Chronicle article less_choice_more_structure


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Chronicle article less_choice_more_structure

  1. 1. Less Choice, More Structure for Students: In a Tennessee System, It Works - Students - T... Page 1 of 10 Students Home News Administration Students July 30, 2012 Less Choice, More Structure for Students: In a Tennessee System, It Works By Jennifer González Nashville Motivational framed posters line the hallways here at the Tennessee Technology Center. "The world needs dreamers and the world needs doers," one reads. "But above all, the world needs dreamers who do." In classrooms hang inspirational poems with titles like "Success" and "Dont Quit." That hopefulness permeates the center, from its staff to its roughly 900 students, with measurable results. The Nashville campus is part of the Tennessee Technology Center system, which has become something of a darling among college- completion advocates. Comprising 27 locations across the state, the system boasts graduation and job-placement rates that many colleges only dream of: 75 percent and 83 percent, respectively. Such achievements are even more noteworthy given the population the system serves: racially and ethnically diverse, low-income adults—students who tend to struggle in college. The systems success has caught the attention of two-year colleges, a sector in which less than a third of students earn degrees in four years, although about a fifth of them transfer to four-year colleges during that time. Administrators from community colleges around the country—the City Colleges of Chicago; the Ivy Tech Community College system, in Indiana; and the Texas State Technical College system, for example—are trekking to Tennessee to observe the centers rigid academic structure. Nobody thinks community colleges should turn into technical colleges. They have a broader mission, which includes preparing students for transfer and providing enrichment classes to the community. Still, the Tennessee systems model seems to help meet two pressing needs: to increase graduation rates, in accordance with national goals, and to better prepare students for the work force, as jobs demand more education than ever before. 8/6/2012
  2. 2. Less Choice, More Structure for Students: In a Tennessee System, It Works - Students - T... Page 2 of 10 The systems highly structured academic environment, not unlike that of a high school, is key to its success, senior administrators say. Rather than choose individual courses, students enroll—the majority full time—in programs with predetermined schedules. Classes meet every day for about six hours and last from several weeks to more than a year, depending on the program. Attendance is taken. Remediation is embedded in coursework. Though grouped together, students move through programs at their own pace. The structure is foreign to most traditional colleges, where students design their own schedules. "We take away a lot of the choices from students," says James King, the systems vice chancellor. "This is not Burger King. There is no Have it your way here." Mr. King welcomes all the interest in his system, but he finds its sudden novelty amusing. "We have been around for 60 years," he says. "We are smiling a lot these days and taking the compliments as they come." Over time, despite administrative changes, the technology centers instructional model has remained essentially the same. The system was once run by the states Department of Education, but as the centers evolved into predominantly adult-serving institutions, the Board of Regents took over. Lawmakers in the state are paying attention. In 2010 the Tennessee legislature passed a law intended to improve completion rates at public higher-education institutions. It requires community colleges to adopt many of the same strategies the technology centers already employ, such as block scheduling—in which students are assigned to multiple classes together—and grouping students in cohorts. National higher-education advocates, too, are looking on with interest. Stan Jones, president of the nonprofit group Complete College America, is an enthusiastic supporter of the technology- center system. In fact, the group released a report in 2010 to promote the systems work. "The model illustrates that institutions can graduate more students," he says. While an increasing number of community colleges have taken notice of the technology-center system, some are incorporating only "bits and pieces" of the model, says Mr. Jones. Some limitations are clear. For example, many community-college students attend part- time. But a piecemeal approach to adapting the technical-system model is problematic, Mr. Jones says, because the synergy of several 8/6/2012
