That conclusion led to the six “big ideas” that have both impressed and confounded observers who want to replicate Valencia’s successes elsewhere. The big ideas resemble chapter headings from a self-help book:
1) Anyone can learn anything under the right conditions.
2) Start right.
3) Connection and direction.
4) The college is how the students experience us, not how we experience them.
5) The purpose of assessment is to improve learning.
“Every day, we step back and say, ‘What are students experiencing? What do we want them to experience?’ ” Shugart said.
Like most community colleges, Valencia has open enrollment. It doesn’t reject people because they failed algebra or even because they lack a permanent address. Shugart has made it clear that student success is everybody’s job, so there is a heavy emphasis on teaching and experimenting with new methods.
Tenure-track faculty members are required to complete a three-year “learning academy” in which they invent and test theories about how to improve student learning. Adjunct faculty members, who make up about two-thirds of the teachers at Valencia, get a bump in pay if they participate in the same teacher-development courses.
The college has thousands of class offerings, but it invests most heavily in 15 to 20 “gateway courses” that make up 40 percent of the curriculum for first-year students. If students pass those courses, they have a far better chance of finishing their degrees. If they don’t, they’re probably sunk. The college is banking on success in those early classes to cascade into more-advanced classes where students need less hand-holding and teachers need fewer resources.
All students are expected to map out a graduation plan in their first semester. They must “connect” with faculty members, career advisers, tutors, and student-services staffers. Tutors—usually students themselves—know the professors personally and often sit in on classes to seek out students who might feel shy about asking for help. Tutoring centers are located in central campus areas, and they are packed.
Valencia constantly parses student-achievement data, but the school does not tie faculty evaluations to those assessments. The analyses don’t even identify individual instructors. This is a unique way to use assessments, and it runs counter to education-reform efforts pushed by Obama and others who want student test scores to be factored into teacher evaluations. Faculty evaluations at Valencia are still weighted heavily toward teaching, but they focus on the instructor’s actions to engage students rather than test results: How has the instructor measured his own progress? Has she taken student outcomes seriously in her experiments with teaching methods? The teaching academy allows the school to document instructors’ progress as they develop their own teaching portfolios.
“The accountability is not external. The accountability is internal,” said Kurt Ewen, Valencia’s assistant vice president of assessments. After a few go-rounds of instructor-blind testing, he said, the reachers actually came to him to find out how their students were doing.
Shugart is a big fan of consensus, but he says, “Committees are bad.” He is fond of calling 200 people into structured meetings that smack heavily of group therapy. He splits them into smaller groups. They analyze specific questions and make recommendations. After a set time, they reconvene, refine their questions, and repeat the small-group sessions. At the end, Shugart takes a wireless microphone and walks among the groups, à la Phil Donahue. “You seek dissent. ‘Who really disagrees with this? Tell me why.’ … It’s a technique designed to reach a strong set of ideas in consensus that are actionable in two and a half hours instead of two and a half years of committees,” he said.
Given these unusual methods, Valencia administrators have a tough time explaining to outsiders how they work. The Aspen prize committee puzzled over the magic ingredients of the school’s success. “They would say, ‘So we see these numbers where you have these many students graduating now or this kind of success. What do you attribute that to?’ ” Ewen said. “Behind the question was, ‘What specific strategies can another school employ that would get the same results as you?’ And the answer is, there are none.”
“Fifty people met with [the committee], and, to a person, they would come out of the meeting saying, ‘They keep asking me: That’s all good, but exactly what is making the difference here?’ ” recalls Romano, the student services vice president. “They left, and we thought, ‘OK, well, there’s no way we’re going to win, because they obviously are looking for something more tangible.’ ”
The Aspen judges were tough on Valencia in part because the big ideas that guide the school can easily be dismissed as New Age mumbo jumbo. Anyone can say that enrollment numbers are less important than learning, but Shugart showed he meant it when he stopped distributing enrollment reports to the faculty. “That was transformational,” Aspen’s Wyner said. “You’re saying as a new president, ‘I’m having you do things that will literally sink the ship. I’m willing to bet my presidency on this.’ Don’t add classes on the first day. Take away enrollment reports. And students are still here.”