Credit: Larry Gorden/EdSource

The effort at the California State University to streamline developmental and general education is a perfect example of why large change projects in education often fail.

Harry Hellenbrand

On May 16, the Chancellor’s Office asked the campus presidents for their opinion of a final draft proposal, just as faculty were giving exams and packing up. The changes were announced August 23 by CSU Chancellor Timothy White just before faculty returned to resume the new academic year. The intention was noble: to remove practices that hold down the four and six-year graduation rates. However, the Chancellor’s Office felt it was urgent to sneak the sunrise by the rooster. That never works. Nor should it.

The proposed changes compress developmental math and writing into shorter sequences of courses. A parallel change lowers the threshold for the placement of students in higher-level courses in each sequence. Additionally, campuses will establish non-algebra/non-calculus alternatives to the current course requirement in quantitative reasoning.  Presumably to ease or increase the transfer of students to four year institutions, a requirement in cross-cultural studies is cut on one campus, while an upper-division requirement in science is added on all campuses.

The first rule in leading change is to convince others of its urgency. It is not enough that the leaders sense urgency. When leaders do and those that they lead do not, trust unravels.

The Chancellor’s Office snatched defeat out of the jaws of victory. Many faculty members believe, as the Chancellor’s Office does, in alternatives to algebra for non-technical baccalaureate students. Many faculty members believe, as the Chancellor’s Office does, that the cost and time of remediation burden students.

But for faculty, belief is not enough. Faculty members are not as clean-cut as Joe Friday, but they also want “just the facts.” How does the Chancellor’s Office account for different recommendations in the CSU’s own Undergraduate Outcomes Report and in the Report of the Quantifiable Reasoning Task Force? There are plenty of advocates and allies out there, but the chancellor’s office has to invite them in. A change project cannot succeed without lieutenants. Declaring it is so does not make it so.

A large change project requires reasonable time lines, achievable goals and constant communication. For this project, new student placement criteria must be designed and tested. The criteria must be coordinated with new course objectives, which are not yet written. Then the courses must be built and, ideally, tested. Then the curriculum committees must review the courses. Then the job descriptions must be written and approved. Then people must be hired and trained. Ideally, the changes would be aligned with Common Core, on one end, and baccalaureate courses, on the other end. If each campus must get approval from the chancellor’s office, more time must be factored. According to the Chancellor’s Office, these tasks should occur in a year. Consultation stopped short of charting a realistic plan for implementation.

So, what is to be done? There are three options: 1: Withdraw the proposal.  2 Impose it. 3. Revise it.

I suggest option #3, implemented in the following way:

  • The Chancellor’s Office and faculty leadership should together appoint two or three chaperons (retired presidents, faculty trustees, and etc.) to this shot-gun wedding. They monitor the process and keep the in-laws from throwing cake at one another.
  • The Chancellor’s Office and faculty leadership agree to a route through consultation and then governance. Various bodies will not vote up or down; rather, they will provide summary views to inform the chancellor’s decision.
  • The Chancellor’s Office and faculty leadership agree to see this project as an instance of leading and managing change; this view is distinguishable from option #2 above.
  • The Chancellor’s Office has not yet presented a data-based argument for the changes; it must. The Chancellor’s Office should explain what alternatives were considered.
  • Once the Chancellor’s Office and faculty leadership decide on a logical sequence of steps toward implementation, they will commission acknowledged experts to estimate the time needed for implementation, the overall cost of implementation and the new programs, and any labor-related impacts.

Since trust has dissolved, the shoe is now on the other foot. The faculty feels urgency — to stop the project. It will take a show of joint resolve, by the Chancellor’s Office and faculty leadership, to regain trust. This certainly is possible. All parties must remember, though, that both the Chancellor’s Office and the faculty have the best interests of students in mind.

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Harry Hellenbrand, is a professor of English at CSU Northridge. He was formerly provost and vice president for academic affairs at the campus.

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