  3. 3. Less Choice, More Structure for Students: In a Tennessee System, It Works - Students - T... Page 3 of 10 strategies is what makes it work. "Without that," he says, "institutions are not going to get the results they are looking for." Learning the Ropes Anybody with a high-school diploma or GED can train at a Tennessee Technology Center, in programs as varied as collision repair and practical nursing. The centers, with open enrollment and rolling admissions, serve about 30,000 students. The prevailing philosophy is that they learn by doing, at their own pace, with lectures kept to a minimum. Graduation is practically inevitable, says Mark A. Lenz, director of the Nashville center: "We put them on that path from the beginning." From the start, he says, they know how long their program will last, what classes theyll take, and how theyll find work. Costs range from $1,638 to earn a phlebotomy certificate to $7,711 for a machine-tool-technology diploma. A hallmark of the centers is a competency-based curriculum, in which students must demonstrate their mastery of certain skills. Business-systems-technology students, for instance, take quizzes and tests, while welding students perform techniques as instructors evaluate them. The programs are based not on earning credits but on fulfilling a required number of course hours. All instructors come from their respective industries and work closely with an advisory board, primarily of business leaders, to ensure that the students training matches local needs. Relationships on the boards often lead to job offers for students. The center goes to great lengths to mimic the workplace setting. Barbering students, for example, work in a large classroom that resembles a barbershop, down to the striped pole outside the door. In the mornings, they gather in an adjacent room for "theory class," where Jeffrey Moore, an instructor, lectures for an hour on a range of topics, such as hair tinting and identifying skin disorders. The rest of the day is spent on the "floor," as its called, where students like Kelnitra Robinson apply what theyre learning on paying customers. As Ms. Robinson, wearing black scrubs, dips her clippers into a large glass of blue disinfectant, she talks about the need for proper sanitation in a barbershop—a lesson undoubtedly repeated over the course of the program. Ms. Robinson, 25, decided to become a barber to improve her earning potential after being stuck in what she describes as a string of dead-end jobs, like scooping ice cream at a Dairy Queen. This is her second attempt at higher education. In 2005, at her mothers insistence, she enrolled at Volunteer State Community College, to 8/6/2012
  4. 4. Less Choice, More Structure for Students: In a Tennessee System, It Works - Students - T... Page 4 of 10 study physical therapy. But feeling detached from the courses and the college experience, she dropped out after a year and a half. This time around, she says, she feels connected to the material, supported by instructors and staff, and eager to attend classes. "What Ive found out is that I learn best by doing, by working with my hands," Ms. Robinson says. "I have big dreams now. I plan to open my own upscale salon, or even a barbershop." Although students progress through coursework mainly on their own, instructors are always nearby. In the business-systems- technology program, where the classroom features a receptionists desk, cubicles, and a coffee stand, students at computers work on basic accounting and customer-relations management. There are no lectures, but Deanna Wallace, an instructor, roams around checking on students work and helping them with concepts they dont understand. She will be their instructor for the duration of the program. Her role is a challenging one, with students continually arriving and graduating. And the program offers not only certificates and diplomas, which vary in training length, but also several tracks for different specialties. So Ms. Wallace must follow students progress individually rather than moving them through coursework as a group. Standing behind the faux receptionists desk, she laughs. "You have to be real organized to do this job," she says. "The key is making sure everything is laid out for them from Day 1 until they graduate." Embedded Remediation Remedial work at the technology centers is integrated into academic programs, going by the less stigmatizing name "technology foundations." A more traditional model, especially at community colleges, is for students to complete remedial courses before they can enroll in their chosen programs. But here at the Nashville center, students enroll in programs, then go through an assessment: an untimed, computer-based diagnostic test that evaluates them in six areas, including applied math, reading, and locating information. On the basis of the test results, each student gets an individualized learning plan to help improve any areas of weakness, such as conjugating verbs or multiplying fractions. Students work on those plans in a "foundations lab." The amount of time they spend there varies from a couple of weeks to several months, depending on how much help they need. 8/6/2012
