Community College Leadership- Leading and Learning: 2016 Fred R. McFarlane Leadership Lecture Series

2016 Fred R. McFarlane Leadership Lecture Series
San Diego Miramar College
April 25, 2016
Dr. Karen A. Stout, President and CEO

I am honored to be this year’s Fred R. McFarlane Leadership Lecture Series speaker, and happy to be with all of you this evening to talk about leadership—specifically—community college leadership and the leading influence of the colleges that are part of work of the Achieving the Dream network.

On a personal note, I am honored to follow the well-respected community college leaders and mentors who preceded me in delivering this lecture. And, I am humbled to deliver a lecture named for a man who so clearly blended together three special qualities—educator, advisor and mentor—three qualities that all of us aspire to weave together as leaders in service to our communities, our colleges, and most importantly, our students. I am struck by the similarity of Dr. McFarlane’s current focus on principles of “universal design,” which are described in his biography as “a mainstream approach to the process of designing and creating environments, products and services that are usable by most people throughout their lifetime, regardless of their age or ability,” to the community college movement which is a “universal design,” of sorts, for post-secondary education access. It is a design that continues to evolve as we collectively lead and learn how to develop a design for our colleges that can both support universal access and a commitment to universal success for all students.

I have spoken and written quite a bit about leadership, mainly from the perspective of a community college president. Like you, I’ve done a lot of reading and thinking about what it takes to be an effective leader in today’s challenging times. And from that perspective I have thought of myself as a learner as well as a leader. Now, as the leader of a national organization, I have a heightened focus on leading and learning from the successes and failures of our network colleges— more than 200 innovative community colleges in 35 states, including California, serving more than 4 million students— that are shaping the community college design of the future.

So tonight, I’d like to talk to you about leading and learning, sharing with you the lessons from Achieving the Dream and tying those lessons to what I think are the next stages in the development of our community colleges as well as the critical questions we will face as we rise to meet the expectations and challenges our country is expecting us to confront and succeed with. Think about it. We are here tonight as community college leaders living in a moment we could never have imagined. The success of the American Dream, in many ways, relies on the successes of our colleges. Legislators, policy makers, philanthropists, business leaders, economists, nonprofit leaders, and even presidential candidates are all looking to us to lead the way in solving our country’s growing educational attainment and economic and equity gaps.    

MIT’s Hal Gregersen wrote in the Harvard Business Review earlier this month that “curiosity shouldn’t end when you find one solution to a problem. Leaders must constantly explore new ideas themselves, seek out new thinking from those around them, and create partnerships. Seeking serendipitous connections across ideas – and people – brings new opportunity.” Our community colleges are filled with curiosity at all levels. This curiosity is our hallmark. We are constantly exploring new ideas, new opportunities, and new partnerships. This curiosity also permeates the work of Achieving the Dream.

Ten years ago, at about the time that Achieving the Dream was conceived, innovation strategist and Harvard Professor Clay Christensen referred to community colleges as disruptive innovators, saying they were “dramatically changing the shape of higher education in the United States by expanding access to and redefining the goals of advanced study.” He recognized the power of the curiosity of our sector. Yet, just recently, he cautioned higher education leaders, including community college leaders, in the book The Student Loan Mess with this prediction: “Fifteen years from now more than half of the colleges will be in bankruptcy including state schools.” 

If this is a viable possibility for the future, and I believe it is, most of us will be pressured to lead our colleges in new ways and in new directions with a new sense of curiosity—a leading and learning mindset. For community colleges, I believe that means developing new ways to preserve and expand access to new student populations while also focusing on student success that results in our colleges achieving high outcomes for our students in not just completion and credential attainment, but also in assuring that these credentials have strong learning outcomes, have labor market value, and address deep equity issues.

Our learning from Achieving the Dream, and some promising work in the field as a whole right now, makes me hopeful and optimistic about this future; that we will continue to dramatically change the shape of higher education by redesigning our colleges to find a way to balance two imperatives: access and success.

Achieving the Dream colleges are leading and learning their way forward into this redesign.


A Brief History

Achieving the Dream was conceived as an “initiative” in 2004 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.” ATD’s mission is to focus on helping America’s community colleges accelerate student success, especially for low- income students and students of color, by providing supports for guiding evidence-based institutional change.

