Service May Make a Difference in Reducing Achievement Gaps

Scales, P. C., Roehlkepartain, E. C., Neal, M., Kielsmeier, J. C., & Benson, P. L. (2006). Reducing academic achievement gaps: The role of community service and service-learning. Journal of Experiential Education, 29(1), 38–60. doi:10.1177/105382590602900105

Article Summary

The purpose of this article was to explore whether community service and service-learning has an impact in the achievement rates for low-income students.  This is a quantitative study examining responses from national samples of U.S. public school principals, data from more than 200,000 U.S. middle and high school students from over 300 communities, and a sample of middle and high school students from Colorado Springs, Colorado (Scales, Roehlkepartain, Neal, Kielsmeier, & Benson, 2006).  The researchers focused on three major questions: perceived impact of community service or service-learning, relation of service to achievement gaps, and the effect of participation with service-learning over a longer period of time (Scales, 2006).   Their study indicated that, “Principals of urban, high poverty, or majority nonwhite schools are significantly more likely than other principals to judge service learning’s impact on attendance, school engagement, and academic achievement to be ‘very positive'” (Scales, 2006).  The researchers also found that participation in community service or service-learning “seems to be related to lessened achievement gaps between low SES and high SES students” (Scales et. al., 2006).  Furthermore, study of the data indicated that “low-SES students who contributed  community service reported significantly fewer missed school days and significantly higher grades than other low-SES students who did not participate in service” (Scales et. al., 2006).  Overall, the researchers concluded that service-learning may be a valuable teaching strategy to positively impact achievement and student engagement.  This strategy can be especially valuable in urban, high poverty, or nonwhite environments.  Service learning may also have a correlation to reducing the achievement gap between students from lower and higher incomes (Scales et. al., 2006).  The researchers emphasized that you cannot conlude a direct causality because of the many variables involved in student engagement and achievement; however, they indicate a “strong link between service or service-learning and academic success” (Scales et. al., 2006).

Strengths and Critiques

The researches provided a thorough literature review documenting the research about  low SES students, analysis of various approaches to school success, and prior studies on the effects of experiential learning and service on academic success.  The breadth of additional resources and references utilized spanned multiple decades and multiple k-12 settings.  The researchers also explained their purpose, methodology, and results with very accessible language.  They were also very forthright in discussing the shortcomings of their research as well as adamant that the findings do not show direct causality to academic achievement.

One major critique of the study, as also noted by the researchers, is that much of the data is self-reported.  Principals self-reported their perceptions and attitudes of service learning, and student data was primarily self-reported as well.  Finally, the researchers also noted that there was no measure of the quality of the service experience.

Another critique I had regarding the study was the lack of delineation between community service and service learning.  Service learning includes a direct correlation between the service to the community and the learning outcomes for the course.  Community service is more like volunteerism.  I believe there is a clear distinction between the two, and each has the potential to impact students differently.  Overall, I understand the point of the study was not to compare service learning to community service.  However, I think it is an important distinction as service learning has a direct correlation to curriculum and student learning outcomes.

My Take

I chose this research study as I wanted to review another quantitative study.  I find that I have a long way to go with my development and understanding of quantitative methods and their implications and usefulness within educational research.  This study struck the perfect tone for me in that the researchers clearly wrote the article with audience in mind – school leaders and practitioners.  Consequently, the article was very accessible, and provided clear explanations of the methods utilized.

I also believe this study has great impact for my line of inquiry.  I am becoming excited about the potential of researching the impact of service learning, community service, and experiential learning in the developmental classroom at the community college level.  Although this study focused primary on middle and high school students, I believe the findings may be applicable to the community college setting.  GCC fits the profile for the schools mentioned in this study – high poverty, majority nonwhite, and within an urban setting.  The student demographics outlined in this study also reflect that of our students.  And, GCC has a sizable achievement gap between students of color and white students.  This study indicates that at a minimum, community colleges should explore implementing community service and/or service learning programs within its curriculum.  Furthermore, these service efforts could help make gains in reducing the achievement gap if targeting low SES students as well.

One area I want to explore further is the design of quality service-learning experiences.  I am familiar with service-learning from a distance.  I have discussed with other faculty members who routinely engage in service-learning the need to identify projects that meet the needs of a community organization, while also aligning directly to the course curriculum and learning outcomes.  I also understand there needs to be a strong component of reflection and assessment in quality service-learning programs.  However, I am not clear on what this would mean for the design of a quality service-learning experience, the strategies a faculty member needs to have in order to successfully facilitate service learning, and the duration of service-learning as well.  Furthermore, I am not aware of studies on the impact of service-learning on the developmental student population.  This may be a focus of mine moving forward – is service-learning a strategy that community colleges should emphasize and dedicate resources toward to reduce achievement gaps and improve success rates in the developmental classroom?  If yes, what does that look like and how would a college go about infusing service-learning more deeply in the developmental classroom.