  5. 5. Less Choice, More Structure for Students: In a Tennessee System, It Works - Students - T... Page 5 of 10 Donna M. Johnson, who is studying to be an aesthetician, spent a week of mornings in the lab, brushing up on math, especially how to decipher word problems. "Math was kicking my butt," she says. "I had been out of school for so long. I really needed the help." Ms. Johnson, 41, has dyslexia, which compounds her difficulty with word problems. But the foundations labs senior instructor, Danny E. Gardner, helped her understand them, she says, by using familiar names and cities. Incorporating the lab into students schedules is so seamless that some dont recognize they are taking part in developmental education, says Mr. King, the vice chancellor. "For the students," he says, "the foundations lab is just part of their academic program." At community colleges, students who must go through remedial courses can get discouraged and drop out. With remediation embedded, some researchers say, students may be more likely to maintain motivation and not feel as if they are losing time and money before progressing with their chosen programs. "The model," Mr. King says, "really makes a difference with our completion rates." Applying the Lessons Elton E. Stuckly Jr., president of Texas State Technical College at Waco, says he was amazed when he first read about the Tennessee systems high graduation rates. "How could they brag about 70- percent completion rates? It was hard to believe," says Mr. Stuckly, who is also vice chancellor for instructional services at the Texas State Technical College system. The Texas systems graduation rate is only 24 percent. "We need to figure out a way to graduate more students," he says. So with his interest piqued, Mr. Stuckly organized a visit to Tennessee. His own states plan to introduce performance-based financing of all public colleges next year further spurred him. In June, Mr. Stuckly and the vice presidents of instruction at each of the Texas systems four colleges visited the Nashville center. He liked the small classes, he says, as well as the concepts of course hours, block scheduling, and embedded remediation. Mr. Stuckly is hopeful that he can incorporate some of those strategies on his campus. In fact, he was so impressed by how instructors in Nashville juggled students at different levels of progress that he will send several instructors from his system to visit. 8/6/2012
  6. 6. Less Choice, More Structure for Students: In a Tennessee System, It Works - Students - T... Page 6 of 10 Money is a constant concern in the Texas system, of course, just as at colleges everywhere, and any significant change in curriculum or instruction would certainly require more of it. Also, the colleges large enrollment would complicate the creation of smaller classes. Still, Mr. Stuckly says, theres "a lot we can learn from Tennessee." A movement toward a more structured curriculum is taking hold at community colleges elsewhere, too. Those in the City University of New York are already proving how well some of the strategies employed by the Tennessee Technology Centers can work in the two -year sector. In 2007, CUNY began the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs to increase the graduation rates of its community-college students. Now students in the programs attend classes full time, on a block schedule. The colleges also provide tutoring, career counseling, and, in some cases, tuition waivers. A study released in June by MDRC, a nonprofit research firm for education and social policy, found that students in those programs were likelier to persist, as well as to earn more credits from their first to second semesters, than other students were. In addition, the share of students who completed developmental coursework increased by 15 percentage points. Providing less choice and more structure may be counterintuitive to higher educations tradition of self-exploration. But the idea is gaining ground among community-college leaders yearning for a solution to poor retention and graduation rates. Too many students, studies show, meander through college without a plan, either dropping out or drawing out their time to degree. But here in Tennessee, theres no meandering. Community-college leaders see promise in a model that keeps students on track to that all-important goal: graduation. Comments Powered by DISQUS Add a comment Log in to post with your Chronicle account: Dont have an account? Create one now. Or log in using one of these alternatives: Showing 20 comments Sort by Oldest first Follow comments: by e-mail by RSS Real-time updating is paused. (Resume) michaelbitting 6 days ago Great for thought and discussion. Good processes may adapt to a wide variety of learning organizations. 8/6/2012
  7. 7. Less Choice, More Structure for Students: In a Tennessee System, It Works - Students - T... Page 7 of 10 However,raises many questions regarding life long learning, and a "solution" to poor retention and graduation rates. Like wilkenslibrary 6 days ago When I taught ESL at an intensive English program in CA, our students were in class 20+ hours/week, but my community college students all work and many have families, so a full-time commitment to their education is impossible. The Tennessee Technology Centers system is wonderful for those who can afford to be fully invested in their program, but for many students, thats just not an option. One sentence in this article caught my attention: "Nobody thinks community colleges should turn into technical colleges." I disagree. If you listen to the discussion, "workforce education" is not only at the top of many lists of what community colleges should do--its the only item on the list. As the article points out, we also prepare students to matriculate to four-year institutions; it doesnt mention that we also prepare them to think critically and become thoughtful and engaged citizens. Betsy Smith/Adjunct Professor of ESL/Cape Cod Community College 5 people liked this. Like Reythia 3 days ago in reply to wilkenslibrary Agreed. On the other hand, I think itd be reasonably easy to set it up so that