Over the first six years, ATD demonstrated that innovative, evidence-based interventions can produce and sustain improved student success. From the very start, Achieving the Dream put data—collecting it, analyzing it, and taking action based on it—at the center of its theory of change.

Today, ATD is an independent nonprofit, the only and first reform network of this size and significance for any sector of higher education. We have changed the conversation on community college campuses from valuing only access to valuing access and success for all students. As one stakeholder said: “ATD is the primary reason why the focus of the field is now on completion, and why everyone is talking about completion.”

We also placed a focus on equity, making an explicit commitment to work to help our colleges identify and close equity gaps for low-income students and students of color. This set us apart from the start.
Achieving the Dream is an example of leading and learning in action. We are a network for experimentation and incubation of new approaches. We offer faculty a safe space for trying new things. We also give practitioners an important voice in a reform movement that sorely needs to hear about what works and what doesn’t work, from the inside out rather than the outside in. 

Now, just over a decade into this movement, we have learned many lessons from the successes and failures of our network colleges.

Here are the top 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, including K-12, universities, employers, and community-based organizations.


Lessons and Leaders

From these lessons, leaders of high-performing Achieving the Dream colleges are connecting and aligning their interventions, bringing coherence to their student success efforts. They are scaling interventions from the start. Scale comes in two forms: it can be an intervention that touches all students, or an intervention that touches all students in a specific cohort. And these high-performing ATD colleges are saying no to interventions that can’t be scaled. They are re-discovering the vital role of advising and the need to fully connect student entry to advising, and advising to program entry and completion.

They are taking early experiments in developmental education design to new levels moving away from discrete and stand-alone developmental education sequences of courses to accelerated, contextualized, co-requisite designs tied directly to programs. The deep developmental education redesign and experimentation of ATD colleges contributed to new learning recently released in the publication Core Principles for Transforming Remediation Within a Comprehensive Student Success Strategy (, a joint statement signed by Achieving the Dream, American Association of Community Colleges, the Dana Center, Jobs for the Future, Complete College American, and the Education Commission of the States. Dozens of groups have joined as co-signers including the National Association of Developmental Educators. The six core principles are bold and result from the palpable creative energy around this work, led by faculty, on hundreds of campuses across the country, including California. The document notes that community colleges everywhere are rethinking the “efficacy of their advising, placement, and remedial education policies and practices” while also examining the range, content, and coherence of their degree programs. Here’s a quick run through those principles.

They have disaggregated their data around student income, gender, age, and race and are developing comprehensive plans to address equity gaps around important student completion milestones. Finally, they have strengthened partnerships with their elementary and secondary school feeders and their transfer partners and employers, developing community ecosystems to work collectively to build college and career readiness and completion as a community endeavor. This type of immersive collaboration, in fact, is noted as a design principle within the Core Principles; we have much work to do in areas like Adult Basic Education and English as a Second Language around college readiness.

They have built cultures of evidence, a mindset essential for leading and learning.  Our ATD colleges have learned five essential lessons about data that must be spread deeper and more rapidly into the field.

One is the importance of the use of disaggregated longitudinal cohort data. It was revolutionary in its time for many of us, but is mundane for most of us now. This meant that in addition to looking at aggregate data, we would dig deep into looking at data describing subgroups of students.

Two is that using data includes answering not only the “what” about what is happening, but also the “why.” ATD colleges became expert in using focus groups to bring in the voice of students and faculty and the community to clarify the “why.”

Three is understanding the underlying factors that impede student success through interventions or policy changes. In other words, determining what we should do differently to help students succeed. This early approach bred a number of interventions on our campuses, many of which worked, few of which were scaled, but the work has informed our thinking and moved us to more “whole college” approaches and reforms like pathways and advising redesign.

Four is assessing the intervention itself and determining whether to continue an intervention and whether to bring it to scale.

Five is that colleges that have stopped fighting their data and engaged faculty with learning from the data are making the strongest strides forward.


Next Stage of Reform Work

Of course, even with all this leading and learning, there is still much we don’t know about. Achieving the Dream’s next stage of reform work will be built on the curiosity that MIT’s Gregersen emphasizes as we work to find the answers to new “cause to wonder” questions that emerge out of these lessons learned.