Finally, I also believe a study such as this is ripe for qualitative data as well. Interviewing students who participate in service-learning about its impact on their lives, their attitudes, and their perceptions toward school and the community seem very relevant to this work.  I believe a blend of methods would lead toward a strong project researching the impact of service-learning in the developmental education community.  Student voice, faculty voice, and community voice would complement the data regarding course success, GPA, and student engagement.

Mixing or Tracking Students: Reflections on Voice, Accessibility, and Implications for Higher Education

As I reviewed our list of readings this week, I was drawn to the article by Margarita Pivovarova, “Should We Track or Should We Mix Them?”  for two reasons.  First, as a former eighth grade English teacher, my students were tracked to some degree as students’ math classes dictated schedules. Inevitably, high achieving math students were grouped together throughout day.  Secondly, as a community college administrator, we currently practice ability homogenous grouping in some disciplines as students take placement tests in order to determine what level of English, reading or math aligns to their current abilities.  So, the question of tracking or mixing students is one that has been part of my educational career for the past twenty years, and those twenty years of teaching and educational experience, along with our current development in this course, influence my reaction to this article.Voice

First, I must confess that I am biased regarding using equations, mathematical terminology, and statistics to exclusively discuss an educational topic.  So, I offer this reflection about voice not as a criticism of this study, but as my own development as a scholar-practitioner embarking on my research journey.  Pivovarova analyzes the interactions between classmates with varying achievement levels in the elementary and middle school classrooms.  She utilizes data from Ontario public schools and explains mathematically and statistically the effect of high-achieving (good) and low-achieving (bad) students on groups of students.  According to Pivovarova (2014), “The presence of low-achievers in a class does not impede the achievement of other students, and even helps students who are low achievers themselves.”    Furthermore, “being surrounded by good peers is beneficial for everyone independent of their own learning level.”  To sum it all up,  Pivovarova states that “peer group composition matters”  (p. 28).

In no way do I question the validity of the study, or the means as to which Pivovarova arrives at her conclusions.  But, I left this study wanting more – specifically, the voices of those instructors in the classrooms and the voices of the students (high, low, marginal, etc. – all the labels utilized in the study).  Each of the groups of students from Ontatrio whose data were used for this study has a story to tell.  Each of the teachers who worked with the respective students has a story to tell.  And, from our readings thus far in this course, I now have a sense that by not telling those stories, we may not have a true sense as to the impact of mixing or tracking students on the students themselves.  This study adds to the discussion of ability tracking or streaming, which was the goal of the author.  I offer that it is critical to also include the voices of the participants in the study to gain additional knowledge and insight about tracking or mixing students based on ability level.


As I think further about my development as a scholar-practitioner, I am beginning to question the accessibility of research studies.  How are they written?  Who is the audience?  Is the language used in an article accessible to those impacted by the research? In this case, the author uses very scientific language that includes descriptions of formulas and mathematical explanations, all necessary to fully understand the methodology and processes involved to derive the respective conclusions.  But, as I think of principals I have worked with over the years responsible for making schedules, or I think of the many teachers and administrator who struggle with this question each year, I wonder will studies such as these impact this particular audience?   As I reflect on my upcoming research, I hope I am able to connect my research to my audience and make it accessible to them, in order for it to have a positive impact on current practices and policies.

Implications for Higher Education

Finally, this study caused me to contemplate some current practices in higher education.  In some respects, a community college classroom has the most diverse (mixed) population a teacher could imagine.  Students will differ by age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, ability, personal experiences, and religious affiliation.   But, community colleges also track students in some disciplines.  As mentioned earlier, students are initially placed into English, math and reading courses based on results of a single placement exam.  So, grouping in this instance is based on ability, granted only a single measure is being used to determine ability.  Four-year universities, for the most part, could be viewed as a glorified tracking system.  There are highly selective universities that only accept students who demonstrate a certain academic ability-level.  Isn’t this an example of tracking?  So what does this all mean for higher education?  I think it should cause faculty and administrators to pause and evaluate how our systems may unintentionally or intentionally track students, and discuss whether this tracking is in the best interest of students.

Regarding my line of inquiry with developmental education, is it beneficial to have college students who for varying reasons may be struggling academically in a particular discipline take classes only with other students experiencing similar academic challenges?  Are there advantages to rethinking this model, to allow for mixed classrooms that could benefit all students in some manner? Studies such as these help to shed light on the issue of tracking or mixing students by ability; however, I also believe student and educator voices need to be included in discussions before policies and practices are altered. 



Pivovarova, M. (2014). Should We Track or Should We Mix Them? Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. Tempe: Arizona State University.


