Ask Peter Snell! It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish!

Stuart Middleton

EdTalkNZ

22 April 2018

It is true that Education at all levels is a complex business. But that is not a reason for us to head towards complexity when we try to explain what we do or, more importantly, when we measure what we do?

There are significant attempts being made in the US to development and implement programmes aimed at attending to the continuing depressed levels of outcomes for what is sometimes called “subgroups of interest” but more likely to be known as “priority learners in New Zealand. These are the groups of students who are first-in-family / first generation students, younger students (NZ Under-25s), racial / ethnic subgroups (NZ Māori and Pasifika) and, in the US largely, because of the structure of the student financial assistance programmes, students of low income.

Quite rightly all these programmes require measures of effectiveness. Emerging strongly from all this discussion is a view that qualification completion is the the best measure. This does not mean completion eventually but completion in a timely period. In turn, this means that a three year programme is completed by a full-time student in three years. Of course the length of time for part-time students to complete is proportionate to the extend of the time commitment to study – a student studying for 50% of the time would be expected to complete in double the time.

This requires a little more sophistication in measuring completion than is currently the case. The process of reporting completion based on “completing within X years” in not an adequate measure because it ignores that students could meet the softer measure (i.e. completion of a three year programme within six years could conceal a student’s journey characterised by failure, repetition of courses, difficulties faced but conquered in time, disruptive breaks in study, slow starts to the programme, a lack of targetted, timely responses in the provision of support, and so on.

Whereas a student measured by a simple “completion in a timely mannerz’ (i.e. a 1 year programme completed in one year, a 2 year programme in two, a 3 year ….. etc) provides a proxy assurance that all or most of the programme has been delivered appropriately, that support requested has been provided, that support needed has been identified and responsed to and that the student has manged to attend diligently, made good use of alternate learning experiences (e.g. on-line support and instruction, has felt that they have been in a community of learners and family support has been forthcoming when required.

Now, to head towards this simple and clear measure of success, free of abivalence and ambiguity, understood by both student and teachers, is no simple matter. There has to be a raft of support services, onboarding procedures, targetted interventions at both an individual and group level, involvement of support professionals and teaching professionals working in tandem to support students and the areas such a health care, counselling services, IT help and support, transport advice and support.

And if the measure is to focus on “timely” completion, the importance of Academic Mapping and Career Planning which plans the student journey from start to finish is an imperative. Much better than the prevailing approach of “let’s start and we will see what happens…”. Such initial plans of course are open to amendment but New Zealand, particularly the ITP Sector, has many fewer opportunities for optional courses so this would not be as big an issue or task.

In the US students starting a programme need to factor in required supplemental courses, a general education programme and a number of prerequisites for their eventual major. We have the same issues but expressed differently. Are students prepared academically for the studies ahead? Are there opportunities for them to access means opportunities to attend to perceived and real academic issues before they start?

A commitment to the goal – Timely Completion – would position institutions to much greater levels of focus than is typically the case now.

Students who complete are students who continue. Students who succeed commend the experience to others. Students with qualifications get a chance at entering employment that is denied to those who don’t. Who wouldn’t want to see institutions getting the benefit of this?

Peter Blake had a question that he used to test any suggestion of something the programme should do: Will it make the boat go faster? Those who sail in the education waka might ask of ourselves when considering what we would like to do and how we would like to spend the revenue: “Will it help the students succeed?”

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