In my last two posts, I wrote about the importance of ecosystem thinking when trying to change complex systems like higher education and followed it up with a specific exampthe the of core curriculum in Texas.
Well, Texas is the gift that keeps on giving this week.
The Texas Tribune just published a piece entitled “Texas Could Tie Community College Funding to Outcomes.” The outline of a proposal is on the table and the final report due to the legislature in November. While the article has many encouraging details across a range of topics, two jumped out at me related to the topic of CBE and ecosystems.
The first is outcomes-based funding. This is not new in Texas. The current proposal involves refining the system to make it more equitable and effective. In researching the system, I discovered—as I had hoped and expected—that it takes transfers to four-year colleges into account. Community colleges earn the same number of points if students transfer to a four-year college after earning 15 or more credits as they do if the student graduates.
This is another piece of the puzzle for creating positive evolutionary pressure. Community colleges get more funding for successful student transfers. How do they increase their odds? By following the core curriculum standards, competencies, and numbering system. That said, an ecosystem is neutral with respect to “good” outcomes. It only drives toward stability as a whole and creates evolutionary pressure on its inhabitants to evolve in a direction that increases their chances of survival. These mechanisms don’t optimize for a good education merely by existing. They do create pressure for systems that enable students to transfer and complete their educations at a lower cost. That much is good. The quality of education depends on how well crafted the competencies and assessments are. But if the pressure for natural selection exists, then evolutionary forces exist. Reform advocates can focus their efforts on cultivating that ecosystem by refining the competencies and outcomes, which will point the evolutionary pressures in the direction of the kind of evolution that produces the humane outcomes we want to see from the system.
Such an effort will inevitably trigger reactions from academics inside these institutions, including some negative ones. That is good if handled with care and respect. Ultimately, the guardians of quality at each institution need to be won over for real change to take hold. If CBE (or any other curricular change) is really going to take hold, these guardians need to feel like their professional identity—which impacts their fit for the ecosystem they live in—is invested in the quality design and execution of key CBE components. In Richard Dawkins’ framework, we might think of these folks as the “selfish genes” (which I mean, as Dawkins did, in the evolutionary sense and not as an insult to the character or motivation of our educational quality champions).
The second bit of relevant news is that there is at least some talk of “providing funding for non-credit programs will encourage schools to enroll more students in those areas where there is a large demand for jobs upon completion.” Since I don’t know the Texas policy participants and process well enough, I can’t gauge how likely this is to make it into legislation. But this is a good opportunity for experimentation with relaxing the seat-time requirement since, as far as I know, these programs are not governed by the laws that compel degree programs to abide by Carnegie requirements.
There are a few colleges and universities that are already using direct assessment to deliver full CBE in for-credit programs. My cursory scan turned up Austin Community College, Lone Star College, South Texas College, TSTC-Harlingen, and WGU Texas. I’m sure there are others I missed. Texas has a beachhead for full CBE. If the state funds non-credit pathways—and particularly if the state provides incentives for performance in these pathways—that would create another ecosystem, another vernal pool, in which CBE could evolve.
There’s enough here that somebody must have research that I’m not seeing on CBE in Texas. Please shoot it my way if you have it.