League for Innovation in the Community College
April 26, 1983, became one
of the most important dates in the modern history of education when A Nation at Risk:
The Imperative for Educational Reform was published. Ted Bell, then U. S. Commissioner
of Education and Chair of the commission that published the report, said American
education was experiencing "a rising tide of mediocrity," and if we did not
address the issues facing American education, the system would be totally overwhelmed.
A Nation at Risk elicited a
massive reform movement to improve standards (e.g., require more courses in high
school, develop national certification standards for teachers, develop national standards
for every major job category), apply innovations (e.g., expand use of computers,
interactive learning, distance education, and work-based learning opportunities), revise
structures (e.g., create year-round schools, allocate decision-making to the local
level, use total quality management and continuous quality improvement processes), and develop
alternatives to the existing system (e.g., create a voucher system, privatize public
schools, and create middle schools, cluster schools, and schools managed by universities).
These reform efforts have resulted in a
great deal of change, but very little improvement. In a 1993 national study of adult
literacy, for example, students were asked, "If you had three dollars, bought a
sandwich for $1.95 and a bowl of soup for $0.60, how much would you have left?" More
than 56% of the respondents polled could not calculate the remaining change ($0.45). The
reform movement has just been pruning the branches of a dead tree.
Why is this? Why has a decade of reform
produced so little? Perhaps it is, in part, because our current educational practices are
bound by time, place, efficiency, and teachers themselves. For example:
- The system is time-bound by credit hours and semester courses. College students
are learning in blocks of time that are artificial. Excellent teachers know that learning
is not constrained to one-hour meetings held on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and they
have been frustrated in teaching within these prescribed boundaries.
- The system is place-bound. Learning is initiated, nurtured, monitored, and
certified primarily by teachers in classrooms on a campus. We have experimented with
distance education that takes courses off campus, but while it has increased student
access, it retains the old model of education: distance education is a nontraditional
delivery system for traditional education. Work-based learning was supposed to break up
that model, but it doesn't--it extends the model, but it is still controlled by it,
because work-based learning is built around the structure of the school. It still binds
the student to a place.
- The system is efficiency-bound. Our model of education reflects in great part the
adjustment to an agricultural economy. Public school students needed to be home early
enough in the afternoon to milk the cows and feed the chickens. In the summer, they needed
to be free for three to four months--to work in the fields, to pick the cotton in the
South, to pick the peaches in California, and to harvest the corn in the Midwest. When the
country changed to the industrial economy, education responded by creating a lock-step,
put-them-in-boxes, factory model--the basis of American education today. Academic credit,
based on time in class, makes learning appear orderly. This model creates an efficient
system to award credentials. The college structure of Monday-Wednesday-Friday classes in a
16-week semester, while plowing through a specified body of material, makes teachers feel
as if they have accomplished their goals. But what does 64 credit hours worth of learning
mean to Student A compared to Student B, especially when the credit is based on grades?
According to Paul Dressel, the course grade is "an inadequate report of an inaccurate
judgment by biased and variable judges of the extent to which a student has attained an
undefined level of mastery of an unknown proportion of an indefinite material." Yet
the entire system of schooling is based on grades accumulated as credits.
- Finally, this system is teacher-bound, which may be its greatest weakness. In
education, we make the assumption that one human being, the teacher, can ensure that 30
very different human beings, one hour a day, three or more days a week for 16 weeks, can
learn enough to become enlightened citizens, productive workers and joyful lifelong
learners. Then we assume that this one human being can repeat this miracle three more
times in the same 16-week period for 90 additional individuals. Furthermore, we have
saddled teachers with expectations that they must be experts in rapidly-expanding fields
of knowledge and gifted lecturers to deliver their knowledge. And we provide little
comfort and support when they fail to live up to the myth.
In the last decade we have spent great
amounts of energy and resources redesigning, reengineering, revising, reforming,
recycling, and reordering a system that no longer works.
We have been busy trying to make a
coal-burning locomotive our major mode of transportation when across the tarmac there are
options such as the Concorde and the space shuttle.
Thus we need to replace the current
educational system with a system designed for the kind of society in which we live today,
designed for the kinds of students who attend school today, and designed to take advantage
of what we know about learning and what we know about technology today.
The Emerging Transformation To
Place Learning First
The emerging transformation in education places learning first, before teaching. A new
concept is evolving: School is out, learning is in. The new transformation is based on the
- The purpose of school is to improve and expand student learning. Students want to learn.
Students learn differently. They learn from each other. They need customized learning,
learning that offers many options, including stand-alone technology and opportunities to
learn outside as well as inside "school." Postsecondary students need schools
that allow them to exit and reenter. All students need a K-90 system, for learning is
lifelong and continuous. They need a system that allows them to enter 365 days a year, 24
hours a day, seven days a week. The system must provide road maps, itineraries, optional
routes, tours, rest stops for feedback, opportunities to make new connections, and access
to major databases and expert systems throughout the world. They must be allowed to change
directions, to move back and forth, to make U-turns for remediation, and to call for
assistance when they hit roadblocks.
- Student assessment is critical. Teachers, staff, and administrators must pay more
attention to assessing student abilities, achievements, values, goals, expectations, and
environmental limitations. Students need learning portfolios about what they know, what
they don't know, what they want to know, and what they need to know. Standards for initial
entry into and exit from all formal learning activities must be clearly articulated.
Learning outcomes must focus on "What does this student know?" and "What
can this student do?"
- Faculty and staff roles must change. Teachers must design and manage, not deliver,
learning experiences. They must be evaluated on how well they implement new learning
opportunities for students in a system that is not time-bound, place-bound,
efficiency-bound, or teacher-bound. The entire staff of the college must be involved in
placing learning first.