classes were only offered the morning, afternoon, or evening, rather than all day long. Thatd be easier for many workers to get to, while not losing the "small, structured class" feel of it. Like 11274135 6 days ago Well, you can overdo the structure thing, but I think it is also true that too many college freshmen wander around in a forest of choices without any guidance, direction, or advice. Many students benefit, at least for a time, from having more guidance and fewer unfettered choices. That doesnt mean that they need to be shoved along an assembly line to become medical records technicians.It does means that they need some initial required work on the map of the territory and that their choices should become broader as they progress. There are many students who have extremely pragmatic goals driven by the realities of their lives, and they should be able to choose the most direct path. There are many other students who benefit from wandering around, and they should be able to do that as well. Why does every educational innovation have to be THE answer? 3 people liked this. Like fortysomethingprof 3 days ago in reply to 11274135 College freshman get plenty of guidance, direction, and advice. The problem is that they dont follow much of it. 8 people liked this. Like Reythia 3 days ago in reply to fortysomethingprof Except that a lot of that advice is, "Well, since you dont know what you want to do, why not take a couple of survey classes?" Which is fine for a semester, but doesnt exactly help advance a career. 1 person liked this. Like 8/6/2012
  8. 8. Less Choice, More Structure for Students: In a Tennessee System, It Works - Students - T... Page 8 of 10 chattahoochee 6 days ago I take issue with the last paragraph. The goal at Volunteer State CC is graduation. the goal is not graduation from TTC. The goal at TCC is to find a job. maybe as a barber. Like ychumanities 5 days ago Ill bet the completion rate would improve at my college as well if we eliminated all of our part-time students. 2 people liked this. Like Reythia 3 days ago in reply to ychumanities So you think we should just refuse to teach all people who need to work to support themselves or have a family to support or care for? Like gavin_moodie 5 days ago In Australian baccalaureate programs retention is generally higher and satisfaction lower with highly structured programs like engineering, and retention is generally lower and satisfaction higher with more flexible programs such as liberal arts and sciences. 2 people liked this. LikeType your comment here. leah_shopkow 3 days ago This program is clearly run like an apprenticeship program, and there would be some difficulties applying this approach unchanged to academic programs. But it is a demonstration of authentic peripheral participation within a community of practice and there are intellectual parallels. 3 people liked this. Like Reythia 3 days ago in reply to leah_shopkow "there would be some difficulties applying this approach unchanged to academic programs" Actually, this reminds me very much of my first three years of aerospace engineering classes. Since my major is small (~50 students per year), we only had one set of classes offered each year. Except for introductory calc/physics and liberal arts electives, we were basically one group from freshman to junior year. Even senior year, when we had more technical electives, we were all together for Senior Design class. It was a very successful technique. Since we all knew each other, we made friends and were comfortable working in casual study groups. Frankly, if this grouping technique can work in subjects as diverse as barber school and aerospace engineering, I think it can work most everywhere. 1 person liked this. Like sciencegrad 2 days ago in reply to Reythia This is pretty common, I think, for engineering disciplines. But for humanities fields, they are not rigid at all, and shouldnt be. A history major, for example, should be 8/6/2012
  9. 9. Less Choice, More Structure for Students: In a Tennessee System, It Works - Students - T... Page 9 of 10 allowed to chose the time period and geographical region that he or she would like to specialize in, rather than being forced to take the same exact history classes as the majority of their cohort. Like Reythia 2 days ago in reply to sciencegrad Yes and no. I agree that for, say, the last two years, being able to pick and choose your classes is helpful. But by that point, most of the students are pretty set on their degrees -- you wont lose a lot to attrition. But what about freshman who declare themselves history majors, as they enter college for the first time? For them, I think it makes a lot of sense to group them into one bunch (or several smaller bunches) and send them through the introductory classes together. I think youd be a lot less likely to lose folks along the way, that way. Then let them diverge once theyve gotten more settled, are more used to college life, and have made some friends. It wouldnt harm anyone to have to take a year or two of world history, before specializing in something particular -- most students probably effectively do this anyhow. 