PBL + SL = A Successful Developmental Learning Community

Butler, Alison  & Christofili, Monica (2014). Project-based learning communities in
developmental education: A case study of lessons learned. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 38:7, 638-650. doi: 10.1080/10668926.2012.710125

For this week’s readings, we were assigned Michelle E. Jordan’s and Reuben R. McDaniels, Jr.’s article focusing on managing uncertainty during a collaborative activity.  The paper documented students’ attitudes and perceptions toward this style of teaching.  This article reminded me of my own experiences with project-based learning (PBL), as well of much of the literature I have read over the years about PBL.    Consequently, I decided to focus my research review this week on the efficacy of project-based learning in a community college developmental classroom.  Below is a recent summary of an article in the Community College Journal of Research and Practice.
Article Summary

The purpose of Butler and Christofili’s study is to further examine the relationship between project-based learning and service learning, within the context of a developmental education learning community.  The goal of the study was to “help instructors avoid some of the pitfalls that arise when forming and implementing PBL and to help instructors implement successful PBL” (Butler & Christofili, 2014) by strategically designing the project.

The study was conducted at a large urban community college in the Pacific Northwest: Portland Community College.  The study focused on four learning communities involving developmental courses (math, reading, English and college success).  Furthermore, the study examined a learning community over the duration of four terms/semesters.  The first two semesters of this study involved developmental education students, a learning community, and project-based learning.  The second two semesters introduced service-learning into the learning community (Butler & Christofili, 2014).

The researchers documented each semester’s learning community in the following manner: project question, project implementation, competency assessment, and lessons learned.  Overall, the researchers provided conclusions regarding the design of PBL, with a service-learning component, integrated into a developmental learning community.  Specifically, projects must be of proper scope, instructors need to be flexible given all the potential moving parts, projects must be relevant to learning in respective courses, and managing student group dynamics must be purposeful and strategic (Butler & Christofili, 2014).

Strengths and Critiques

The strength of the article is the practical application to designing learning communities within a community college environment.  The authors provide tangible recommendations to design elements and strategies to integrate service-learning into a learning community.  The authors provide a solid literature review, that includes references to many studies and articles that illustrate the efficacy of learning communities and service-learning for community college students.

The overall research described in the study is lacking.  The researchers reviewed student feedback and their own experiences as both researchers and the instructors.  Overall, I expected greater emphasis of student voice in the research, but this was not evident. I found no evidence that students were interviewed to determine their attitudes and perceptions.  Furthermore, I did not find evidence that all the instructors across the four disciplines were interviewed either.

The authors make many claims regarding the success or failures of the respective learning communities, but do not clearly describe the evidence for which those claims are based.  For example, the authors state that the story theme of the third term project generated “overwhelming student buy-in”  (Butler & Christofili, 2014).  But, I did not find evidence as to how the researchers came to this conclusion.  The majority of the authors’ conclusions are based on their observations of the students and review of students’ projects.  However, I question the strength and objectivity of this case study analysis as both authors were also the instructors of the program.  I appreciate the perspectives of the instructors; however, I believe the research could have been enhanced with a third-party observer/researcher interviewing students, observing classes, and reviewing final projects.

I was very disappointed that this article did not include persistence data  (students enrolling in the next semester and remaining at the college) for the students participating in the learning community.  The article would have been strengthened with more quantitative data.  The only statistic provided was that the retention rate for the third term was higher than previous terms (Butler & Christofili, 2014).  Statistics, as we have discussed, do not tell the whole story.  But in this case, I believe evidence that a learning community designed in this manner could lead to a) increased retention, b) increased persistence, and/or c) higher percentage of course success is vital to other instructors or community colleges adopting this type of instructional model.

Consequently, I offer the following suggestions to improve this study:

  1. Utilize an observer who is not an instructor;
  2. Provide data as to the success, retention and persistence rates of the respective co-horts;
  3. Provide evidence for the conclusions and assertions that are made; and
  4. Focus more on student learning outcomes and impact on the community organizations involved in the service-learning component of the instruction.

My Take

Despite the reservations I have regarding this case study analysis, I am excited about how this article relates to my current role at GCC.  I have been charged with launching our service-learning effort at the college.  We have had pockets of service-learning offered by faculty in various disciplines; however, we do not have a coordinated effort which supports faculty in these endeavors.  Furthermore, I do not believe we have an understanding across our college that service-learning is and can be a meaningful instructional strategy that promotes learning.  Most individuals, when talking about service-learning, tend to focus on the service; the benefits to the community organization and how participation in service-learning improves students feelings and perceptions toward school.  This article, though, reminded me of the need to emphasize that service-learning can and does improve student learning.  And, the article sparked in me an interest to learn more about the impact of service-learning on the developmental student population.  I would venture a guess that the majority of service-learning programs in community colleges across the US focus more on high achieving students (possibly a research question to explore….).  But, this strategy has proven to have a positive impact on developmental students. Ultimately, I am now rethinking how we roll out our service-learning initiative.  Possibly we target a range of interested faculty across multiple disciplines, with developmental education students being a focus. This may prove to be a strategy that positively impacts our success rates, while also emphasizing the role we play as a college in our community.

