Looking Back to Move Forward

Opening Plenary at DREAM:  Achieving the Dream's Annual Institute for Student Success
February 23, 2016
Karen A. Stout, President and CEO, Achieving the Dream

As I stand here this afternoon, I’m remembering my first DREAM conference. It was 2007, just three years after Achieving the Dream was conceived as a national initiative. Today, of course, I am experiencing the conference, and the organization, from a very different perspective.  Joining ATD was a defining moment for me.  I wrote this in my journal after my college’s kick-off experience in 2006 in Denver:

“Joining Achieving the Dream is renewing my spirit, my energy. Success will require a sustained focus. This opportunity comes at a perfect time as this effort can bring focus and cohesion to the student success work we already have in progress. I can look at this as an intrusion—another project—or as a god send, an opportunity to focus and build the leadership capacity of the team and our faculty around the tenants of the five principles of ATD—principles that build on the work we have already started in our strategic plan—and really make a difference for our students.”

I was honored, then, to be part of Achieving the Dream as the president of an ATD college, and I am equally honored, now, to be leading an organization and a national movement focused on such a compelling cause that, if we are collectively successful, will have an almost unimaginable influence on our society.

I have witnessed the influence of ATD on the ground, and stand here with great enthusiasm and energy to build on that influence, and to position ATD to continue this essential student success journey: influencing one student, one faculty member, one department, one college, one community, one region, and one state at a time, giving practitioners a strong and necessary and strong voice in this reform movement. 


As a college president, I often turned to students for motivation and renewal.  Mariam’s story helps us see that we are making a difference for students. Borrowing a passage from Parker Palmer’s book, Let Your Life Speak, student stories help us see this work—this vocation—“not as a goal to be achieved, but as a gift to be received.”

So, we—I– stand here for our students, our DREAM Scholars and a few others.

I—we—stand here for:

  • Tyrone Anthony Foster, from College of Southern Nevada
  • Tamika Narvaez-Payne, from Bakersfield College, California
  • Nicole Christine Barth, from St. Clair County Community College, Michigan
  • Charles Robert Kivlehen, from Lone Star College, Texas
  • Craig William Smith, from Central Georgia Technical College
  • Desiree K. Robinson, from Kingsborough Community College, NY

You will meet these DREAM Scholars and experience their stories throughout the week from their “I Am From Projects,” on display all over the conference—and on Friday’s closing panel.  Please stand so we can recognize you!

I also stand here for the students I met as a college president a number of years ago. Those students continue to inspire my work today.

I stand here for Abu, who sent the book The Prophet to me at ATD a few weeks ago with a message inside that said, this is “one of my favorite books.” Abu always asked me what I was reading and for a list of my top ten reads.  It was meaningful for me that he returned the favor. Abu was born in Pakistan, transferred to Bucknell University, and is now working on an advanced degree. I stand here today for him.

I stand here for Jerimiah, who recently chimed in on one of my LinkedIn posts about the potential of America’s College Promise. He said: “I hope to join you in helping community college students, one day, at the same level as you. I love you and thank you for everything you have done for me and I will be repaying you (I think he means Montgomery), soon.” Jeremiah was a foster child who moved from family to family and school to school until he found his home at Montgomery. He is now at Drexel University and has started his own small business. I stand here today for him.

And I stand here for Serena, who just last week, invited me to her May graduation ceremony from Bryn Mawr College, one of the highly selective seven sisters’ colleges. Serena found her place at Montgomery, benefited from a well-designed transfer agreement that tied with it financial support and mentoring, and quickly rose as a student leader at Bryn Mawr. She is applying to graduate school. I stand here today for her.

Each of you has your own Abu, Jeremiah, Serena, Tyrone, Tamika, Nicole, Charles, Craig, and Desiree! I stand here today for all of our students. 

This is fundamentally what sets ATD apart from others in this reform movement. We are in the field, with our students, standing for our students. 


There are lots of calls for the redesign of our work—is there anyone out there who has not read the Bailey, Jenkins, Jaggars book Redesigning America’s Community Colleges?—in many ways because of the trial and error of ATD colleges.  We are the practice. We are the action. We have helped to discover the WHAT and we are now immersed in the HOW. We are the WHO.

