From the Field: Musings on Work to Achieve the Dream

Reflections on Reflections

“There is only one way to see things until someone shows you how to look at them with different eyes.” – Pablo Picasso

This is what Achieving the Dream’s annual reflection process is intended to achieve—to help colleges in our network look at their work with different eyes as well as to help Achieving the Dream to look at ourselves through the eyes of the practitioners on our network campuses. Looking at the aggregate work of our colleges, through their own reflections, paints a rich and colorful picture of themes around institutional transformation. It also identifies opportunities for peer learning and identifies new supports our colleges need to move their work to new levels.
Here are our reflections on the reflections.

Emerging Themes

Early Momentum Metrics
Colleges in the ATD Network describe a wide range of student success goals, yet we see alignment in the goals they articulate around early student momentum milestones. While there is still much to do, especially around zero credits earned in early semesters which is becoming a key leading indicator, this focus is consistent with research from the Community College Research Center (CCRC)  that demonstrates strong linkages between completion of these early momentum metrics and credential attainment.

Equity is integral to the Achieving the Dream framework and is now increasingly at the forefront of student success work across the ATD Network. Colleges have dug deep to better understand the barriers for students who experience opportunity gaps, often using engagement surveys and other data gathered from students to diagnose structural barriers to persistence and completion. Evidence-based discussions about equity are enhanced by using the ATD institutional capacity assessment (ICAT) process with campus-wide facilitated World Café discussions. These discussions are uncovering discrepancies in definitions of equity and lack of a common understanding of the opportunity gaps and why addressing them is important. As one college team wrote, “the most significant finding from the ICAT process was the general lack of understanding across the college concerning the definition of equity…”

Some colleges are early in their examination of information to better understand equity gaps while others are implementing policy and structural changes, like the redesign of course placement rules, the elimination of developmental education as course-based sequences, accelerated scheduling to meet the needs of part-time students, and building capacity in areas like trauma-informed and culturally responsive teaching and holistic student supports. Our colleges are concerned that overall retention and graduation rates are increasing but opportunity gaps remain stubbornly consistent. As one college noted, “information about closing achievement gaps for underrepresented students as overall retention and graduation rates increase would be especially beneficial as our college is experiencing overall increases but our equity gaps are not closing with those increases.”

Credentials with Labor Market Value
Leading colleges are expanding their equity work from a focus on completion only to completion with a valuable credential—specifically preparing all students to enter and complete educational pathways that lead to high-demand jobs that provide life-sustaining wages and opportunities for social and economic mobility. This transition often requires additional capacity building in the areas of Data and Technology, to be better positioned to collect and analyze external data about local and regional jobs and wages; in Strategy and Planning to develop new or improved programs that are aligned with labor-market demand and allocate resources to support them; and in Policies and Practices to align onboarding and advising protocols, especially in areas like career exploration, at the beginning of a students’ journey into the college.

Leading colleges are expanding their equity work from a focus on completion only to completion with a valuable credential. 

Centering Teaching and Learning
Network colleges also report increases in their capacity for aligning teaching and learning with strategic priorities, consistent with a heightened awareness in the field that we cannot achieve our student success goals without focusing more intentionally on building a culture of teaching and learning excellence. Excellent teaching and support for quality instruction must be at the core of our reform work moving forward. Some colleges have made strong progress using data to drive scaled and evidence-based improvement in classroom instruction, established faculty pathways to support continuous improvement in teaching excellence, created opportunities for faculty to interact and collaborate to develop the knowledge and skills they need to teach and work effectively with people from all backgrounds, and engaged adjunct faculty more intentionally in this work.

But overall, we know from the reflections that not enough faculty are participating and/or empowered to drive the creation and large-scale use of more dynamic and relevant pedagogy, rethink program learning outcomes, or support the development of growth mindsets throughout their institutions. This is a challenge for all of us. Community colleges typically have not provided time and space for the development of comprehensive approaches that address student motivation and mindset, faculty reflective practice or ongoing, collaborative professional development. Cementing teaching and learning at the core of our student success work also requires structural and process change and additional institutional capacity building, as I highlighted in the 2018 Dallas Herring Lecture.

ATD is Reflecting College Reflections

Using what colleges in the ATD Network are reporting in their Annual Reflection documents also helps inform Achieving the Dream’s thinking and planning. For example, our kick-off event for teams from colleges that have joined the Network now includes data homework and team time with coaches that focuses colleges on understanding and gaining insight from their early momentum metrics to drive out their student success planning. Our Leader College and Leader College of Distinction awards are also now aligned with the early momentum metrics.

Our first ever and sold out ATD Equity Institute, held at DREAM2019, will be held again in the DREAM2020 pre-convening program. Also at DREAM2020, we will be announcing new opportunities for our network colleges to engage in a team and peer learning environment around equity planning.

We dedicated our October coaching professional development session to racial equity and poverty. Achieving the Dream coaches received professional development to help our colleges integrate the understanding of family sustaining wages and labor market demands and labor market data into their student success planning efforts. We recently contributed to some work in North Carolina with the Belk Center for Community College Leadership and Research that has strengthened our learning in this area.

We initiated our inaugural ATD Teaching and Learning Institute last May. Our second annual Institute is scheduled for April 2020, offering faculty teams an opportunity to develop peer communities to strengthen their ongoing learning and practice improvement.

Taking time for reflection is essential for improvement.

And, network colleges also asked us to provide additional opportunities to learn more about successful strategies for dual enrollment, faculty advising, evaluation, and grant funding, and to learn from each other, especially in groups of similarly situated institutions. We are building these requests into the agenda for DREAM, expanding the webinar program for Network colleges, updating and strengthening our online resources, such as the Data Discovery Guide in our Network portal ATDConnect, and exploring the creation of a Promising Practices series focused on topical issues.

Taking time for reflection is essential for improvement. Reflection, as Picasso reminds us, allows us to see things with different eyes. Sharing the themes from the college reflections helps fuel Achieving the Dream’s “network effect.”  Learning from the themes also fuels Achieving the Dream’s capacity to help support the continuous learning and improvement needs of our network colleges.


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