discipline, “meta-major” cross-functional inquiry & action teams, and even teams by special groups. For example, I’m extremely proud of a classified professional inquiry & action team. Classified professionals often feel excluded from transformational change work, yet they’re the group that I find that knows how to get stuff done! I say “stuff” because I really want to use another “s” word! One classified professional team focused on first generation students (per the data analysis) and within the next few meetings they created an action plan and implemented a First Gen welcome event and communications strategy!! All run by classified professionals!

Again, do the work! Provide educators with a regular twelve-month setting (a time and a place to get important work done), have them develop a data-informed purpose statement, ensure they have a lead, and project management tools—and you’ll see attitudes and behaviors change over time for the better! The leads also meet as a team to learn from each other, and when appropriate, collaborate across action plans.

Example action plan topics have included:
- Improving grading practices and instructional practices in English
- Latinas in law enforcement series & mentoring
- Cross-collaboration across the Arts meta-major: student projects with a social justice theme
- Classified-run first gen student engagement series
- Open Educational Resources in math with just-in-time remediation built in
- Math 360-degree classroom whiteboards & pedagogy changes
- Learning communities in STEM
- Robust career activities in the business meta-major
- Canvas for each meta-major with engaging videos and practical information
- Improving enrollment in health sciences through awareness and engaging activities
- Creating certificates in world languages to compliment other degrees in health & business
- Equitable syllabus via liquid syllabus
- Improving the registration processes
- Community of practices per meta-major with resources

What recommendations do you have for colleges that want case management teams in their culture changing efforts?

I've helped to implement inquiry & action teams because many colleges have experienced tremendous challenges with case management (or cohort management) student success teams. There’s union, contractual, financial, and/or capacity issues with case management. However, they are still colleges that want to implement this model. The first task is to define what case management means at their campus. It’s fascinating to me how everyone has a different definition at the college. Developing a common case management definition is critical. Next, colleges need to create an action plan for the case management team, with goals, student metrics to track, and specific actions. If the action plan is genuinely co-created with key stakeholders (not a single person writing it) this process will ensure people have meaningful a-ha’s! For example, the realization that the case management student success team per meta-major replicates the existing robust First Year Experience program. A college in this situation needs to disentangle the overlapping work before launching the meta-major case management team model. It’s also critical to understand the co-created action plan before establishing roles and responsibilities. Understand the work first so it can inform roles and responsibilities specifics. Too many colleges take the reverse approach with disastrous results.

Again, I want to emphasize capacity challenges. For example, one student success team may have up to 5,000 students in the meta-major for a four-member team. I recommend filtering students who already receive services such as FYE, TRIO, EOPS, etc., which requires the college to invest in a student tracking software. Next, understand the equity gaps. It varies by campus, but it’s clear to me from extensive data analysis that more often than not, Black students should be the priority for these teams. If there are 300 black students in a meta-major of 5,000 students, that’s much more manageable for a team of four case managers. They can focus all of their time and energy to help this disproportionately impacted student population. If the team has capacity to support the next equity group, then move forward to help them as well. In short, work with the people that you have and fully understand and appreciate the team’s capacity. Educators are constantly setting themselves up for failure and/or to go an inch deep and a mile wide with limited impact while equity gaps persist for students with the most need.

Anything else you'd like to add about culture change?

Community college students spend most of their time in college in an in-person or online/remote classroom. Faculty tend to have the most impact on students. They interact with students the most. Case management teams are fine, but we cannot forget instruction. Continually improving instruction is the equity work of our time. When we create the space for meaningful faculty collaboration and productive struggle, magic happens. Faculty create “light the fire” courses that keep students engaged in their learning.

But change is hard for all the reasons I mentioned. Culture does, indeed, eat strategy for lunch, but with time and quality collaborative productive work, culture can change, and students reap the benefits. I’ll end with a quote I came up with a few years ago:

Institutions achieve student success when college educators help each other succeed. 


Also visit: Culture Change & Continuous Improvement | The Policy, Research, & Practice Disconnect 

How to implement culture change & continuous improvement at your institution.


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