1 person liked this. Like langlitcul 3 days ago Kudos to TN for finding what seems to be an excellent way to educate and employ students who want tech training! For many years weve seen the loss of good technical training--vocational schools closed and there seems to have been a cultural stigma against technical colleges and technical jobs. Ive heard repeated laments that theres nobody teaching tech skills/offering this expertise to students in some communities so those interested dont know how to get ahead in, much less are encouraged in, an area they have a passion for. Partnering excellent tech teachers, meeting individual students job skills and any remedial needs, and supplying the workforce well- trained workers--great model to help the economy and the country! 2 people liked this. Like johnblee 3 days ago The cohort pathway can work, with modifications, in the general education transfer programs. Some community colleges start students in a highly structured first-year program with broader choices in the second year. Better advising linked with a more structured first year cohort allows students to develop confidence and build relationships with other students and staff that can sustain them in the second year. 4 people liked this. Like madamesmartypants 3 days ago Ive checked out their website, and I didnt see any liberal arts programs, only ones that were closely aligned with established careers (barbering, architecture, early childhood development). There was no online class schedule as is typical for colleges and universities, so my guess is that these colleges are not resources for people who want to, say, take a class in Italian in preparation for a trip to Rome, or for older adults who just want to take a class or two to stay active. All fine if your focus is on getting people into jobs right out of school, but even community colleges have a broader mission than just job placement. While certainly useful for some institutions and for some students, this cant really be a universal model for all ccs. Like fairday 2 days ago This is a great vocational school- something that is needed for those who need training in specific careers to help them get jobs upon completion of the program. The instructional mode seems to be 8/6/2012
  10. 10. Less Choice, More Structure for Students: In a Tennessee System, It Works - Students ... Page 10 of 10 heavily on apprenticeship style where the students learn by doing from people in the field. No doubt this also helps with job placement since the instructors are plugged into their fields and can help the students secure jobs after training. This is to be encouraged in todays environment of high unemployment, low retention and graduation rates for students many of whom have very high debt burdens. It isnt and shouldnt be the answer to all community colleges whose missions are much broader. 1 person liked this. Like seeingsystems10 1 day ago No one model fits the differing missions of institutions. However, there are some important characteristics in Tennessee that have been found to be helpful for most starting students: cohort programs, structure, integrated remediation, hands-on teaching and learning, early advising, and an emphasis on relevance. Yet it remains difficult at most institutions to find faculty who want to invest in the collaborative work these processes demand, or the administrative structures that reward faculty or staff for investing. Sometimes it feels as if we would rather divert the conversation into how unprepared freshmen are, and how we cant learn anything from another campus, or how their success is predicated upon their dealing with totally different students, goals, or environments than to explore how one success can teach us principles that make us better at what we do. Like mdhitchcock 21 hours ago I teach Geography at a community college and I think a full-day program like this would work great for my classes. When I give students a research assignment, they leave the classroom, go to another site and then look for the information, usually either on the internet, or out in the field. If they have trouble with the assignment and email me with questions, I may not see that email until after 9 pm, so by the time I respond they will not be able to complete the assignment by the next class period. If I was present in the room while they were doing their research, I could provide help much more quickly, as could the other students in the class. Of course the TTC system would require my college to hire me full time, which is not going to happen. One thing missing from the discussion here (and from most everything I read about education) is any idea that what we are teaching may be a big part of the problem. The level of commitment required by the TCC program screens out people who are not really interested in the subject being taught--a large majority of the auto body repair students are interested in repairing cars; while relatively few of my students are interested in doing "Geography," nor are they much interested in reading books, studying maps, and looking through tables of statistics. Put me in an auto body class and I would probably end up dropping out, even if they had the best teachers, the best facilities, and the best pedagogy. The biggest thing we can do to improve completion rates, is reduce the number of "liberal arts course that students are required to take. 1 person liked this. Like Copyright 2012. All rights reserved. The Chronicle of Higher Education 1255 Twenty-Third St, N.W. Washington, D.C. 20037 8/6/2012