It Takes a Community to Graduate a Community College Student.
Pam Kesser, English Department
Faculty of the Year Speech delivered at the Eureka Faculty Meeting
on Wednesday April 26, 2006
Thank you very much for honoring me with this award and for giving me this opportunity
to speak to you today. I wonder if, to a certain extent, this award actually recognizes my
survivorship at CR: the fact that I’ve taught 10 years as an associate faculty and 19 years as a
fulltime instructor. Because of my elder statesperson status, I have decided to use this occasion
to ask some hard questions, do some truth-telling, and perhaps present some ideas for you to
consider as we plan for our future.
I think many of us teach at CR because we believe in the democratizing function of the
community college, and we believe in the transformative power of education to change lives and
individuals. I think we know in this country that individual freedom and pursuit of happiness
can be defined in terms of opportunity and that opportunity today is now more and more
dependent on education. Much of what individuals care about achieving and enjoying in our
society is now connected with the level of education an individual can attain. Despite these
idealistic beliefs and knowledge, as faculty we are confronted with the undeniable reality that we
teach under-prepared, nontraditional students often lacking the personal, social, and economic
resources to support themselves in an under-funded educational system in which they too often
ASKING THE HARD QUESTIONS
Perhaps now, at the close of the semester when we are sometimes confronted with the
pressures of things falling apart for our students, we, as faculty, in moments of candor might ask
ourselves these hard questions:
Is the open educational access we provide at CR real? Do we provide an open door, a
revolving door, or a trap door for our students?
If we are committed to the democratizing purpose of community college, what do we
actually DO to make the ideal of community college education real and attainable?
And does CR simply serve as a “cooling out” function for society, as some of our critics
claim, where we detain students from society with false hopes of success and provide no
real assurance of completion of their education?
WHAT HAS BEEN DONE?
Two and a half years ago, we published the report on The Underprepared. It was a
beginning, and it charted a direction for us. For the first time, we acknowledged transparently as
a college the reality of the 80/20 split, that 80% of the students who come to CR don’t have the
skills to function at the college level. But what have we accomplished since the report? I think
we have begun to address some of the concerns of the “Front Door.”
We have a more directive, intrusive system of assessing, advising, and placing
We have established the First Year Initiative Program (FYI), which attempts to
ensure student success by requiring students to take a basic reading/writing class
along with a college success course before entering college courses.
We have abolished late registration so that teaching can begin on day one.
We have also addressed many major and minor systemic barriers to learning.
Linked classes and learning communities have been increased.
The Center for Teaching Excellence has been expanded as a faculty-wide
Counseling right now is establishing a FYI Center dedicated specifically to better
addressing the needs of under-prepared students in their first year separate from
the more traditional transfer counseling services.
CIS will assume responsibility in the fall for teaching computer literacy in for the
Also, in the fall, we will begin the nationally acclaimed Supplemental Instruction
program as support for some general education courses.
All of these attempts are beginnings, which need to be refined and researched to assess if our
actions are working. We have made some progress . . . but not enough.
OBSTACLES TO CONFRONTING REALITY
What obstacles are holding us back from fully addressing the needs of the
underprepared? What prevents us from confronting and better handling the enormity of the task
of trying to teach, retain, and advance our students?
First, beyond accepting the reality of the under-prepared student, we also need to
confront the difficult reality that we as an institution are under-prepared Faculty, staff, and
administration are not well-equipped to deal with the challenge of the under-prepared student.
We may be well-intentioned, but nothing in most of our backgrounds has prepared us for this
challenge. Our social class, our academic preparation, our college experiences are frequently
alien to what most of our students know. I still remember one of the first essays I read at CR. I
have asked my students to write about how a sense of place can define them. One of my students
wrote about what life was like living in an abandoned boxcar. I was unprepared for that. How do
I begin to understand that reality? How does education meaningfully help that student?
Yesterday, I had a student come into my office apologizing for a late essay. She
volunteered that she was having trouble concentrating because her husband had “passed on” a
month ago, and she was 6 months pregnant. She said she wanted to finish the semester because
she had promised her husband that she would. I need help from the college with students like
her. At times, students need more than academic support to be academically successful. CR
seems unprepared to help her and others like her.
Second, although we have acknowledged the existence of at-risk students, we have not
identified OUR high-risk courses, those courses in which our students fail or drop out at a 40%
or higher rate. Do you know what percentage of your students pass or fail each of your classes?
Are you yourself teaching a high-risk course? We need to examine these courses. We shouldn’t
dumb them down or claim that the students will never be able to master the material. Rather we
need to find ways of helping students learn that content while maintaining high academic
standards. Our focus needs to be on identifying our high-risk courses, not just on identifying at-
Third, we as faculty are teaching-centered. We are devoted to the content of our courses.
We define good teaching as mastery of content. The question we usually ask of ourselves is
what has been taught in the classroom. By this week, week 13 of the semester, we know we
should have covered ------------. You can fill in the blank for your courses. We focus on content;
we need to focus more on how we can help students learn that content. We need to concentrate
less on WHAT students learn and more on HOW they learn. As expressed by one wise teacher,
“Teaching without learning is just talking.”
In addition, many of us assume that under-prepared students, long before they get to our
classes, will be repaired at CR in a sort of “remedial hospital,” not unlike the FYI program along
with some added low-level math classes. This remedial hospital, a kind of holding tank for
students, will provide them with remedial classes until they have acquired college level skills.
