Getting Better at Getting Better

Responding to President Obama’s State of the Union proposal for tuition-free community college – Lisbeth B. Schorr, senior fellow, and Frank Farrow, Director,Center for the Study of Social Policy

Education leaders are calling President Obama’s State of the Union proposal for tuition-free community college a game changer. It has the potential of making college a reality for many for whom it had never even been a dream.

The President’s proposal also calls for coupling financial aid with key reforms to help more students complete at least two years of college. We anticipate that these reforms would address the extraordinarily high failure rates among the 60 percent of all students entering community colleges who are required to complete remedial/developmental courses as a precondition for a degree. Because only about 20 percent of those enrolled ever make it through this critical gatekeeper to opportunity, Anthony Bryk, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, has pointed to these courses as the place “where aspirations go to die.”

It need not be so, if we are willing to innovate and use the best available practitioner wisdom and evidence about how to help students succeed.

When the Carnegie Foundation decided to address this problem in 2010, there were no proven programs it could take off the shelf. So it established a new network of faculty members, researchers, designers, students and content experts, charged with developing interventions that would change the abysmal outcomes, continue to improve over time and accommodate to diverse circumstances.

Participants came to see that the process of testing innovations together, learning which were effective and building on those successes throughout the network was a powerful way to achieve better outcomes. The network provided a safe environment for participants to analyze and compare data, discovering patterns they may not have otherwise seen; involve faculty members and other practitioners in analyzing and using the evidence that comes out of their daily work; and welcome and test adaptations that are part of the improvement process.

Best of all, this approach got big results. The community colleges in the network used the evidence generated through the network to “get better at getting better,” to use Bryk’s phrase. They tripled the student success rate for every racial/ethnic and gender subgroup and at virtually every college where the innovation took hold. Whereas on the traditional community college path, which some half-million students follow every year, only about six percent of students get college math credit within a year and 15 percent get it in two years, with the Community College Pathways approach, 51 percent of students got this credit in one year.

This experience is important for two reasons. It demonstrates that community college success rates can improve and improve rapidly. The Carnegie Foundation’s success makes an even larger point, however. It suggests what we need to do to attack and resolve some of our toughest social problems. We must encourage the spread of learning networks and other new ways of generating and applying evidence to improve results in education, health, child well-being and community development. The current methods for determining whether social programs work— often after-the-fact evaluations, with randomized experiments seen as the gold standard—are useful in cases where the interventions are relatively straightforward and programmatic, but not when more complex change is involved. If we’re to succeed with the challenges that the President and hopefully the new Congress seek to address, we need more creative ways to learn about solutions, translate them into evidence and apply them at scale. Like the Carnegie Community College Pathways, we must draw on a half-century of work on quality improvement and continuous learning to complement the findings from experimental evaluations.

Mainstream thinking is moving rapidly toward a consensus calling for evidence and the use of a wider range of rigorous methods to generate it and inform public policy-making. Just this week, Peter Orszag, former director of the Office of Management and Budget, told an Aspen Institute gathering that we must embrace the fact that we need a full spectrum of high-quality evidence, not just randomized trials, to identify what is worth investing in.

To achieve big goals, like post-secondary education for all—along with universal school readiness, healthy child and youth development, and supportive neighborhoods—we must draw on what researchers have learned about the programs that have worked in the past. But beyond that, we must legitimate the evidence generated by the people actually doing the work as they learn—in real-time and in partnership with outside experts— how to get bigger and better results from both public and philanthropic investments.


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