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Summer Blog Series: The Earth is Round

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The Earth is Round

By Paul Baltimore

FACCC has produced an important report proving conclusively that the Earth is round.”

It continually blows my mind to discover what is apparently up for debate these days: the shape of the earth, climate change, voting rights, the persistence of institutionalized racism. What’s next: the idea that teachers matter when it comes to a student’s education? Advocating for California Community College (CCC) faculty at the Chancellor’s Office—before the Board of Governors, and most especially, in the halls of the Capitol—FACCC activists (FACCCtivists!) have been confronted over the last decade with a frankly bewildering question: “Can you show any data demonstrating your argument that faculty matter when it comes to student success?”

Educators must be forgiven for not realizing this argument required data. But educators are also educators. So, when students have a question about facts, it is up to them to supply not only the answer but the evidence to support it. And so, after two years of rigorous, exhaustive, and peer-reviewed research, FACCC’s Education Institute has the paper to support its argument: Why Faculty Matter: The Role of Faculty in the Success of Community College Students, a 53-page study with 18 pages of annotated endnotes, written by Greg Gilbert, an English professor who taught for 20 years in the CCC and five at a California State University, and is currently a Trustee at Copper Mountain College in Joshua Tree. He is what’s known in our profession as an “expert on education,” which means that what he produces is scrupulous, thoughtful, and most importantly, credible.

For every single person who claims to be concerned about student success, this document is required reading. It is based on the documented history of higher education (both in the California and national context), statistics on our current student population, analyses of trends in the CCC, and 25 years of accumulated data from experts who have been studying the challenges of higher education and offering thoughtful solutions. The FACCC study is focused squarely on “student success” and opens with a definition of that term which should be uncontroversial-given that it mirrors the stated mandate of the community college system: student success is “defined by persistence, course/program completion, transfer rates, the realization of goals, and professional advancement.” And it makes the equally uncontroversial statement that the system has been struggling to fulfill this mandate, resulting in an unacceptable drop in student success (as defined). Assuming that all advocates for higher education agree with this definition of success and the current problem, the report addresses the fundamental question: what are the most important factors in helping individual students achieve success?

You should read the whole report, but I’m going to give away its conclusion: the research shows that the single most important variable for achieving student success is “persistent active interaction between faculty and their students.” At every point in a student’s education, the more personal and interpersonal connections they have with faculty, the greater their chances are for reaching their educational and professional goals. And this is especially true in California today, with our increasingly “diverse, often underprepared, and economically challenged student population.” To meet the very real and very large challenges that these students face requires more “personal mentoring, counseling, and ongoing guidance in support of study and personal aspirations.” Furthermore, “such student/faculty interactions enrich educators’ understanding and appreciation of their students, and by extension, heighten faculty involvement within their institutions and profession, thus contributing to an inclusive and interactive college culture for everyone—students, faculty, and staff.”

Based on this very obvious fact (the Earth is round), the way forward is to support any policies and programs that substantively increase and enhance student success by providing the resources and opportunities necessary for robust student/faculty personal interaction. The question is:  how do we do that?

If student success is truly our objective then we have two major priorities. First, increase full-time tenured faculty positions. Students “benefit from a full-time faculty member’s primary focus and dedication to a single institution and the students it serves,” because tenured full-time faculty provide continuity in curriculum and program development, institutional commitment and memory, and most importantly, personal guidance to support “student endeavors, one student at a time and in small group settings.”

Second, increase support for part-time faculty. While increasing full-time faculty positions is the ultimate goal, the current system depends heavily on part-time faculty to teach and guide our students. Given this fact, resources and opportunities must be provided to increase personal interaction between students and part-time faculty, including more job security and pay parity, but also policies that “actively promote part-time faculty involvement in the life of their campuses that extends beyond the classroom and include everything from office hours to participation in extra-curricular activities.”

This is the way forward for all those concerned with student success. In everything from what we do in the classroom, to the way our colleges are funded and operated, to policy initiatives in state and national legislatures, we should be moving toward enhancing the real live personal connections between students and those who teach them. Of course, all of this costs money, and that is the number one debate point that opponents of this student/faculty-based agenda always put up first.

The issue of cost is a major hurdle, to be sure, but it is more often than not used as an obstacle to avoid moving in the right direction, and it is too short-sighted to address the major problems that our students are facing when it comes to achieving success. It is a way to kill a serious conversation about the long-term needs of our students, and even what is necessary to achieve the stated goals of the Chancellor’s Office for our students: basic skills preparation, career technical education, four-year degrees, and student success overall. As the FACCC report states, “if the California Community College system is to faithfully discharge its duties to California’s students, it must prioritize and provide sustainable funding to increase faculty/student contact for both full and part-time faculty.”

Yes, it will cost money. But we need to move in that direction and away from false promises of quick, cheap “fixes” to this existential problem. Whenever we advocate for our students we need to be guided by the facts of what it takes for them to achieve true, transformational, and lasting success. And what the facts show is that when it comes to student success, more than anything else, faculty matter. An agenda that supports faculty supports students, and as Greg Gilbert writes at the conclusion of this study: “Investing in teachers is an investment in student success, pure and simple.”

It is pure and simple. Maybe life would be easier and cheaper if the world was flat, I don’t know. But I do know that the world isn’t flat. So, let us repeat the conclusion of the FACCC report at every opportunity to all those in doubt. It’s a very simple mantra: “substantial student interaction with faculty is essential for student success.” In other words, the Earth is round.

If called upon next to prove that the sky is blue, we will compile the research and issue that report as well: because that is what we do. FACCC deals in facts. And if the Flat-Earthers produce a similarly rigorous and thorough counter-report, we will happily review their data.