Another take-away from the article is that instructors struggled to build accountability into their group projects.  I am continually surprised at how frequently this comes up as a challenge for instructors.  Designing effective collaborative learning experiences is challenging. Instructors need to plan extensively to build individual and group accountability into the course for all students involved.  Repeatedly, the instructors indicated how students were upset at how some of their classmates did the majority of the work, while others students apparently did less.  This has always been a challenge of collaborative learning, and there are a lot of articles and guides developed to assist faculty in developing strategies to make sure students are accountable for the work of the group, as well as their individual role within that group.  This article serves as a reminder that additional professional development is probably needed locally at GCC to provide faculty with the skills and strategies to design meaningful and effective collaborative learning experiences.

Finally, I have a renewed sense of excitement around the benefits of learning communities and service-learning in developmental education.  And, this renewed excitement may inspire me to focus my research efforts in this direction.

Uncertainty as a Student, Teacher and Doctoral Student

“You’re hired!”  I was shocked, amazed, and scared beyond belief to be quite honest.

I just graduated in May of 1994 from the University of Richmond. I was 21 years old and searching for my first teaching job.  I applied to many of the public school districts in Virginia, where I was licensed to teach.  But, I was finding the search challenging.  I had a nibble with Fairfax Public School District, but not an offer.  I student taught in Henrico County, near Richmond, VA, but positions were limited, or at least that’s what I convinced myself as a reason for not getting offered a position.  Then, to my surprise, I received a call from Arlington County Public Schools, just outside of Washington, D.C., for an interview just a few days before Labor Day.  School was set to start in a week, and I was resigned to my next step substitute teaching, working at a restaurant, or trying to do some work with my professors at Richmond.  Little did I know that this interview, seemingly out of the blue, would change the direction of my career (and life) for good.

I interveiewed with Arlington on a Friday, received the offer from the principal on Tuesday and reported to our initial planning day on Thursday.  School was to start in two work days, and I was a mess.  I was filled with uncertainty:  Do I know how to teach?  How will the students respond to me?  How will my colleagues respond to me?  Where do I live!?!  But, I found reassurance with my new  community of practice – a caring, dedicated group of eighth grade teachers who took me under their collective wings and helped me survive my first year.

As I reflect on Michelle E. Jordan’s and Reuben R. McDaniel, Jr.’s article “Managing Uncertainty During Collaborative Problem Solving in Elementary School Teams: The Role of Peer Influence in Robotics Engineering Activity,” I am reminded of my first years as a middle school English teacher in Arlington, Virginia, and my role in a new community of practice and as a developing instructor.  In Jordan and McDaniel’s study, they describe how the students were placed in teams and were asked to complete an engineering project.  The students worked in groups of three or four, and the teacher only created one role, that of team leader (p. 9).  Similarly, as a brand new teacher, I was placed in a team where there one was clear role as defined by the school – team leader.  We were asked to work together, teach our respective disciplines, but support our students in a collaborative manner.  Uncertainty ruled my every day that first year.  How do I connect with students?  How do I motivate them to learn about writing?  About literature?  And in some cases, about life?    To a large part, my success as a first year teacher was very similar to that of these elementary school students.  Their success was “dependent on the willingness of their peer collaborators to respond supportively” (p. 26).  My success as a new teacher was definitely dependent on my colleagues’ abilities to respond supportively to me.  I brought new ideas, new methodologies, some strong…some weak.  But, my fellow teachers were always encouraging, always supportive, and always willing to provide input as needed.  I believe this feeling of uncertainty was critical to my development as an educator.  And, reflecting on how that initial group of wonderful teachers supported me during my years of uncertainty has helped me to work with other educators in my career as well.

This uncertainty I felt as an instrutor though led to some of my best teaching (in my opinion).  Specifically, I was part of a group of English teachers that decided to teach literature to our students through literature circles.  Rather than have teachers lead discussions, students would take control of the English classroom – self-select novels around a theme, lead discussion groups, and create group projects. Honestly, it was some of the most fun I have ever had teaching.  The students, however, struggled at first with all the uncertainty surrounding this style of teaching.  Choose their own books?  Create their own discussion questions?  Complete assessments that were not multiple choice or even a standard written response?  Watching students navigate their uncertainty in these moments was powerful.  They were amazing with each other; providing support when needed, providing a jolt when needed (What….you didn’t read your chapter?), and building off each other’s ideas in ways I thought not possible.  Uncertainty in the classroom can produce special results, although as the authors indicate, the teacher and students need to establish a supportive learning environment for this to flourish.

As this article definitely brought back memories of my early days teaching in the classroom, it also caused me to reflect on the uncertainty I (and others I believe) now feel as doctoral students.  The authors concluded in their research that, “peer support is important if students are going to successfully participate in collaborative projects in which they will encounter uncertainty in their relationships and in the execution of new content and new practices” (p. 36).  This conclusion resonates for me as I think of our newly formed community of practice.  We began this course as individuals, but I anticipate we will experience uncertainty at all levels – will we understand assignments, projects, articles we have read?  Will we be able to navigate varying teaching styles and expectations?  And ultimately, will we have confidence in who we are as researchers and doctoral students?  These are all questions we will have at some point, and they are all going to be met or answered in some manner through the support of our peers.