This quote from David Price, in his book Open, resonates with me. Perhaps we really do know more about the WHAT—because of successes and failures of ATD colleges—than we are ready to admit, and now we need help with the HOW and the WHO. It is my belief that an urgent focus on the HOW and the WHO is required in our next generation of reform work if we are going to accelerate progress and achieve the ambitious goals we have set for ourselves.

Achieving the Dream has always put the HOW and the WHO at the center of our mission. The design of DREAM puts the “how” and the “who”—you—front and center. That’s what makes this convening so unique, and so important at this time. Over the next few days, nearly 2,000 of us will learn together. You come from 42 states, South Africa, and 222 colleges, four tribal and native student-serving institutions, and ten state systems or state associations, and have varying roles on your campuses. One of the colleges here today brought 50 attendees (Calhoun Community Colleges). We are also joined by funders interested in helping us to advance our work, educational technology partners, and other for-profit partners also invested in our success, as well as leaders from partner reform-minded organizations.

My remarks today are crafted to make a case for why, ten plus years into this work, Achieving the Dream is more relevant than ever and to speak to how we are looking back to move forward into our next decade of work.


We are standing here together, as community college leaders, at a moment we never could have imagined. The success of the American Dream, in many ways, relies on the success of our colleges. Legislators, policy makers, philanthropists, business leaders, economists, non-profit leaders, and even presidential candidates are all looking to us to lead the way in addressing the growing educational attainment, income and even longevity gaps in our country. 

It’s fitting that we are here in Atlanta, an anchor city for the civil rights movement, the birthplace of Martin Luther King, Jr., Achieving the Dream’s name, and the name of this conference are not coincidences. We are joined, in many ways, with fulfilling the vision in Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Achieving the Dream’s firm commitment, the heart of our mission, focuses our work on student success especially for students of color and from low-income backgrounds.

Take a look at the DREAM logo. What do you see? At first, I saw wings. Then I learned that it is a stairway. These stairs call to mind a quote from MLK: “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

So many of you in this room took that first step with Achieving the Dream without seeing the whole staircase. That was brave, and I commend you for taking that first step. We’ve enjoyed successes and failures in climbing the stairs together, step by step. But think about it for a moment. We now know a lot more about this student success work because of ATD.

Achieving the Dream has catalyzed a conversation around the importance of building and living a culture of evidence, the importance of equity in the pursuit of these outcomes, and the importance of courageous leadership within all levels of our colleges. Together, we have changed the conversation on community college campuses from valuing only access to our colleges to valuing access to and success through our colleges for all students.  

Achieving the Dream has come a long way since its founding in 2004. For the first six years of ATD’s life, we were an initiative conceived by a group of visionary, forward-thinking partners and investors who saw the early potential of community colleges to—as the American Association of Community College aptly calls it—“Reclaim the American Dream.”

We stand here on the shoulders of these visionary founders and their leaders—many whom you will meet this week—Lumina Foundation’s Jamie Merisotos; American Association of Community Colleges’ Walter Bumphus; Community College Research Center’s Tom Bailey; Jobs for the Future’s Michael Collins; MDC’s David Dodson; MDRC, Public Agenda, and University of Texas-Austin. These partners and investors boldly stepped out and created ATD as a vessel for this movement. Today, Achieving the Dream is an independent, non-profit, the only and first reform network of this size and significance for any sector of higher education.


Indeed, Achieving the Dream has made a significant difference. 

Colleges consistently applaud their involvement in Achieving the Dream, including the transformative nature of our work:

  • Our college has been forever transformed by our association with ATD. 
  • More importantly, our students have been bettered because of our institution's affiliation with this tremendous work. —a Virginia college in the ATD Network since 2004

The data-driven and assessment culture that anchors our approach:

  • ATD has been a big plus in reinforcing our effort to develop a data-driven and assessment culture. It has helped us to take pride and ownership in our student success efforts. —a New Jersey college in the Network since 2011

ATD colleges see movement on their campuses in their behaviors.

  • #1 change observed on campus: 97 percent intensified focus on student success
  • #2 change observed on campus: 94 percent increased use of data
  • #3 change observed on campus: 79 percent revised and/or created new policies and procedures to support student success

You can tell an ATD school, in many ways, by the way it behaves.

