ccDaily > Initial ATD colleges build foundation for a ‘culture of evidence’

Initial ATD colleges build foundation for a ‘culture of evidence’

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Commentary

​Community colleges that took part in the first round of the Achieving the Dream (ATD) initiative have made strong progress in using data to develop strategies to improve students’ academic success.

That’s the key finding of "Turning the Tide: Five Years of Achieving the Dream in Community Colleges," an interim report by MDRC and the Community College Research Center. The report examines the work of the first 26 colleges—in Florida, New Mexico, North Carolina, Texas and Virginia—to join the initiative.

The Achieving the Dream: Community Colleges Count initiative was launched in 2004 by Lumina Foundation for Education to increase academic success, especially among low-income and minority students. The American Association of Community Colleges was is a founding partner. More than 20 foundations have invested in ATD to date.

The idea was to help community colleges build a “culture of evidence” by using data to examine how students are performing over time, identify barriers to academic progress, and develop intervention strategies and programs to improve student outcomes. More than 130 community colleges in 24 states and the District of Columbia are now participating in the initiative, and another 30 colleges have expressed interest in joining this summer. Iin 2010, ATD became an independent, not-for-profit entity.

Five years ago, few colleges in ATD or across the nation had the capacity to build a culture of evidence, noted Tom Brock, who co-authored the report.

“Today, he Achieving the Dream colleges are tracking how students are performing over time and using this information to make improvements in services and instruction throughout the institution. The colleges have been very creative in implementing new strategies, which include improvements in student services and academic supports like tutoring and, to a lesser extent, changes in classroom instruction.”

Evidence of change

Turning the Tide indicates that while there is room for improvement, the colleges are on the right track. Among the major findings:

  • Many first-round colleges made important strides in building a stronger culture of evidence. They enhanced their leadership commitment to student success, increased their research capacity and developed interventions to improve student achievement.
  • By spring 2009, four out of five first-round colleges had adopted several practices associated with a strong culture of evidence, though
  • the rest are still facing major challenges, such as weak institutional research departments and the lack of financial resources.
  • While participating colleges instituted a wide range of strategies to improve student achievement among lower-income and minority students, “a majority of these reforms reached less than 10 percent of their intended target populations.”
  • About three-fourths of the colleges indicated that ATD had at least some influence in helping them develop a culture of evidence.
  • Trends in student outcomes remained relatively unchanged, except for modest improvements in introductory English courses and the completion of courses attempted within the first two years.

“While we are encouraged by this progress, and very proud of the rich national learning community that has been established, there is much more to be done,” said ATD President and CEO William Trueheart. “Achieving the Dream has already commissioned several focused efforts, now underway, to address those vexing challenges to community college reform identified in the interim report.”

“To date, most of the strategies that have been implemented at the first-round colleges are not of sufficient scale to expect to see changes on institution-wide measures of student success, like persistence or pass rates out of developmental education courses,” added Brock. "The next major challenge that the Achieving the Dream colleges are facing is to increase the numbers of students that are touched by their strategies."

There are signs that colleges are moving in that direction. Brock noted that many of the sessions at the ATD Strategy Institute earlier this month, for example, addressed issues of scaling. And he added that “many of the Achieving the Dream colleges are leading the pack with innovations in accelerated learning or new developmental math curricula.”

Ingredients for success

According to the report, colleges that made the most progress in building a culture of evidence had:

  • multiple senior administrators who were deeply involved in ATD
  • active institutional research departments that produced accessible reports on student achievement
  • regular evaluations of their interventions to improve student success
  • strong faculty and staff leaders who actively led the colleges’ reforms and interventions
  • integrated committee structures that allowed for regular communication among administrators and staff
  • consistent attention to financial support for broad-scale reforms
  • heavy investment in professional development

Trueheart praised the 26 first-round colleges for their courage in participating in the initiative, which required them to publicly acknowledge the “unpleasant truth” that their graduation rates might be lower than desired and share the data widely.

“Closing achievement gaps and improving student outcomes is extremely difficult work,” he said. The first-round colleges are “leaders in every sense of the word, and we commend them for their abiding commitment, tenacity, transparency and determination to finish this work that is so critically important to our nation and its citizens."

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