Disagreeing with Reinvention’s Four Goals

One of the reasons I wanted to work at City Colleges was I believed in the goals of Reinvention.(1) While I take no credit for crafting the goals, I was working with the District during the early days of their creation. I was excited to be working with a system that was so committed to student success. I also viewed the goals as incontestable. Who could argue against student success?

As a result, I am always surprised when someone tells me they don’t agree with the four goals. This past spring, we tied every line item in our operating and financial plan to one of the four performance goals or six performance health goals.(2) [The operational health goals are listed in the footnote below numbered 6 – 11 to follow the first four performance goals.] I could argue that we have already aligned our activities toward achieving one of our goals.

Yet, I still encounter doubt or resistance. A recent email exchange with a faculty member summarized many of the objections I hear. I asked the faculty member how a funding request aligned with one of the four goals of Reinvention. The faculty member responded with an objection that not everything we do aligns with one of the four goals; some activities have an intrinsic value. She then offered a wide-ranging critique of the four goals and District. She invited me to respond on the blog in the hopes to engage faculty and staff in a discussion.

I have taken the liberty of summarizing her arguments:

  1. If remediation is a priority, the District should have a VC in charge of developmental education.
  2. The four goals are limiting – they don’t take into account the reasons our students come here. As an example – people with degrees who are here just to get additional skills (in communication, for example.)
  3. I don’t believe all of District’s spending is aligned with the four goals – the standard you are holding us to.
  4. Who defines credentials of economic value?
  5. The goals don’t address the intrinsic value of some education. For example, are the liberal arts of economic value?

Let me address each in turn. Warning – this is a long post.

1. If Remediation is a priority, the District should have a VC in charge of developmental education.

Response:

Since 94% of our incoming students are in need of some remediation, one could argue that our Provost already is in charge of our efforts. I haven’t asked him, but I know he would agree that he feels primary responsibility for our efforts here.

In addition, remediation and effective developmental education has been a top Reinvention priority since the beginning. From the Reinvention website:

The Remediation Task Force is working on the Accelerated Learning Program, which will place high-level remedial students in college-level math or English with concurrent enrollment in a paired remedial course to bring them up to speed. Plans call for seven to 10 sections to be piloted across the District this fall.

The Reinvention team has been consistent in making this a top priority. VC Bisarya presented on the Level Up program results from the summer cohort at the October board meeting. Results are encouraging. President Aybar presented his CASH to ROI results at the November board meeting. Our board and officers of the district have a constant focus on this goal.

2. The four goals are limiting – they don’t take into account the reasons our students come here. As an example – people with bachelors or masters degrees who are here just to get additional skills (in communication, for example.)

Response:

I believe, without a lot of data to support it, that the overwhelming number of students who come to us are served by one or more of the four goals. The small number (again, postulate without a lot of data) of students who come to us for other reasons should not distract us from the need to help the overwhelming number of students who do come to us in pursuit of achieving one of the four goals. This objection seems tangentially tied to the other issue I hear frequently regarding holding us accountable for graduation rates. The concern is that course-takers are skewing our graduation rates.

I do agree we need better data on intent from our students. In a recent survey, I saw that about 9% of our students classified themselves as what we call “course takers.” If true, the number of course takers does not explain our graduation and transfer rates. At the same time, I agree that we need better data.

The question also implies that people who already have degrees are coming here to advance their skills. That argues for figuring out how to include them in our first goal regarding credentials of economic value. If someone with a Master or PhD comes here to study Spanish, or Digital Multimedia Design, in order to advance in their career, that is consistent with our Reinvention goals. I bet the number of people here solely for the ‘intrinsic value’ of the education is a small per cent of the total.

3. I don’t believe all of District’s spending is aligned with the four goals – the standard you are holding us to.

Response:

All of District’s and the College’s spending is aligned to one of the four goals of Reinvention, or one of the additional operation health goals that support our Reinvention efforts.

People have offered up targets of District spending [insert your favorite here]. The standards I use to evaluate any spend are, 1. does the spend clearly align with one of the goals? 2. If not, does it clearly support the advancement of the institution? As an example, while one may struggle to justify our HR department under a strict reading of the goals, would anyone argue we could operate without good people? How many of us would work here if were not getting paid? As another example, how does our marketing spend support our Reinvention or operational health goals? Yet, if people don’t know about us, they won’t come to us. If they don’t know what we stand for, how will they know if we are right for them? As for the seemingly favorite target as to why we spent money on the logo, my branding experience in my previous corporate life makes me a staunch defender of having a clear, consistent visual signature in communicating who we are.  I like how you can immediately tell by looking at our logo (when in color) that we are Harold Washington College and that we are part of the City Colleges of Chicago. The old logos confused our potential students and the public. I used to get asked if Columbia College or Roosevelt University were part of City Colleges. The logo is one important way we answer that question.