Here are a few of those “cause to wonder” questions:

  • 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 Core Principles document, for many more of our students?
  • How can we better support faculty and build the deep level of faculty engagement that is so necessary to fuel this work?
  • What does effective equity-minded design look like in action?
  • What blend of academic and non-academic supports make a difference for which students and why?
  • How do we organize, incentivize, and adequately fund our colleges to sustain this student success focus?
  • How do we effectively knit together the academic and workforce areas within institutions so that there are stackable credentials with labor market value and so that students can easily access on and off ramps from credit to non-credit and non-credit to credit programs?                 

The lessons learned and the resulting cause to wonder questions for the future, lead us into the next stage of this reform movement, a stage that will require all of us, including Achieving the Dream, to exercise, more intentionally, a leading and learning approach, a mindful approach.

In her book, Finding the Space to Lead, Janice Marturano reminds us that models, like the founding ATD model with its five principles (leadership, engagement, culture of evidence, systemic improvement, and equity), generate a sense of coherence, of groundedness. However, if these models are used without a leading and learning mindset, they can isolate us from reality and the realm of possibility.  Sometimes leaders must stop to notice when they are stuck in a model, when they have stopped learning, so that they can choose to challenge it.

ATD has stopped to notice that we were stuck in a model and we have challenged it.

Thus, we are reframing our strategy to strengthen three pillars of support for our colleges and the field:

  1. The incubation of new ideas (learning)
  2. The dissemination of new knowledge (leading)
  3. Designed supports for building college capacity for innovation (leading and learning)

I’d like to speak for a few moments to the incubation of new ideas (learning) and capacity building for innovation (leading and learning).

ATD is an intermediary for the incubation and spread of new ideas. One example is the Working Students Success Network (WSSN), which is active right here in California. California is one of four states in the WSSN-funded learning initiative, with seven colleges participating. In total, the WSSN network, within Achieving the Dream, includes 19 colleges participating in four states, with five funders (Lumina, Kresge, Kellogg, Met Life, and Annie Casey), working to discover new ways to support student access and success, ways that can be scaled and replicated at community colleges across the country.

By designing a system that meets a students’ academic and support needs, the hypothesis is that we can do a better job of helping them reach their goals. Examples of these services, or supports, are providing help accessing public benefits such as food stamps, transportation, or fuel assistance; tax prep help, childcare, financial literacy, and money management. Many of the participating colleges are partnering in new ways with Community Based Organizations and social service organizations. Early results are promising.

A second example is our recently announced effort around open educational resources working with several funders, including the Hewlett Foundation, to identify and support 30 community colleges in designing “zero textbook degrees,” replicating successful work at Tidewater Community College in Virginia. I know California is also a pacesetter in this space.

A third example is ATD’s leadership in supporting 12 community colleges and two universities in designing and adopting integrated planning and advising systems, systems I noted earlier as being essential if we are to change our intake and advising processes and connect them directly to program pathways.

A fourth example is a new effort around adjunct faculty engagement. Thanks to the Helmsley Trust and the Great Lakes Foundation, Achieving the Dream will soon select six leader colleges to help develop and disseminate models that will support and strengthen adjunct faculty professional development.


New Capacity-Building Model

While all four efforts will help us incubate new ideas, they will also help us build out our new capacity-building model. The theory of change and the model for delivery of supports to our colleges that worked in the first generation of ATD-led reform may not be working for all of our colleges today. Using learning from our first 10 years we have developed a new model based on the belief that student success is sustained by a student-focused culture, and that a student-focused culture is developed through a holistic approach, one that builds capacity in multiple areas.

We are designing a model that will push us to stay relevant and also push us to innovate.

Last fall, I personally beta tested pieces of the model, an Institutional Capacity Framework and Assessment Tool (ICAT), that identifies seven areas, or capacities, that we believe colleges must develop at a deep level to build an environment for success. I was encouraged by what I was seeing and the energy around the conversations the tool generated, especially with faculty. After the initial beta testing and the feedback we received, we selected 10 colleges to beta test the full model and the assessment tools, with their coaches, using world café formats to gain input from multiple stakeholders on their campuses. Our learning from the beta further improved the model. We will roll the model out to our colleges in June.