Forces of Resistance
As these tentative guidelines are translated into action, there will be resistance from
the bureaucracies created to fund and manage schools,from school personnel, and from
Bureaucratic resistance. Federal
and state programs are difficult to dismantle, as every newly-elected politician soon
learns. The education code for California, for example, is contained in 7,000 pages in 11
volumes. All American colleges and schools have developed cumbersome and often
politically-structured systems. While these are designed for effective, efficient, and
fair management, they frequently inhibit rather than encourage creative ventures that
differ from the established norms.
Although many educational leaders are
aware of the regulatory policies' restrictive potential and try to encourage new ideas,
innovators do not outnumber the safe-haven traditionalists. In California, one of the most
regulated environments in the nation, the chancellor of the community colleges system has
issued a challenge to community college leaders to request waivers from state regulations
that keep the colleges from innovating and experimenting. Requests for such waivers have
not been overwhelming.
Personnel resistance. Most
educators understand the old saw "It is easier to move a cemetery than change the
curriculum." Fortunately, there are always small groups of maverick faculty who will
try any new idea, the early adopters of innovations. But the faculty as a whole is highly
resistant to change. Their allegiance to the discipline guilds and the protective mantle
of academic freedom are twin pillars of conservatism. Educators, themselves
"schooled" first as students, then as gatekeepers in the traditions of
education, do not embrace alternative ideas with enthusiasm, despite their own deep
cynicism about the current system.
Administrators, especially first-line
administrators (e.g., department and division heads who interact directly with faculty),
are most resistant to change. Their position is particularly stressful as they attempt to
negotiate between the faculty and the administration, a land in which first-line
administrators can find no safe haven or affiliative group. Negotiating the selection of
textbooks and constructing the class schedule is challenge enough for the brave souls who
carry one of the major burdens in an educational organization. They are not likely to lead
the charge to place learning first, even though they may be the key staff members who
understand best the need for such change.
There will also be resistance from
custodians, secretaries, bookstore clerks, and other support staff who operate key
components of the school's infrastructure. Placing learning first may change the roles of
support staff, making them more visible partners with the professional staff. Support
staff will be required to help manage and coordinate learning activities as faculty are
freed to share their expertise and skills in new ways with students and each other. Some
support staff will feel unprepared to take on these new assignments and will need
encouragement, training, and recognition to overcome the natural resistance that will
Student resistance. The greatest
resistance to placing learning first may come from students (and their parents). Students
know classes. They know schedules. They have spent their whole lives trying to get As.
Placing learning first would mean taking responsibility for learning and navigating their
own pathway. Students will need a great deal of orientation to this new paradigm, and they
will need early success experiences.
Can the transformational model outlined above reach fruition anytime soon or even in our
lifetimes? Are we capable of creating and adapting to that much change?
We are beginning to see small islands of
innovation. New models of the paradigm are percolating to the top. A handful of colleges
have launched the transformation and provide some direction for the greater revolution to
- The Dallas County Community College District has published a statement titled
"Masters of the Learning Environment." Full-time faculty members are responsible
for designing the instructional delivery system in their areas that will best increase the
quality and quantity of individual learning while decreasing the cost per student in that
learning environment. Although this system is still within the context of the old
industrial educational model, there is an emerging philosophy that places learning first
and makes faculty responsible for learning outcomes.
- Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon, has developed a comprehensive statement for a
vision of its future as a learning organization:
Lane Community College provides a quality learning experience in a caring
environment. Lane is centered on learning and will assume new responsibilities only when
they involve learning. Everyone at Lane-students, staff-must be dedicated to learning. The
organization must be a learning organization...change must be built into our organization.
Lane is providing a new direction for
community colleges in the language of its vision statement, which reflects the heart,
mission, and values of the institution. Note that the goals of traditional schools and
colleges have historically been to provide instruction, not to cause learning. The
community college itself is known as the teaching college and has deans of instruction,
not deans of learning. Lane is changing their language to place learning first. As the
language changes, the values and practices also begin to change.
- Staff and faculty at the Maricopa Community Colleges in Phoenix, Arizona, have been
deeply involved in reviewing changes at their institutions through participation in the
Pew Higher Education Roundtables. They have launched Project Apollo to create a
learner-centered system and have engaged their board of governors in a "strategic
conversation" on the learning organization. The Maricopa Community Colleges have made
a major commitment to live up to their new vision statement, "We are a learning
organization guided by our shared values."
- Palomar College and Chaffey College, both in Southern California, have also initiated
projects to move their colleges toward a new paradigm of learning.
These five institutions are examples
of community colleges struggling to find a new way to place learning first. They share
strong and effective leadership at the top, faculty mavericks who are not afraid to
innovate, a diversity of students, and an understanding of and experimentation with
technology as a key element in transforming learning. In addition, they are healthy
institutions with resources and experience in leading change. These institutions will
serve as crucibles of innovation for transforming colleges into learning organizations.
They bear watching, for they are engaged in a process of change that will turn education
upside down if they are successful in placing learning first.
In a future issue I will describe what is
included in placing learning first and will use these exemplary institutions as
illustrations. I welcome your comments on the concept briefly presented here.
[Editor's note: This article is modified from an address by Dr. O'Banion at Beyond
2000: Visioning the Future of Community Colleges, The 1995 Inaugural Futures Assembly,
February 26-28, 1995, in Orlando, Fla.. The article is posted in the conference section, Horizon
Home Page (URL address: http://sunsite.unc.edu/horizon),
along with other presentations and proceedings of this conference. Please write or e-mail
your responses to this and other articles in this issue; we will post your messages on Horizon
Home Page for continuing comment and review.]