Here are some specific signs that the ATD Way, much like the “Orioles Way” of the fundamentals of pitching, catching, defense, and the three-run home run is emerging on our campuses:

  • Colleges have stopped fighting with their data. More colleges are owning their stories and putting collective energy into improvement rather than arguing about the quality of the data or the relevancy of a specific metric of success. I love this quote by Jim Collins in the book Good to Great and the Social Sectors: “What matters is not finding the perfect indicator, but settling upon a consistent and intelligent method of assessing your output results, and then tracking your trajectory with rigor.” ATD colleges are using consistent and intelligent methodologies to track their improvements.
  • There are stronger levels of engagement with data by the Board, senior leadership, and faculty with an emerging sense of curiosity about the work on our campuses and the asking of “cause to wonder” questions that are necessary to spur redesign. All one needs to do is listen to faculty in our DREAM sessions and in between our DREAM sessions to “hear” this “cause to wonder” mindset in action. Listen for it.
  • There is evidence that the flywheel is turning. Also from Jim Collins’ book Good to Great and the Social Sectors: “In building a great institution there is no single defining action, no grand program, no one killer innovation, no solitary luck break, no miracle moment. Pushing with great effort—days, weeks and months of work, with almost imperceptible progress—you finally get the flywheel to inch forward.  But you don’t stop.  You keep pushing…”.  We see the flywheel in motion with progress in the reduction of entering students moving into developmental courses, developmental course success rates, gateway course completion rates, fall to fall persistence rates, and the numbers of degrees, certificates and credential conferred. 
  • And, from my own review of Achieving the Dream reflection reports and coaching reports, I see that successful colleges have used ATD as an aggregator, integrating and aligning their ATD work with strategic planning, accreditation, grants and development, and governance. They are focusing, engaged in fewer interventions, saying no to boutique projects that can’t be scaled, and advancing only work that has potential to scale. They are developing organizational structures that combine information technology, institutional research and institutional effectiveness and they have placed this work close to the President. They are expanding engagement efforts, working to connect more part-time faculty and community members to the student success agenda. 

Achieving the Dream has helped us to discover what we know and what we don’t know about this student success journey. 


Here’s what we know from your successes and failures in this work. I will share the top five lessons (there are many more than five):

  1. Interventions, such as boutique pilot programs, that are not connected to one another and that are not scaled are not yielding strong returns. In many ways, we’ve been innovating on the margins.                                                              
  2. Student entry to transition systems must be connected and redesigned.
  3. Developmental education must be connected to programs, customized to program and learner needs, and accelerated. We must move beyond stand-alone sequences of developmental education courses.
  4. Equity-minded design of interventions must be intentional and comprehensive. The disaggregation of data is not enough without systemic action.
  5. The work cannot be done in isolation. It must be connected more deeply and dynamically within the broader systems of our communities (K-12, universities, employers, community-based organizations).

You can see these lessons in action as they inform the new Pathways work. High-performing Achieving the Dream colleges are connecting and aligning their interventions, bringing coherence to their student success efforts. They have re-discovered the vital role of advising and the need to fully connect student entry to advising and advising to program entry and completion. As a result, Integrated Planning and Advising efforts that merge educational planning and advising systems that follow a student’s journey into and through our colleges, have emerged. Experiments in developmental education delivery and strong research around the results have led to the recent release of an important document, The Core Principles for Transforming Remedial Education, articulating six principles to ensure that every student can have a real opportunity to earn a college credential and clearly connecting developmental education reform to the full work of our colleges.                    

Achieving the Dream college partnerships with their K-12 systems and university feeders and employers, much like described in Harper’s award-winning work, are moving us toward “collective impact” work, essential for success in Pathways.


There are still many things we don’t know about this work.  The top six “what we don’t know” questions, in my mind, are:

  1. What blend of academic and non-academic supports make a difference for which students and why?
  2. How do we secure larger learning and completion gains for our most underprepared students, especially as we move to default college placement, as suggested in the recently released and ATD-endorse “Core Principles for Transforming Remediation” document, for many more of our students?
  3. What does effective equity minded design look like in action?
  4. How can we better support faculty and build the deep level of faculty engagement that is so necessary to fuel this work?
  5. How do we organize, incentivize, and adequately fund our colleges to sustain this student success focus?
  6. How do we effectively knit together the academic and workforce areas within institutions so that there are stackable credentials, and so that students can easily access on and off ramps?