Building on the five principles of the past, the seven capacities of ICAT are different in these ways:

  • A new focus on the teaching and learning environment and the academic and non-academic pedagogy and supports that are at the heart of student success.
  • The culture of evidence principle is embedded into all seven capacities rather than being a stand-alone capacity.
  • Data and technology will have more prominent placement, as we have learned more about the power of technology systems to support our students in moving into and through our colleges.
  • The principle of “systemic improvement” is now pulled apart into two capacities, to give deeper attention to strategy and planning including strategic financing and policy and practice.
  • Equity, while we had hoped could be a value embedded into all capacities, it still called out as a capacity AND is embedded into other relevant capacities like teaching and learning. To guide this new work around equity, ATD has updated its own statement on equity. The soon-to-be-released statement, shaped by ATD staff, coaches and leader colleges, extends the definition to include students of color, low-income students and other historically underrepresented student populations (among them first generation, veterans, students with second language backgrounds, students with dependents, foster care youth, and formerly and currently incarcerated students). ATD will be asking our colleges to routinely scrutinize barriers to equity and invest in equity-minded policies, practices, and behaviors that lead to success for all students.

Certainly, work in this area of equity is important for California colleges with the state providing grants for you to develop and implement equity plans. ATD colleges in California are building these plans in conjunction with their ATD work.  I know you are all strategically thinking about how to uplift the equity agenda in the California system. This uplifting is important because we see within our network that while student success is improving in aggregate it is not improving at the same rate for all student groups, thus widening the very educational attainment gap that ATD hoped to eliminate.


Big Hypothesis

Achieving the Dream’s big hypothesis is that it is not the adoption of one intervention that will propel a college’s 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 their ability to advance big interventions like the developmental education redesign we talked about earlier, new Pathways efforts, iPass and even the integration of strategies like WSSN and OER at scale.

As learners, models like the seven capacities help us organize and integrate our strategies, identify organizational strengths, and plan to address our weaknesses.  Building deep capacity in the seven areas requires a commitment to continuous leading and learning.  As leaders, we live this work because we are drawn to the incredible possibilities it brings to the lives of our students. We also know that our country needs our community colleges to succeed. All eyes are on us. Here are a few.

In his book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, Robert Putnam speaks to the alarming opportunity gap that has emerged between kids from “have” and “have not” backgrounds. He makes a case that the American Dream for many is no longer self-evident. He mentions community colleges prominently in his chapter on “what is to be done.”

He says this about community colleges:

“CC are asked to do many things with meager funding and in recent years that funding has been cut back, reducing student services. Counseling and instructional quality is often uneven. All these deficiencies disproportionately affect low-income students.”

He goes on to say:

“Despite their mixed record, cc have real promise as a means of narrowing the opportunity gap by providing poor kids with a realistic path upward. To serve that role, they need more funding, improved student services, better connections to local job markets and to four year colleges and a lower drop out rate.”

From a July 2015 American Council on Education monograph entitled “Race, Class and College Access:” “how community colleges approach access and success for students from low income families and communities of color will go a long way toward shaping this country’s future.”

In the report, Nancy Cantor, Rutgers University Chancellor notes: “We can not afford to waste all of the talent that is key to individual prosperity, economic competitiveness, social well being, and cohesion.”

And, in the July 2015 White House Council of Economic Advisers report entitled “Economic Costs of Youth Disadvantage and High-Return Opportunities for Change,” community colleges are mentioned as a solution for closing the poverty and mobility gaps for youth noting the costs of incarceration far outweighing the costs of other investments in youth, including community colleges.

We are right in the center of this work. We must close the gap. We are the solution.  And, we will be successful if we all adopt a leading and learning approach to this vital calling. 

I am excited to lead an organization like Achieving the Dream at a moment like this one, when the journey for even the highest performing ATD colleges must continue, in a more urgent and relevant way than ever before.

As I conclude my remarks this evening, I would like to pose a few questions for you, based on your own learning and leadership around community colleges.

  • California is ahead of many other states in removing barriers that prohibit or limit access student success and is building ways to ensure equity on its campuses. What can others learn from the ways in which you are leading this important work here?
  • How can we better support faculty and build the deep level of faculty engagement that is so necessary to fuel our student success work?
  • How do we organize, incentivize, and adequately fund our colleges to sustain a strong student success focus?

Thank you for your thoughts around these questions. Perhaps we’ll cover some of the content in our Q&A. I am very interested in learning your ideas and suggestions for leading this work forward together.


Thank you. 

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