So, my journey as a new instructor to a new doctoral student has one major theme in common – uncertainty.  But, I am certain that my success in part will hinge upon the collaborative support of my peers.


Jordan, Michelle E. and Reuben R. McDaniel , Jr.  Managing Uncertainty during collaborative problem solving in elementary school teams: the role of peer influence in robotics engineering activity.  The Journal of the Learning Sciences (00), 1-47. 

Developing the Developmental Instructor

Kozeracki, Carol. (2005).  Preparing faculty to meet the needs of developmental students. New Directions for Community Colleges. 2005 (129), 39-49.

My exploration of developmental education continues as I shift my attention toward instructor preparation and development. Higher education faculty, unlike K-12 instructors, are not required to have any specific education certification in order to teach.  All instructors will have strong content knowledge, as that is the emphasis for being hired (whether in a full-time or part-time role) to teach at a college or university.  But, instructors who teach developmental courses recognize that there is a unique skill set to meeting the needs of this diverse student population.  Unfortunately, many developmental educators do not have adequate preparation to meet student needs.  Carol Kozeracki’s “Preparing Faculty to Meet the Needs of Developmental Students” explores strategies to prepare faculty to better serve developmental students.

Article Summary

This article explores English developmental education faculty members’ attitudes towards professional development.  The study includes interviews with 36 English faculty members who teach developmental courses, representing seven community colleges in two states (one East coast and one West coast).  Each community college has large enrollments, exceeding 15,000 students.  The structure of the developmental programs are varied as well – centralized, decentralized, and mixed models (Kozeracki, p. 39).

The study explored three areas or strategies for faculty preparation: graduate programs, internal professional development opportunities, and professional associations.  For each of these areas, the author interviewed developmental English instructors to gain feedback on their attitudes about each area and solicited recommendations on how to strengthen each.

For graduate programs, this study concluded that “there is a significant gap between what is learned in graduate school and what they need to know to facilitate student learning” (p. 48).  Furthermore, graduate programs for English instructors should include additional training on how to teach grammar, how to properly design a lesson, and strategies for both recognizing and working with students with disabilities (p. 48).

Regarding professional development programs, Kozeracki concluded developmental English faculty are most responsive to departmental level programs that provide strategies for meeting  immediate classroom needs and to informal dialogue about teaching and learning practices (p. 48).

Finally, developmental English faculty are least interested in professional associations that provide information and resources that are solely theoretically based; they desire to have practical applications to the developmental classroom (p. 49).

Strengths and Critiques

The audience for this study is most likely faculty development professionals, leaders of centers for teaching excellence, department chairs, and administrators responsible for hiring and developing faculty.  One strength of the article is that it provides tangible suggestions to improve professional development programs for developmental English faculty at a community college.  Specifically, it recommends that “more time should be made at departmental meetings in which faculty discuss pedagogical issues” (p. 46).  The author recommends only using outside speakers who focus on issues of “genuine concern” to the whole faculty (p. 46).  The faculty responders also indicated that more opportunities to engage with faculty outside their respective discipline would be beneficial (p. 46).  The most radical suggestion is for colleges to set aside one to two-hours per week when classes are not offered for faculty to have more focused departmental meetings (p. 46).  This suggestion aligns more to that of the K-12 model with common planning periods.  I appreciated this section of the study as it provided very concrete recommendations based on the responses of the 37 interviewed English faculty members.  The recommendations are relatively low-cost and simple to implement and may have a positive impact.

Despite the recommendations I found useful, I have many critiques of the article which limit its effectiveness.  First, little is shared regarding the demographics of the interviewed faculty members.  I think their length of service to the institution and their own level of preparation and training to teach developmental education are significant pieces of information that would effect responses as to what professional development and training options are beneficial.  Furthermore, faculty attitudes toward graduate school preparation is completely dependent upon each of his/her personal experiences.  Relating this study to myself, my undergraduate degree is in English and my master’s preparation is in Education.  Consequently, all of the recommendations offered in this article regarding graduate programs would not apply in my case, as my graduate experience provided me with the content to be a successful instructor.  Second, I thought the study was very weak in identifying which of the instructor training programs may have an impact on student learning.  I do not think simply stating that developmental English instructors believe workshops taught by peers are more beneficial is enough evidence to justify replicating that type of professional development opportunity.  Yes, the instructors like it.  But, and most significantly, is there evidence to show that participation in the specific professional development opportunity impacted the classroom and student learning in any manner?  The study was very weak in linking the training to classroom modifications and student success.  Finally, I was very disappointed in the author’s initial description of the current state of developmental education. I recognize the article was penned in 2005; however, I was still surprised that the author included a refernce to C.J. Hardin’s work “Access to Higher Education: Who Belongs?”  Kozeracki quotes Hardin’s work detailing six categories for students who require developmental coursework: “poor choosers, adult learners, foreign students, handicapped students, and ‘users’ who lack clear-cut goals and are attending college more for purposes of avoidance than achievement” (Kozeracki, p. 40).   This categorization is appalling, as it implies that having a disability or being foreign or being an adult learner or not having a defined goal are indicators for needing developmental coursework.  Hardin, who I am not familiar with, is obviously not familiar with the community college mission, as those categories describe any number of high-achieving and excellent students within our system.  Inclusion of this categorization made me question Kozeracki’s understanding of the developmental education mission and core principles.

