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Doing What Works

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In a recent New York Times column (October 23, 2013), Thomas L. Friedman describes the remarkable surge in performance of schools in Shanghai, where the public secondary schools outperformed the rest of the world on the 2009 PISA (Programs for International Student Assessment) exams. Visiting schools in Shanghai, Friedman's question was: What is "The Secret?" And what he found is, "There is no secret."

That conclusion is strikingly similar to findings in a new report from the Center for Community College Student Engagement at The University of Texas at Austin. The report, A Matter of Degrees: Engaging Practices, Engaging Students, highlights new evidence on high-impact educational practices in community colleges. It also describes both the extent to which the practices are being implemented in colleges -- and the extent to which students are actually experiencing them.

A straightforward summary of key findings from the report goes like this: A dozen key educational policies and practices are identified as having high impact on student engagement in community colleges. Students' participation in multiple structured high-impact experiences leads to increasingly higher levels of engagement. While growing numbers of institutions are offering such experiences, only small numbers of colleges require them. And the consequence is that far too students are participating in them.

In the current phase of a 3-year study, "high-impact" is defined through the increment in overall student engagement in college that is associated with a student's participation in one of the identifed practices: academic goal setting and planning; college orientation; accelerated developmental education; first-year experience; student success course; learning community; experiential learning beyond the classroom; tutoring; supplemental instruction; assessment and placement; class attendance policy; and academic alert and intervention. This is a familiar list, given the work of the past decade to improve student success and equity in the nation's "opportunity colleges."

Responding to calls for higher college completion rates in the U.S.-- a significant factor in maintaining both economic and societal health -- community colleges are seeking ways to serve increasingly diverse students, with dramatically better results, at lower cost per student. Providing information in support of that effort, the Center has urged colleges to bring relentless focus to their work, concentrating on quality in both design and implementation of students' educational experiences and then on bringing high-impact practices to scale. Design principles advocated in the report include high expectations, academic support integrated with coursework, intensive engagement, and professional development for faculty and staff.

Unsurprisingly (because it's no secret), Tom Friedman named key ingredients of Shanghai's success to include relentless focus, high standards, peer-to-peer learning and deep commitment to teacher training.

A primary purpose of the high-impact practices report is to prompt campus discussions, particularly about data that illuminate possible gaps between what students need and what colleges provide--and the further gaps between what colleges provide and what students actually experience. Here's an example of a common pattern:

Typically, a large majority of entering students arrive at the community colleges needing support in learning strategies and skills for college success. As many as 84% of colleges (among 400+ surveyed) now offer a student success course. But only two in ten respondents to the Community College Survey of Student Engagement took a student success course during their first term. For the few who do participate in such an experience, there is a notably positive relationship with several of the Center's benchmarks of effective educational practice. In turn, higher engagement is associated with better outcomes.

The message? There is no secret. To achieve the dramatic increases in student success and equity that they seek, community colleges must focus relentlessly on doing more of what works. For every student. All the time.