I noticed chatter in the Lounge about GradesFirst. The arguments are balanced and invite comment (even if some are posted by anonymous cartoon characters). My takeaways from the discussion center on the role of faculty in supporting our students’ success, and the appropriateness of an early alert system to track our students.

Before I go on to my argument, I start with a request. I ask all of our faculty members to click on your GradesFirst email links and flag students who are at risk. I understand this implementation is not perfect. After 23 years in the information technology field, I know no first release ever is. But this is a great start. It is trying to help our students. The more faculty who help us identify students, the more we will be able to see if this software is a tool that will help us.

It is not mandatory. But it is helpful. Thanks to Margie and Ephrem for their efforts to support faculty in this. And thanks to those of you who have already logged in (or those who will log in this weekend.) I appreciate your willingness to help.

Now on to the arguments.

There seems to be an undercurrent of resentment that GradesFirst is a top-down and not a bottom-up solution. Realist says, “We weren’t really part of the discussion as to how it would have both a positive and negative impact on students and faculty.” I call Realist’s attention to the Reinvention Recommendations from Spring, 2011. On page 44, the Student Support and Pathways task force recommended that we “Add a district-wide appointment management  and early alert system.” The Student Support and Services task force put this recommendation in context in a December, 2011, “Advising Recommendations” report. There, on pages 4 and 8, are explicit recommendations for how we would use an early alert system. Pages 13 through 17 then outline a framework that describes the role of advisors, faculty, administration, and support resources in supporting our students.

These Spring and Fall task forces were made up of faculty, staff and students. To say that ‘we weren’t really part of the discussion’ is to ignore the role faculty played on these task forces. I sympathize with the Center of Excellence’s (the official name for the Reinvention teams) efforts to include as broad a selection of faculty, staff and students from across the system, and to support the effort with significant financial resources (paying students, and providing release time for faculty.) Anne Brennan, the COE Team Lead for the GradesFirst implementation, posted the software selected for the initiative, announcing in February 2012 our direction. This process was transparent, collaborative, and deliberate. The efforts started in January 2011. Implementation came in September 2012. Twenty-one months from conception (how do we support students better?) to implementation (here is a package that best-in-class community colleges are using to support students) does not seem, in Realist’s words, “rushed and discombobulated.”

I don’t expect Realist to track all the Reinvention recommendations, invest the time in vetting them, and weigh in on pluses and minuses (although the Center of Excellence would welcome any faculty member who wants to get involved.) What I take issue with is the off-handed dismissal of the hard work Realist’s colleagues did perform in the interest of helping our students.

Realist goes on to say, “I believe this GradesFirst was formally brought to our collective attention during FDW.” [FDW = Faculty Development Week] Here, Realist hits on one of the challenges in leading and managing a large, complex institution that is attempting one of the most ambitious reforms in higher education. How do we effectively communicate all the things we are doing? There is so much going on. The Reinvention website attempts to post what they are doing. The new 411 emails alert us to developments. We have newsletters. We have blogs. But I don’t expect all our faculty to track the minutiae detailed on the Reinvention website.

Reinvention can’t do it alone. I wish, at times, we had an independent voice, trusted by faculty, who would comment on these developments. If only the faculty would talk among themselves, raising issues for other faculty members on matters of import. If only we could see more posts like this one, where a faculty member made a request on the Lounge for other faculty members to weigh in on the implementation of GradesFirst in February 2012, closely following Anne Brennan’s post. The blogger asks, “Will we be using this (GradesFirst) in the Fall?” Who was this brave poster? It was some blogger named Realist. I wonder if the anonymous blogger calling themselves Realist in February 2012 exhorting fellow faculty to weigh in on the GradesFirst implementation ever talks to the Realist who in September says that faculty were not involved in the process, had no say, and only learned about it at Faculty Development Week. Maybe the two Realists could have a cup of coffee some day and compare notes.

Realist isn’t the only one raising concerns about GradesFirst. mathissexy comments with a number of concerns, along with some other faculty weighing in regarding the effectiveness of the implementation. As I said at the top, I want to focus on the comments that concern the appropriateness of an early alert system to track our students.

Reinvention research (page 19) states that “CCC loses 54% of degree-seeking students in their first six months and struggles to support them throughout.” This is the problem GradesFirst is attempting to play a role in fixing.

I take to heart mathissexy’s comments that many faculty feel ownership for our students. They are, in his words, our true ‘early alert system.’ Faculty are closest to our students and best able to address student challenges.

GradesFirst represents a paradigm shift. It elevates responsibility for student success from each faculty member in each classroom to an institutional responsibility. (And I am not arguing that students don’t have primary responsibility for their own success.) GradesFirst is a tool that enables faculty and advisors to develop a more complete picture of each student. It facilitates communication between relevant faculty, advisors and administration. It is better than email alone, because it enables advisors to see history and trends far better than can in PeopleSoft. The software enables us to begin to identify where interventions may matter. It will allow us to track our progress, test hypotheses, and adjust as necessary.

We are now in a chicken-and-egg situation. If faculty don’t take part, we won’t be able to see if it works. I hope faculty can see that the intent of the tool is to help us support students better. The hypothesis is that early intervention is better than late or none at all. I hope faculty allow us to test the hypothesis.

I am confident that if the hypothesis fails the test, the Center of Excellence will be back at it, proposing new ideas on how to drive student retention and success. Until then, take a moment to log in (using your CCC id and password) or click on the email link and be part of this grand experiment at City Colleges. The student you save may be your own.

Published by Don Laackman

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

One thought on “StudentsFirst

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