The New ATD Capacity Model

Now, in 2016, all of this investment and learning leads us to the next stage in the reform movement. Together, we have made great progress. However, our work is not finished.  

Models, like the founding ATD model with its five principles, are important because they generate a sense of coherence, of groundedness. If used without continuous testing, they can also isolate us from reality, criticism, and the realm of possibility. At times, leaders must stop to notice when they are stuck in a model so they can choose to challenge it.

ATD is in the midst of that stopping and challenging now. We know, because of your feedback, that the model that worked in the first generation of ATD-led reform may not be working for all of our colleges today. 

So, in this stopping and challenging, we are asking ourselves: What IF? 


What is most exciting about this model is that it emerges from the field, from your work, based on our lessons learned. 

About 18 months ago, Achieving the Dream staff and leadership and data coaches worked in teams and started to build out the draft model. I beta tested pieces of the model with a few colleges I visited last fall. 

Then this December and January, ten colleges beta tested the full model and the assessment tools, with their coaches, using world café formats to gain input from multiple stakeholders on their campuses. I want to personally thank those ten colleges:

  • Bunker Hill Community College (MA)
  • Capital Community College (CT)
  • Davidson County Community College (NC)         
  • El Paso Community College (TX)
  • Indian River State College (FL)
  • Jackson College (MI)                                             
  • Northern Essex Community College (MA)
  • Passaic County Community College (NJ)
  • Pierce College (WA)                                
  • West Georgia Technical College (GA)     

We took your comments seriously. Your feedback helped us make some changes in the model which are reflected in the video. For example, instead of a pyramid, you see a wheel. You told us you wanted students at the center of the work, not on the edges. Instead of a three-point assessment scale, we now have a four-point scale. You told us it was too tempting to evaluate your capacity as a “two” on the three-point scale making the assessment less meaningful and harder to action plan against it. We will continue to seek your feedback as we build out the details of the model between now and its full launch for our new cohort of 2016 colleges.

The model is purposefully different, updating the ATD Way, based on what we have learned.

First, full scale can’t happen without intentional attention to teaching and learning, our core work. It’s time to harness the power of great teaching as a significant lever and to structure our classrooms to counter the inherent structural inequity within them.

If the streets shackled my right leg, the schools shackled my left. I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free. —from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me

Cindy Davidson, in a keynote at a recent American Association of Colleges and Universities spoke to the power of the index card in breaking down barriers in the classroom and in giving every student a voice.  She spoke to an exercise that “turns endings into beginnings.” You have index cards on your tables for a reason. I want to give all of you a voice in this “learning laboratory” of DREAM to keep our conversation going. Use them to share with me three questions or ideas you have after today's talk.

The inclusion of teaching and learning into the theory of change is long overdue. This capacity is most about empowering faculty to advance student success work on their campuses around changes in pedagogy, rethinking and aligning course and program student learning outcomes, building coherent and clear course and program sequences, and engaging in advising in new ways.

Let’s think for a moment: what if faculty, full and part-time were fully engaged in this movement? What if we intentionally structured our teaching and learning environment to address structural inequity? What if we harness the power of open education resources to support deep course redesign and to improve affordability for students?

Second, you do not see culture of evidence in these capacities. That’s intentional. High performance in each capacity area requires use of evidence, so the culture of evidence principle is embedded into all seven capacities. The new focus on data and technology, independent of culture of evidence, is intentional and reflects the need for us to go to the next level in our thinking about data and technology as levers for campus transformation. What if we begin to scale what we are learning from iPASS to more colleges? What if we move beyond disaggregation of data of lagging data to gaining new insights about our students using real-time and predictive analytics tools? 

Third, the principle of “systemic improvement” is now pulled apart into two capacities to give deeper attention to strategy and planning (including strategic financing and organizational structure) and policy and practice. What if we could take what we are learning from the classroom and translate it into effective policy and practice at the institutional level and the state level? What would an organizational design look like that really knits together credit and non-credit offerings?

