Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Community Colleges Can Break the Cycle of Failure in Education

If I asked you to describe the two most common attributes of the 20-year Internet, technology and communications revolution we’re seeing playing out around us, you’d probably say it’s the ability of really large organizations to market products in very personal ways, and the power of individuals—acting together as never before—to get what they want without having to wait for the mass market.

From the Apple iPod, which replaced the more limited SONY Walkman as the digitized personal stereo of choice; to the Google Alert, which pushes even the most parsed and refined news reported anywhere in the world (by anyone) to the person specifically requesting it, the purveyors of 21st century products and services need to connect with the preferences of their most likely customers. It’s no longer enough simply to try to anticipate them.

I realize my observation is far from profound. But this new, more interconnected and challenging world in which we find ourselves is here to stay. And I don't have to tell you: It’s growing even more personal and particular.

In the world of education, things are no different. As winds of change buffet people and societies in the macro, it’s time to pay more attention to what’s happening inside the micro-in the classrooms of cities across this nation particularly, but also throughout the world. It’s time to challenge traditional notions of what it means to educate people, and whether they emerge, positioned to learn. Will community colleges’ historic role as open access institutions—places which equip people for changing times and provide voice to the ill-equipped—cause them to become new centers of innovation and energized learning opportunity? Or, will traditional focus on funding formulas and unimaginative developmental education policies—the "one size fits all" mentality—transfix educators on enrollment and retention while student success remains negligible?

Such questions strike at the heart of what we might do as professionals in higher education, and what community colleges might do situated right in the middle of an educational continuum burdened by failures in public education at one end, but also great promise in American colleges and universities at the other. Will our unique constituents, community college-by-community college, be able to rely on what we say about the transformative benefits we seek to bring them, or is our true attention directed elsewhere?

It is in this spirit I want to repurpose this space after a brief hiatus, to gather your comments and observations. I'd like to start new conversations—with all of you "in the know"—so we can begin to embrace more innovative, perhaps community and regional approaches to the success of those we serve–both in education and workforce development. We've heard it said that "it takes a village." "The Know" is your place to share wisdom and passion on how we might spark a new revolution of learning in America.

In the coming days I expect to cover some of the things we're trying to innovate at Baltimore City Community College and in Baltimore, but this is not about one institution or city. More importantly, it's an analysis of how all of us in the community college movement might work to make sure we capture the highest aspirations and participation of talented members of society who have been failed–sometimes by themselves, often by the system, but hopefully never through our collective oversight as educators.

The road ahead will be challenging. Those we serve are busy. But their needs are personal and pressing. Are we to devise innovative community approaches to developmental education and literacy? Or do we put this aside in favor of the usual efforts to enroll students deemed more likely to succeed? What are community colleges doing in the area of early childhood education? Academic advisement? Helping dropped-out high school students break through barriers? What's it like to be a student in developmental education? How can mentoring and team-cohort learning help urban African American males who have experienced difficulty with their studies? Does it seem like anyone out there is listening?

I eagerly anticipate your interest, comments and contributions!