My Take

As an administrator who oversees a center for teaching and learning at a community college, I found this research helpful as it did provide me with tangible, concrete strategies to enhance our professional development programs within GCC and the Maricopa system.  But, further research is needed to identify which of these strategies may best impact instructional practice and student leaning outcomes.  With limited resources and faculty members’ limited time, those activities with high impact and low cost/effort may be ones to implement first.  So, additional study is needed to determine which of the strategies and recommendations would have the greatest impact.

I also think the study should be expanded beyond English developmental instructors only.  One could explore the attitudes and perceptions of math faculty who teach developmental courses. Their preparation and needs may be different, requiring unique strategies to meet their discipline and classroom needs.

Finally, this article made me question our faculty hiring practices in higher education.  For the most part, faculty members are hired based on discipline expertise, while teaching expertise is desired, but not a must.  This practice has to change regarding our developmental student population.  Collectively, as a college community, we need to be more intentional of who we hire and why we are hiring them.  Potential faculty members with degrees in education or with significant teaching preparation should be moved to the front of the pool for consideration.  Faculty positions should be posted with requirements beyond that of content knowledge only, but best teaching practices should be required and then demonstrated through the process.  We owe it to our students to have the best and brightest instructors with both the content and the teaching expertise to help our students to achieve.

Professional Development: Independent or Social Mindset?

I was recently participating in a four-hour Strategic Enrollment Management meeting reviewing our college and district goals related to recruitment, outreach, enrollment, retention and persistence efforts.  During a break, one of my colleagues asked if I was aware of our sabbatical program.  The Maricopa Community Colleges, in an effort to value lifelong learning, is very generous with its policies regarding both managerial and faculty sabbaticals.  The program is for employees who have completed a designated number of years of consecutive service to our district to explore their own professional development and learning with the expressed intent to bring that learning back to our community college system.  Each year, numerous faculty and staff engage in sabbaticals, and the following year, each returns to his/her respective jobs hopefully refreshed and changed (for the better) in some manner.

In Etienne Wenger’s “Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems,” he explores the structure of social learning systems, articulating that the development of social learning systems is essential to the success of organizations.  Within this context, Wenger describes one critical element of social learning systems – boundary encounters.  Boundary encounters are “visits, discussions, sabbaticals [that] provide direct exposure to a practice” (Wenger, p. 236).  Boundary encounters can occur individually, when an employee immerses him or herself into a community of practice.  Or, an encounter can occur in a group, where a team from a given community immerses itself into another community of practice.  An individual boundary encounter may allow a person to become fully immersed in the practice; however, it may be challenging to bring the learning back to one’s organization (Wenger, p. 237).  A boundary encounter experienced as a team may not allow for one’s individual full immersion; however, it may prove more beneficial as a team may be better able to incorporate the learning within their respective practice (Wenger, p. 237).

This concept of individual versus social or team learning impacts my thinking profoundly in relation to faculty development within the developmental education community.  Teaching in higher education is primarily an autonomous experience.  Faculty, generally in isolation, develop and instruct their respective courses.  The same is true for much of the professional development and organizational learning within higher education.  Individual sabbaticals are supported.  Individual professional development is supported, but again, generally based on an individual’s needs or desires.  On occasion, teams may be sent to participate in a conference, but in my experience, that is not the norm, but the exception.

As I reflect on the most effective professional development experiences I have designed or attended, those that involved team participation have indeed had the most transformational effect for the organization.  This leads me to question what types of professional development opportunities are available for community college faculty, or even more specifically, community college faculty who primarily teach developmental education courses?  As Glendale Community College continues to focus its attention on our developmental coursework, I believe we also need to focus our attention on the professional development available to our instructors.  But, how should this professional development be designed?  Our current approach to professional development is to design and offer programs and workshops for faculty to attend individually, focusing on their individual skills and strategies within the college classroom.  Yes, they do attend as a general community of instructors.  However, much of the work is individually based.  Sharing with other participants occurs, but the focus is on individual devleopment.