Fourth, the equity principle remains a fundamental capacity. It must! We must recommit to this core piece of the student success work, a piece that brought most of our colleges into the network. While we had hoped that equity, like culture of evidence, could be woven into each capacity, our gains over the last ten years have not been significant in cutting the educational attainment gap for all students. What if our sector could lead the way in reducing the attainment gap? 

And fifth, the concept of Engagement is broadened beyond the internal stakeholders that were part of ATD 1.0, to include the formation of strategic partnerships with K-12, employers, universities, CBO, and others with the community college positioned to step up and be the community catalyst and leader of community designed plans for addressing educational attainment gaps.  And, for our internal stakeholders, we can no longer afford to leave anyone on our campuses behind.  What if, we move to an approach that Montgomery College President Pollard calls, radical inclusivity, to really succeed?

Most importantly, strength in the capacity areas allows us to plan for scale on the front end of design rather than on the back end. 

CCRC’s Davis Jenkins has coined this approach “design with the end in mind.” I am a golfer, and this approach reminds me of something that Tiger Woods’ father told him about playing a hole in golf. He said, play the hole from flag to tee box rather than from tee box to the flag. That slight change in thinking changes one’s entire approach. Think about it. We are also learning that scale can be universal (meaning an intervention touches all students) or scale can be targeted (meaning the intervention touches all students targeted for it). But our fundamentals as organizations must be in place to adopt this new approach to organizational design.

Achieving the Dream’s big hypothesis for the future of our work with you is that it is not the adoption of one intervention that will propel your advancement. Rather, it is the adoption of a change management strategy that blends structural, process and attitudinal changes built around the seven capacities of ICAT that will anchor your ability to advance big interventions like Pathways and iPass, at scale. To sustain change, colleges must first attend to their fundamentals before they can hit the three-run home run.


With ICAT driving out the heart of our support for our colleges, you will begin to see some changes over the next few months. We know that some colleges are further along in this journey than others. Early phase colleges will need a full ATD experience. Longer-term members of the network may need tuning opportunities and may need deeper customized technical assistance in one, two or three of the capacity areas.   The capacity assessment tool that goes with ICAT allows colleges to assess their strengths in each capacity area, to track them over time, by consulting groups, by campus, etc. 

To move to this customized approach, we will be modifying our coaching model, deepening technical assistance capacity, and aligning all of our college services, learning events, and grant initiatives to feed the seven capacity areas.

Leadership coaching will move in-house, to join our data coaching work. Since our founding, we have worked tightly with UT-Austin and founding National Coaching Director Byron McClenney, and now Cynthia Ferrell, to deploy our leadership coaches. Thank you for your years of leadership and for continuing with us, now, as coaches. We aspire to build on our core competency of embedded coaching and become the resource hub for you and the field for coaching and technical assistance support. We are building a coaching curriculum tied to the capacities and we are strengthening feedback systems between the connecting this work with the Pathways work now led by AACC.

We will strengthen partnerships with other reform organizations that work within the seven capacities (e.g. JFF and policy as well as their work with the Student Success Centers who also support the work of network ATD colleges; Public Agenda around engagement; Aspen around leadership; AACU and MDC around equity; AACC around Pathways, and the data (VFNA); CCRC around research and knowledge development).

We will build our ability to serve as an intermediary for innovation to test new solutions like iPASS, WSSN, and two new efforts we will announce tomorrow, that feed the field as well as our understanding of the capacities.

We will be reaching out, more to you, for feedback.  Thanks to the Network Advisory Committee. Your ideas are in action here.

We will help the ed tech community to test and develop new solutions in partnership with our most reform minded colleges and help our colleges understand which technologies are best matched to your specific challenges. 

We will be a thought leader in bringing a voice from the field and alignment to our work hoping to inform future philanthropic investments that will accelerate our efforts and help with scale, sooner.  

We will begin to spread our learning and our way to other post-secondary institutions struggling with similar student success issues.  We are doing this now with our iPASS work.

Most importantly, achieving impact hinges on implementation. ATD’s future work must not veer away from hands-on, direct work with colleges. Work with you, on the ground, will remain at the heart of our mission.


As I look around our network and our nation, I see that our challenges may be greater than they’ve ever been. In the current higher educational landscape, community colleges are being asked to:

  • help the nation develop a critically engaged and more versatile technical and scientific workforce.
  • address the country’s significant equity gaps by spearheading the transformation of developmental education to connect it in meaningful ways to pathways that lead to credentials and degrees.
  • enable the nation to regain the lead in education.
  • keep higher education affordable and serve more middle-class students.
  • strengthen local communities.

