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When It Comes to Our Students’ Lives, Incremental Change Is Not Enough

Posted on: December 13, 2021

The author of Social Justice and Community College Education, Bryan Reece reflects on past mistakes and frustrations and why he believes educators must think differently if they want to achieve equity and access for everyone.

During my early years as a political science instructor, I spent a lot of time developing lectures, trying to design a classroom experience that was dynamic and engaging. I felt that a great classroom experience would inspire students academically.  For a solid decade, I worked on this idea, developing lecture content, honing my speaking skills, curating video clips, designing PowerPoint slides, and building collaborative learning activities.

Ten-plus years into my teaching career and I didn’t think I was getting any better results from my students, so one summer I went back through my lectures, tightened up the content, and reworked the corresponding slides for my Introduction to American  Government course.  I was all set. I started the new semester feeling confident and eager to see a big jump in student performance on the midterms.

As I went through my students’ exams, I felt that hope and excitement slip away with every D, F, and C that I recorded. It was one of my more discouraging moments as a faculty member.

On the day I returned their exams, I was in a bad mood. I’d walked up three flights of stairs to the classroom, thinking about all the time I’d taken away from my wife and daughters to improve my class materials and how all those efforts didn’t seem to make a difference. By the time I arrived at the classroom and handed back exams, I was angry. I lost my temper and said things I still regret. I dismissed class abruptly after passing out the exams. It took 48 hours for me to cool off.

During the next class session, I apologized, and we agreed to a reboot for the semester. That moment was a turning point for me. I felt like my aspirations for student success were eluding me, and I could feel myself starting down a path I had seen several colleagues already take—a path of focusing on the few students who were ready to learn and giving less attention to the ones who weren’t fully committed to learning.

A Light Bulb Moment

A few months later, I found myself at a training session put on by the California State Academic Senate. It was running a three-day session for new faculty senate leaders or individuals considering a leadership position.  I had agreed to attend the meeting, but I was not there with the best frame of mind. Several colleagues had been encouraging me to run for academic senate president, and I had repeatedly indicated I wasn’t interested. The position seemed very political to me, and as a long-serving senator, I had not personally experienced an academic senate president who had a strong academic focus or any kind of real impact on student learning. But my colleagues' persistence eventually wore me down, and I agreed to attend the training session.

I started the session expecting to confirm my attitudes about the senate as predominantly a political organization, but toward the end of our first day, a speaker laid out the powers of the senate and proceeded to discuss how those powers could be used to enhance the success of our students and elevate the overall teaching and learning environment at our institutions. The presentation had a tremendous impact on me, so much so that I needed to find a quiet place to sit and think about what she had suggested. I was truly shocked.

I did not expect to discover the idea that teaching could be enhanced through a collaborative effort, and that the college academic senate president could help organize this approach. I felt like this suggestion was a solution to many of the problems I had been struggling with in the classroom. A few months later, I ran for academic senate president and won with an agenda devoted to student success. Sitting on that bench by myself at the state academic senate training session was the start of a long process. A straight line can be drawn from that moment to the writing of my new book Social Justice and Community College Education.

We Need Disruption, Not Just Collaboration

Collaborative solutions in higher education are very effective but I have yet to experience a collegewide surge of success with this approach. Like many in our field, I am frustrated with the state of community college completion rates. While we have seen pockets of remarkable success in assorted programs, success rates for community college students in general and success rates for community college students from disfavored communities in particular are disturbingly and unacceptably low.

The National Center for Education Statistics finds that only 13 % of community college students finish their “two-year degrees” within two years, 22 % within three years, and 28 % within four years. When community college students are tracked all the way through completion of their “4-year degrees,” we find that only 16.7 % complete within six years—with Asian students completing at 26.4 %, White students at 21.6 %, Latinx students at 13.8 %, and Black students at 9.9 %.

I have listened to the concern of education leaders about these disappointing rates for decades and have watched the results remain relatively flat the entire time, while the barriers hindering success remain.

To make significant progress on college completion rates for students from historically underserved communities, we need to push beyond the approach of incremental reform that characterizes so much of higher education. Incremental change leads to incremental improvement, but our students need substantive leaps forward in success rates if we hope to address the enduring equity gaps that persist in American society.

What we need to do is move all disproportionately impacted groups to the 60 % or higher completion rates that students from upper-income families enjoy, and that requires big, disruptive solutions. We need to recognize the critical role community colleges can play in social justice.

In the United States, we have longstanding social and cultural structures that perpetuate inequality along race, ethnicity, and income lines. The central role of American community colleges is to disrupt these structures on behalf of the students we serve and improve them. To be successful in our work, we need to break old discriminatory structures, and this kind of work has historically been characterized by the people who benefit from these structures as “causing trouble.”

I don’t disagree, but I would say that our community colleges are involved in the good kind of societal subversion that the late congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis called making “good trouble.” If you work in the community college sector, it is important for you to recognize and embrace this idea that you are in the business of making good trouble.

Seeing Light in a Dark Time

The initial ideas for my book Social Justice and Community College Education started during a dark time in my life. I was uncertain about my future. I doubted my professional expertise. I experienced the embarrassment of public failure and felt like I let down people who believed in me. As I started to pull out of the uncertainty that I was feeling, I realized I’d been given the gift of time and could use it to work on a set of problems I’d never have been able to address if I’d remained in my post as a community college president.

While it was all personally difficult, the rough outlines of important and fundamental questions for this book soon emerged alongside a boisterous demand for answers to these questions.

They set me on a course and prompted me to make the case that community colleges are central to American social justice, central to establishing equity throughout society, and in need of expansive development and support. They pushed me to define our scope of work, develop a national policy agenda, identify and articulate areas of collaboration, and place the work of community colleges into the larger context of America's ongoing struggle to grow access and establish equity. A journey I did not intend to start brought me to a deeper understanding of the institutions I love.

That understanding has made me think differently when people embrace the idea of incremental change. Pointing to the modest changes that come from incremental reform is synonymous with asking people to wait for equity. How long must we wait? Haven’t our students waited long enough already? As Dr. King wrote in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”: “Justice too long delayed is justice denied.”


This essay is adapted from Bryan Reece’s Social Justice and Community College Education.