But, what if this experience was designed differently? What if a team of professionals, working and learning together, supported our developmental students?  And, what if that team became its own defined community of practice, learning and growing together as described in this article?  Presently, I do not believe we have a well-defined community of practice supporting developmental education.  It is emerging at GCC, but it is not yet a defined community of practice.  I think we have an opportunity to create this community of practice, and make it one that incorporates the following elements espoused in this article: events (professional development in nature), leadership, connectivity, membership, projects, and artifacts.  If we take this approach, I believe  we can advance the learning of our faculty and staff, which will I have a positive impact on our students.   But, it is clear to me that we should not approach this in our traditional autonomous mindset; we need to design and create an environment that fosters and promotes social learning for our faculty and staff.


Wenger, Etienne. (2000). Communities of practice and social learning systems. Organization, 7(2), 225-246.

Placement Tests Matter – High Stakes for Community College Students

Maggie P. Fay, Susan Bickerstaff,  and Hodara, Michelle (2013).  Why Students Do Not Prepare for Math Placement Exams: Student Perspectives. (CCRC Working Paper No. 57).  New York, NY: Columbia University, Teachers College, Community College Research Center.

As I continue to explore Developmental Education, I keep wanting to learn more about the placement process.  Higher education is struggling with accurately placing students. And, this placement is ca critical factor the a student’s likelihood for degree and/or certificate attainment.  Many factors contribute to this inaccurate placement, and this article tackles one of the issues – lack of student preparation.

Article Summary

The purpose of this article was to explore community college students’ experiences and attitudes toward placement tests.  The study includes survey responses from 122 students at four community colleges as well as 34 students who participated in four focus groups at those same colleges.  The community colleges are part of a community college system on the East Coast, and at the time of the study, this system decided to undertake new placement testing procedures and instruments.  The students who participated in the study all tested into and were enrolled in developmental math in the fall 2012 semester.

The study concluded that there are four related reasons why students do not prepare for the math placement test.  The reasons were explained as follows: Students’ misperceptions about the stakes of the placement exam, a lack of knowledge about test preparation materials, an unawareness of why and how to prepare for the placement exam, and a very low-level of confidence with their math abilities (Fay, Bickersaff, & Hodara, 2013).

The study provided recommendations for colleges regarding placement testing.  It is recommended to create more student awareness about the importance of the exam, increase awareness of test preparation materials, and design materials that teach both what and how to study (Fay et. al., 2013).

Strengths and Critiques

Overall, the article is well-organized and is written at a very understandable level as it is trying to reach a wide audience of readers.   The authors provided a coherent study as the research consistently focuses on the premise that lack of student preparation contributes to low placement test scores.  But, the findings of the research do not necessarily contribute anything original to the field of developmental education.  Furthermore, the study is limited as it only addresses math placement testing, not reading and English which are utilized nationwide as well.  I was also disappointed that the article did not include a literature review.

Regarding their data collection methods,  the researchers utilized student surveys and student focus groups.  One way to improve and enhance this research would be to consider the timing of the surveys and focus groups.  Students were surveyed after taking the placement test and receiving their scores.  Results may be different if students were surveyed prior to taking the placement exam.  I would also be interested in responses from students who did not test into developmental coursework.  Did those students prepare?  Did those students receive the same information and had the same level of awareness as students who tested into developmental education?  Finally, greater attention could be paid to those students who testing right out of high school versus those students who had been away from school for two or more years.

The findings are logical, but not necessarily significant.  The finding regarding the correlation between self-confidence and placement tests was one I had not read before.  I am not aware though if these findings were revealed during the survey itself, or during the focus group responses.  Also, I am unable to determine how many students indicated this lack of self-confidence.  The conclusion was logical, although it is difficult to determine the frequency of responses that indicated a lack 0f self-confidence with math prior to testing.  I would recommend including more specificity as to how this conclusion came to be.

My Take

I found this research did provide me with greater insight into the placement test process.  I am aware from my experiences at Glendale Community College that students do not prepare for the placement exam.  GCC , and many of the Maricopa colleges, are similar to the colleges discussed in the study as materials are prepared and offered to students.  But, test preparation materials are not necessarily promoted.  They are available on our web site, but a student would have to seek them out to prepare in advance for the exam.  This research confirms that it is imperative that community colleges put forth much more effort to create and to disseminate test preparation materials for incoming students.

This article also reinforced for me the need to communicate the ‘high-stakes’ of the placement exam to incoming students.  The authors state that, “staff members’ attempts to allay students’ anxiety about placement testing (i.e., by telling students not to worry about the exam) contributed to students’ tendency not to prepare and may have served to understate the stakes of the exam” (Fay et. al., 2013). My experiences also confirm this finding.  GCC staff members, nor our print materials, communicate the importance of the placement exam.  Students need to have a greater understanding of the consequences – a strong understanding that their placement matters.  Most students surveyed indicated they did not realize there was even a concept of developmental courses, and they were not aware the results of this exam could place them into below college-level course work.