Yet as noted in the 2013 Century Foundation Report, in the last decade, per-pupil total operating expenditures increased $14,000 for public research universities, while community colleges saw just one $1 per pupil increase.

The resulting paradox is that we are being asked to redouble our efforts with fewer resources.

My response to that? We need to continue building our capacity while adopting scaled innovations that redesign our institutions, while pushing for the state and federal policies and funding structures and incentives to support that redesign.

The next decade, I predict, will be more uncomfortable than the last. This work will get harder.

And, we don’t like being uncomfortable. We much prefer comfort. 

Twyla Tharp, dancer, choreographer and author of The Creative Habit makes a point that you can’t allow yourself to be comfortable with what you are comfortable with because then that’s all you want to do. 

Today’s Achieving the Dream is pushing the collective comfort level of comprehensive community colleges to help you evolve into the organizations that our society desperately needs.

I suggest that uncomfortable is where we need to be to become the community colleges that our nation needs us to be.  We are still climbing the stairs without seeing the staircase.

Here are a few examples where we are likely to experience increasing discomfort, where we will need to “learn to embrace the opposite, to live in a creative tension, between our limits and our potentials” as described by Parker Palmer.

We need to give access a new emphasis and meaning. Achieving the Dream helped us to say access and success, with confidence, in one sentence. But in the years since 2008, the proportion of low-income recent high school graduates who enroll in college has seen a significant drop, according to a new analysis from the American Council on Education. In 2008, only 55.9 percent of those high school graduates enrolled in college. By 2013, that figure dropped to 45.5 percent. Specifically, we must ask ourselves how will we intentionally design intake and outreach strategies to reach the students we have traditionally left behind (opportunity youth, working adults) or are increasingly leaving behind (low income high school graduates)?

We must be bolder in advancing the equity conversations on our campuses. Our students do not see themselves on our campuses. What can we do to influence the diversity of the next generation of faculty? How can we, as a sector, be more effective in solving the menacing challenge of increasing income inequality?

Pathways is an emerging intervention. We must work hard to ensure that we don’t cement already firm structural inequities within the design of our colleges into the design of our pathways approaches.  A pathway design that is too rigid—yes, we need to narrow choices—but a pathway that is too rigid will not allow students to discover new possibilities for themselves. Co-joined with this concern is the potential dark side of the predictive analytics movement, brought to us recently in the national press. In the use of data and in the design of guided pathways, we must not allow the demographics of our students to determine their destiny.

We must be strong at leading through the paradox of the AND. For example, how can we balance…

  • Liberal education and technical education?
  • A credential with LMV and personal fulfillment?
  • Completion and learning?

And, we must think about ways to address the divide that is emerging in our own work between the well-resourced community colleges and the less-resourced community colleges. I worry that ATD, for example, is not reaching the most under-resourced colleges in our country who are serving our most under-resourced students and under-resourced communities. 

We aren’t reaching deep enough in bringing colleges from the more than 500 persistent poverty counties into our network or colleges that exist in what Atlantic magazine recently labeled “education deserts.” We must, and we will, work harder to do reach them.


In her book, On the Edge, Allison Levine speaks to lessons learned from her team’s climb of Mt. Everest. Our journey, we know, is not a linear journey. Our data patterns are trending up but we also have down years.

The climb to Mt. Everest’s summit is not linear either. One does not leave base camp and climb directly to the top. Instead, one climbs from base camp to a next level camp, rests, and then goes back down to base camp. The next climb is to a camp a little higher and then the climber comes back down to base camp. The third climb goes higher than the second and the climber, still, returns to base camp. With acclimation to the climate, rest, and renewal the last climb is to the summit.

Achieving the Dream, our new capacities, and all the supports aligned with it…coaching, technical assistance, learning events, is your base camp. No matter where you are on your student success climb, a base camp is important for renewal, to get oxygen, to gather supports and new energy and learning, to help you climb higher and higher.

Students, like Tyrone, are counting on us.

I want to wish you all continued good luck in the climb!

To download a .pdf copy, please click here.

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