||Features This Month
By Nancy Shulock
We hear a lot about doing things to try to “improve policy and practice” in postsecondary education. I think it’s important to tease out the relationship between policy and practice and, by extension, between policy researchers and practitioners. Improvements in policy and improvements in practice can follow different trajectories and involve different players. One can happen without the other, but it is best for policy professionals and practitioners to work together toward mutually supportive improvements in policy and practice. Otherwise, it is too easy for policy to go off track and not support effective practices, or to incentivize practices that are not helpful for students.
IHELP is a policy research center focused on supporting policy changes that best serve students and improve educational outcomes. Good policies are those that support the work practitioners do every day to support student learning and success. As policy professionals, we view policy as a potential tool to solve problems – as a way to support innovation and bring good ideas to scale. At its best, policy provides incentives and sets expectations for the work of practitioners and the academic behaviors of students. If policies are well aligned with the desired results, they should support good practice; if they are not well aligned, they can impede good practice. Our data about the effectiveness of policies come from the world of practice. We study what works and what doesn’t and what could work if allowed or encouraged by public policies. Our laboratories are schools and colleges where the work takes place and where students engage with faculty and staff. Were we to recommend policy change with insufficient input from practitioners, we could be counterproductive.
Practitioners may have a different view of policy. They may experience policy most often when it is misaligned – when they are told, for example, that they can’t do something because the Ed Code says they can’t or when they see students engaging in unsuccessful academic behaviors because policies allow or encourage it. Amid all the pressures they face to improve student success, meet enrollment targets, learn new instructional technologies, etc., all with declining budgets, it is understandable if practitioners see policy as something that is done to them. With little direct recourse to change policy, they may choose to work above and beyond what’s expected and compensated, or they may accept the status quo. Practitioners work constantly to improve practice, but if the implementation and the impact of their practices are constrained by misaligned policies, the potential of their work might not be reached.
The research that IHELP undertook over the last few years on career technical education (CTE) illustrates the potential for researchers and practitioners to work together toward mutually supportive changes in policy and practice that stand to improve student success. We engaged faculty and staff from the colleges to advise us on a range of issues to help us understand what works well and less well, and what challenges they face. Once we had a baseline understanding of issues, we studied the policies and identified possible changes to statutes and regulations that would better support the CTE mission. Practitioners may be able to use the results of this collective research, in collaboration with internal and external stakeholder organizations, to advocate successfully for state and system policies that support change and innovation in the effort to better serve students.
Our experience over the last decade has shown us that sound policy research, connected to practice, can help lead to policy change. The new associate degrees for transfer and the provisions of the Student Success Act are examples of significant changes that reflect the collective thinking of policy researchers and practitioners. As we continue our work on various projects related to transfer, CTE, postsecondary readiness, state-level leadership, and finance, we know that our most valuable data can be found in the field among practitioners. We plan to continue to work with practitioners to try to remove policy constraints on practice, and to support practitioners' voices in the policy arena.
In Case You Missed it: Workforce Investments: State Strategies to Preserve Higher-Cost Career Education Programs in Community and Technical Colleges
This policy brief by IHELP addresses the challenge of financing community college career and technical education programs. This brief examines finance policies and practices in 20 states and identifies five strategies that may help preserve valuable higher-cost CTE/workforce programs: (1) separate technical colleges or system; (2) differential funding formula that takes program costs into account; (3) performance funding that rewards completions and various workforce-related outcomes; (4) differential tuition whereby students pay more for high-cost programs; and (5) differential course fees by which students pay for costs of lab operation and maintenance, specialized equipment, and supplies. This brief is intended as a resource for education leaders and policymakers in California as they work toward realizing the vast potential of the CTE mission and improving student success.
View the brief
Changing Equations – How Community Colleges are Re-Thinking College Readiness in Math
A new report by higher education policy expert Pamela Burdman examines the efforts to reverse low community college completion rates by redesigning remedial math. This report published by LearningWorks looks at a new movement in a number of the nation’s community colleges to prioritize statistics and quantitative reasoning, instead of the traditional remedial math sequence that emphasizes intermediate algebra. Early results – including a dramatic jump from 6 to 51 percent in the proportion of students completing college-level math in their first year of college — are lending credence to the theory that the alternative pathways are better tailored to academic majors that don’t require intermediate algebra. Click the links below to view the report.