In the case of the requested spend from the faculty member, if I were her I would have argued that her event helped advance our institution. We ultimately compromised on limited funding because I was not wholly convinced.

4. Who defines credentials of economic value? and 5. The goals don’t address the intrinsic value of some education. For example, are the liberal arts of economic value?

Response:

These questions beg a long response from me, but I will be brief here and can elaborate in a future post if there is interest.

An economist would answer that the market defines credentials of economic value. While I hope that students enrolled in our career programs want to pursue a certain occupation because they have a passion for the field, they also want to make a living. The market will determine if that credential is of value. We need to start measuring whether our students who come to us specifically in pursuit of credentials to advance professionally are better off for having achieved the credential. We are also adding a staff member (to be announced shortly) who will help the college connect with the business community so that we can get feedback on what employers are looking for in our students.

The question also addresses an underlying anxiety that we (the believers in Reinvention) don’t see the value in education for education’s sake. As a liberal arts graduate, I can argue both for the economic value of the liberal arts and their intrinsic value. My undergrad major was “Politics, Economics, Rhetoric and Law.” In University of Chicago’s heady taxonomy, this program of study was classified as “Liberal Arts of the Practical.” My parents feared the truth of the assertion. They saw little practical application coming out of my education.

In my final interview at Arthur Andersen (later Accenture), the partner looked at me and said, “You seem like a good guy, but I don’t know about this Rhetoric. I think we will have to drum that out of you.” And I, in my naive fury, felt compelled to defend the value of rhetoric, which I loved for the way it helped me understand the world around me and the ways in which we communicate. I responded, “Rhetoric was the most valuable thing I learned at UChicago. It is the art of persuasion. It seems to me that Arthur Andersen would want consultants who are able to persuade clients to do the right thing.” I got the job.

We need to equip all of our students with the tools and ability to tell their story in a compelling way. “Why did you attend Harold Washington College” and “Why did you pick that major” ought to elicit passionate, compelling stories from our students during college interviews and job interviews.

The second goal does not mention economics. Many seem to conflate goal 2 with goal 1, perhaps reflecting a fear of me “running this place like a business (an early concern I heard after my appointment).” Kathy Nash reminded me that I told her in our one-on-one that she needed to be prepared to defend her discipline. Yet I did not mean this only for Theater, and I am not putting a strictly economic lens on defenses. We all need to be prepared to defend our disciplines. Intrinsic value is nice but vague. All of our disciplines, as far as I can tell, can put up vigorous defenses in terms of how a discipline helps students contribute to a civil society, advance their understanding of the world, transfer to four-year colleges, and yes, get jobs. We should not fear the scrutiny. We should welcome it. The scrutiny will cause us to question why we do what we do, and in attempting to answer the question, we will enrich our understanding of our own value. I am willing to help with those defenses.

I am also advocating strongly that we align our actions with the goals of Reinvention. I welcome feedback, and am willing to engage in discussions (even better in person) about our achievement of the goals. I know this post won’t answer the many objections to Reinvention, but it gives my colleagues a better sense of where I stand.

________________________________________________

(1) The four goals are crafted to reinforce our commitment to create an institution that ensures both student access and success:

  1. Increase the number of students earning college credentials of economic value.
  2. Increase the rate of transfer to bachelor’s degree programs following CCC graduation.
  3. Drastically improve outcomes for students requiring remediation.
  4. Increase the number and share of Adult Basic Education (ABE), high school equivalency degree (GED), and English as a Second Language (ESL) students who advance to and succeed in college-level courses.

(2) The operational health goals are:

      Goal 5: Excellence in teaching and learning
      Goal 6: Much greater degree of customer satisfaction
      Goal 7: Excellent financial management at every level of the organization
      Goal 8: Operational discipline with focus on clear behavioral and performance standards
      Goal 9: Create excellent strategic clarity and alignment
      Goal 10: Targeted innovation
      Goal 11: Provide a safe environment for all members of the CCC community

Published by Don Laackman

Leader with higher education, non-profit and private-sector consulting experience.

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