Tuesday, February 12, 2013

We're adding a new approach to the blog starting this month; in addition to the periodic news and links to resources and events of interest that I hope will continue, we plan to have a small group of occasional guest bloggers share their personal perspectives--speaking for and representing themselves, not their institutions--on various topics of interest related to assessment, teaching and learning issues in higher education. I hope these postings will become opportunities for our ATL community to engage in collegial discourse and debate about the issues and questions raised, rather than random and unsupported rants (as is too often the case in web comments, unfortunately). Anyway, let's try it and see how it goes!


Whose Agenda Is This Anyway?
Kennie Lawson

I just returned from the annual Achieving the Dream conference that was held this past week in Anaheim. There were roughly 1600 registered participants. That's pretty impressive and, in general, the purpose of the conference is laudable. After all, AtD seeks to assist institutions deliver on the promise of a higher education, particularly for low-income students and students of color. In spite of the good intention, however, there's always something that has left me a little uneasy about Achieving the Dream, particularly to the extent that it is allied with and become a focal point for the “completion agenda.” (For a more careful critique of the completion agenda, this volume of the AACU's Liberal Education is a good start.) It's true that completion of degrees and certificates can lead to higher earnings. No serious person is against that. Yet there are several things that tend to give me pause. First, there is something underlying those degrees and certificates that seems lost in the vocabulary and focus of the proponents of the completion agenda. That something is the student learning that is antecedent to the awarding of those degrees or certificates and really, at heart, has to be the true purpose of higher education. If the goal is simply a degree, that can be achieved easily enough by just printing the things and handing them out to whomever wants one. Of course, advocates of increasing completion rates tend readily to agree that quality of learning should neither be diminished nor sacrificed in the effort to get more students to complete. Yet saying it and actually paying attention to it in a serious, purposeful way are different things. If the focus was the "learning agenda" and ensuring that students were supported and successful in that endeavor, I think the focus would be on the proper object. I'll leave it at that for now, but it's a theme I tend to want to come back to and no doubt will in the future.  Second, the value of learning (and a degree or certificate) isn't just in the increased earnings, or so my intuition--and my own experience--tells me. Part of the value of higher education is in the confidence and skills it provides to recipients to enjoy life and to participate in it in a meaningful way. Not to be too clich√©, but education is empowerment, and not just related to the empowerment that comes along with higher earning power. In my opinion, Achieving the Dream and other organizations that seek to increase completion rates could benefit from adopting this latter frame a little more frequently and intentionally because, ultimately, that leads us back to this fundamental, underlying promise of obtaining a higher education in the first place.

Kenneth Lawson serves as the Vice President for Instruction at Skagit Valley College. Prior to that he was Dean for Humanities and Social Sciences at Seattle Central Community College. Earlier in his career, Dr.  Lawson (or “Kenny” as his friends call him) was a faculty member at Shoreline Community College, where he taught political science and international studies. He is interested in educational policy and innovative approaches to teaching and learning, particularly learning communities and service-learning. Word on the street is that he enjoys listening to loud, classic country twang and playing “age-appropriate” basketball.


Anonymous said...

I love this new approach to sharing ideas through the On Teaching and Learning blog. Looking forward to hearing from others in the higher ed community.

Thanks, Bill and Ken for kicking this off!

robinjeffers said...

Ken, I agree with you . . . and yet, and yet . . . . Buried in all the talk about completions and empowerment through education is our assumption that we know what the students ultimately want, even if they don't know themselves. And I'm not convinced anymore that we do.

One example (both you and I could provide tons more): Todd Lundberg, formerly of Cascadia, now studying at U Wisc, Madison, has been listening to a prof-tech program chair talk about the "jobbing out" phenomenon: adults come for a bit of training that allows them to get the job they want, then go away, maybe to return later for a bit more training to improve their skills and get a raise. What these folks want/need doesn't fit the AtD or any other current/popular definition of a "complete" education.