The survey did reveal a finding that was one I had not considered.  Most articles and research I have read focus on the anxiety students have regarding math, and that anxiety impacts performance in college coursework.  However, I have not considered the effect of low self-confidence with math skills on the placement exam.  The study revealed findings that students “were worried about placing into a course that would be too difficult” (Fay et al., 2013).  And, students reported being satisfied with their placement in below 100-level courses.  The implications for this finding are two-fold in my opinion.  First, much of the communication leading up to the placement exam does not address student fears, anxiety, or low self-confidence.  Furthermore, the test preparation materials are primarily delivered on-line, and again, do not address a lack of confidence for the student.  As community colleges develop test preparation materials and as some embark on the test preparation workshop, it is critical that these materials and courses in some manner address the students’ lack of confidence.

To build on this research, I believe you could expand the study to include attitudes and perceptions of students regarding the English and reading placement exams.  Are student perceptions about those tests the same?  Do students have the same lack of confidence as displayed in the math results?  Another way to build on the research is to explore this lack of confidence further.  Specifically, students completed this survey after having taking the placement exam, and after having already enrolled and started their developmental coursework.  I would want to explore whether students had the lack of confidence prior to the placement exam, or was this lack of confidence fueled or reinforced by a poor placement test score and subsequent placement into a developmental course.

Culturally Relevant Pedagogy – Self-Reflection is Hard Work

Eric Leshinskie

Tyrone C. Howard’s article, “Culturally Relevant Pedagogy: Ingredients for Critical Teacher Reflection,” resonated for me as  the article addresses a potential focus for research with developmental education student success rates – professional development for developmental education instructors.  The topic of culturally relevant pedagogy has been part of my work for the Maricopa Community Colleges in some form or another in the past ten years.  I had the privilege of working with a small team of faculty members to design a professional development workshop entitled, “Beyond Content Integration: Developing a Multicultural Learning Environment.” My experiences in collaborating to develop that workshop provided significant context for me as I read this article.

One area of uncertainty for me focused on the notion that in order to create a culturally relevant learning environment, instructors must reject “deficit-based thinking about culturally diverse students” (Howard, 2003, p. 197).  I do not question the notion that instructors must reject this type of thinking; I question how pervasive deficit-based thinking is with newly hired instructors, or even instructors who have engaged in professional development on this matter. As I think of the landscape of community college instructors I have encountered in my 11 years with the Maricopa Community Colleges, I anecdotally come across fewer instructors who may harbor a deficit-based thinking approach, compared to instructors who view all students as having the capability to achieve.  Possibly my experiences are not of enough depth to make such a statement, but the optimist in me hopes that instructors across all levels of the education spectrum are rejecting the deficit-based thinking model about diverse students.

One point of emphasis from the article is that self-reflection is critical to culturally relevant instruction, and self-reflection is difficult for many instructors.   Self-reflection involves asking hard questions, and as Howard writes, “An honest and thoughtful reflection on these types of questions often becomes painful” (p. 198). My take-away is not the sample questions themselves.  Those are valuable, but ones that do not necessarily shed any new light on the process.  But, his statement that, “It is critical for teacher educators to provide spaces for preservice teachers to express their uncertainties, frustrations, and regrets over prejudiced notions” (p. 199) caused me to evaluate my own work and experiences.  Merely asking instructors to self-reflect is not enough.  Providing them with a framework for the self-reflection is also not enough.  But, it is incumbent upon teacher educators and leaders to create the space for this reflection; this is what struck a chord for me in my current role at Glendale Community College.  Too often, those who support teachers do not provide the space, or in other words the time, for instructors to meaningfully reflect with colleagues on matters of effective teaching.  If we value the culturally relevant instruction, then we must create both the culture and the space for self-reflection.

Furthermore, just as space is not created for self-reflection, the courage to have such critical conversations around race in the classroom is not prevalent either.  This lack of courage can occur for many reasons. One, instructors may not be willing to engage in such discussion.  Two, the pace of the instructional cycle is so rapid that taking time to self-reflect is not a priority. Or three, teacher educators themselves may not be prepared to facilitate such a discussion, as this first calls for a high level of self-awareness, as well as a strong facilitation skills to engage in what could be challenging dialogue.  As educators, we must develop the courage for this dialogue.  As Howard concludes, “the stakes we face as a profession and as a nation are too high to fail in this endeavor” (p. 201). Finally, I related to Howard’s statement that instructors must recognize that “teaching is not a neutral act” (p. 2oo).  I appreciate this statement as it is one that I think all effective instructors must realize.  You do not necessarily need to separate who you are as a person from who you are as an instructor.  But, you must fully realize who you are (through self-reflection described above) and how that impacts and influences your teaching.

This article relates to my research as I believe a key element to increase the success rates for those students who come to college underprepared is to have instructors who practice a culturally relevant pedagogy.  To do so, these instructors must continuously practice self-reflection, and as an institution, we must create the space and freedom for them to do so.  This will only benefit them as instructors, and in turn, will benefit our students.

Howard, Tyrone C. (2003). Culturally Relevant Pedagogy: Ingredients for Critical Teacher Reflection.  Theory Into Practice, 42(3), 195-202.