Then they will be released to the rest of the campus miraculously transformed and educationally
well-endowed—a sort of “academic catch and release program.” But it is magical thinking to
believe that 1 or 2 semesters can remediate all academic problems. Instead, a college-wide
commitment is necessary to hold students accountable to practice and to use these skills in ALL
courses or they will never be truly learned.
SOLUTIONS: A COLLECTIVE RESPONSIBILITY
So what is the solution to educating an under-prepared population that is 3 or 4 times
more likely than their 4-year college counterparts to be at risk of NOT completing their
educations? We can wish for other students or hope the high schools will better educate them
sometime in the future, but the reality is these are our students. To paraphrase our Secretary of
Defense, we have to teach the college students we have, not the ones we wished we had.
Stating the problems is much easier than finding solutions, and it would be presumptuous
of me to declare I had the answers, but it seems I can offer some suggestions made by experts for
To concentrate our attention and efforts, it seems to me we need a clearer institutional
focus on student learning. Student learning should be at the core of our identity as a college and
should organize our thinking and action. Although this seems like a too-obvious truism for a
college, student learning should drive all questions and all decisions. As Terry O’Banion, well-
known educator, suggests all colleges and we at CR should continuously ask ourselves two
questions. First, How will this decision/ action/ program/ policy improve student learning?
And second, how do we know it does? These questions need to be asked in every classroom,
but they also need to be asked at the institutional level by administrators and by staff. Everyone
at CR—gardeners, librarians, cafeteria workers, faculty, custodians, VPs, students, counselors,
the President herself—has a stake in asking these questions. I believe that it takes a community
to graduate a community college student.
If we do focus on learning, how do we know we’ve actually improved learning? What
evidence do we have? As Kay McClenney in her League for Innovations address explains, for a
long time community colleges have lived comfortably in a culture of anecdote. We like to judge
ourselves and our excellence as teachers by the successes of our best students, not our typical
students. We can all fondly remember our students who went on to Berkeley, but what happened
to those students who dropped out in the 10th week? Do we know? Our memories can be
We need to confront the tough questions: How many students do we retain and pass in
our classes? What happens to our students after they leave our classes? Do they graduate? We
need to use our fledgling Institutional Research Department to initiate a culture of inquiry and
evidence at CR so that decisions related to learning are informed by the data we collect. But as
McClenney warns “It will take continuous acts of courage to put data in front of an institution
and ask hard questions about what must be learned from it.” Faculty need to be fully involved in
Just as the Accreditation Report has asked us to use more research in our decision-
making, it has also required that we, as faculty, define, use, and assess student learning outcomes
(SLOs) college-wide. To this end, Casey has announced that next academic year will be the
Year of Student Learning Outcomes at the course level. Determining SLOs collaboratively could
begin to concentrate our attention on defining what is being taught and learned and then could
help us measure and assess what learning is actually occurring. Once we have that data, we
could use the research to make improvements in student learning in our classrooms and college-
Since we don’t know what the research will reveal, launching on this course is risky. But
do we really have a choice? The Accreditation team has put us on notice, along with all other
California community colleges, that we are entering an era of performance and accountability.
AB 1417 has established a performance framework by which all community colleges will now
be evaluated, starting in the fall. It will require us as a college to hold ourselves accountable for
what we claim to be. Faculty need to be fully engaged and take a leadership role in any definition
and assessment of student learning.
The problem for us as faculty is that we often see our classrooms as our kingdoms;
teaching and learning are autonomous and individualistic endeavors. We are frequently a little
myopic and fail to look beyond our classrooms to the larger academic world of our students or
where our classes fit into that world, and we assess our excellence in terms of our classrooms
only. What we have failed to see is that systems determine results, and we work within an
educational system that affects our success as instructors. We need to begin to assume more
collective responsibility for student learning at CR.
Finally, as a reading specialist, my recommendation would be to not absent yourself from
your responsibility to teach reading in your classes. Notice that I say teach reading, not teach
how to read. You are, believe it or not, the best content expert reading teacher your students
have. Your students aren’t illiterate, but they haven’t been asked to read in high school. They
also don’t know how to read the subject matter of your discipline. That is where you come in.
As an expert in your field, you can teach reading simply by modeling how you read your
textbook. Require your students to read, to extract meaning from your discipline, and then assess
whether they have comprehended the information.
Reading is a skill. Like other skills it is learned and perfected only by practice. If we are
honest with ourselves, most of us would acknowledge that we learned to read in college—that is
where we were challenged to read and to learn. We need to continue that challenge and demand
that our students read. The more reading you require, the better readers your students will
become. And that reading skill will be transferable to other classes and to your students’ future
success. Reading, more than any other indicator, best predicts success in college. If you can
help them master this skill, you will promote student retention, progress, and success beyond
A PERFECT STORM OF CHALLENGES OR A SYNERGY OF OPPORTUNITIES?
Despite all the challenges, I am optimistic. Admittedly, my optimism might be a survival
mechanism I’ve developed over the years. But I do believe we are on the cusp of a period of
transition at CR. More than 60% of our faculty are newly tenured or are in the tenure track.
They are a positive, energetic, and enthusiastic force for change. The new realities of Title III,
Institutional Research, and the Accreditation Report can also be seen as triggers for innovation.
A more active CRFO and Senate and our new reorganization structure also provide for increased
opportunities for faculty involvement. The announcement today that Casey will be leaving us
and the fact that we don’t have a Vice President of Student Services add to the demands on
faculty. But the undeniable challenges ahead can provide a synergy that creates opportunities. I
believe if we hold ourselves collectively responsible for truly democratizing student learning, we
can continue to celebrate the transformative power of the community college to change our
students’ lives for the better.