Tapping the Bottle

Ashley Thorne

One of our members recently brought to our attention a nationwide initiative called Achieving the Dream—not to be confused with I Dreamed a Dream, the Les Mis ballad second-place Susan Boyle won hearts with; nor Living the Dream, the discontinued reality TV show following Disney pop band The Jonas Brothers; nor Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams, the “last lecture” given in 2007 by now deceased Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch.  

No, Achieving the Dream (ATD) is an initiative designed to help students succeed in community colleges, and it gives special attention to remedial education. Eighty-three colleges have signed up with Achieving the Dream, signaling their commitment to foster “a culture of evidence,” excellence, and equity—the three dream Es the initiative seeks to achieve.

Creating “a culture of evidence” means measuring student success based on facts, not hearsay. According to Achieving the Dream, community colleges generally lack effective evaluation systems, and even when they don’t, they do not always make constructive changes based on the findings. ATD’s signature trait is its divergence from the federal gauge of success—graduation rates over a three-year period—which it deems too simplistic. Achieving the Dream’s system counts a good many other student outcomes as “success,” such as transfer to a four-year college, and measures them over six years. All of a sudden, voilà! With this standard, things are looking up! “Increasing the time frame from three to six years resulted in a substantial increase in student success rates, particularly for part-time students and those who started in developmental education,” Achieving the Dream reported last year. Just think of the substantial increases if they extended the time frame to sixty years!

Achieving excellence is another dream—inclusive excellence, that is. Working toward excellence alone would mean improving the quality of education, helping students become self-motivated in their search for knowledge, and recognizing those who can clearly demonstrate what they’ve learned. But Achieving the Dream also refers to an AAC&U initiative, Making Excellence Inclusive. What does that mean? Peter Wood provides a helpful way to understand this commonly seen phrase:

“Inclusive excellence” is based on the idea that different social and cultural groups have their own standards for excellence that cannot be shared or in most cases even translated across group boundaries. The excellence pursued by white Americans is one thing; that pursued by African Americans is another. The excellence pursued by women is one thing; that pursued by men is another. Under the doctrine of “inclusive excellence,” a university makes clear that it recognizes and values the distinctive excellences of each and every campus group. 

            Well, not really. In practice it means having separate (and lower) expectations for some groups than others.  A simple translation of “inclusive excellence" is that it is affirmative action for ideas.  Ideas that are too weak, too flawed, too unsupported to withstand critical inspection get a sharply discounted admission ticket under the reign of “inclusive excellence.”  The doctrine clearly owes something to several decades of post-modernism and various other attempts to diminish respect for reason and rational inquiry. 

The Dream Achievers are aware of this tension. They wrestle with the problem of “how to pursue equity and excellence simultaneously”—which brings us to the third E, equity.

“Equity” is Achieving the Dream’s true core value—and “excellence” is never mentioned apart from it. An ATD publication, Success is what Counts, denies that the two are mutually exclusive:

In the context of closing achievement gaps, many people believe that equity can be advanced only with a corresponding decrease in excellence. Achieving the Dream, by contrast, does not believe in a tradeoff between equity and excellence. The initiative establishes equity and excellence as twin goals — both of which must be met to help students succeed.

“Equity is excellence,” a speaker at this year’s annual Achieving the Dream Strategy Institute declared. And Carol Lincoln, the ATD national director, elucidated, “Achieving the Dream focuses on equity not equality. For us equity does not mean treating every student the same. It means, rather, adopting policies and practices that to the extent possible offer each student what he or she needs to be successful at college.”

Perhaps the thing to take away here is that Achieving the Dream makes a point of treating students unequally. In its main “about us” statement, ATD says it is “particularly concerned about student groups that traditionally have faced the most significant barriers to success, including low-income students and students of color.” It’s also particularly concerned about promoting in-state tuition for illegal immigrants.

This word barriers is significant. Achieving the Dream wants to help students overcome social barriers, barriers to achievement, barriers to employment. In ATD’s view, just when students think they are running a race on level ground, up pops a surprise hurdle to trip them up. But our member, who teaches English at a community college, believes this is the wrong approach: “the focus is not on the students' responsibilities to learn, but on the ‘barriers’ to their success.” The only true barrier for students, he argued, is unwillingness to go to class and complete assignments. They hurt their own education when they arrive at the race and choose not to run. “The majority of students in developmental programs have no cognitive disability: they simply don't do the work, yet expect to be moved along the path to graduation as they were in high school,” he said.

In responding to students’ failures of responsibility, programs like Achieving the Dream only encourage the destructive pattern. Students are slowly moved along, and they are told that it’s not their fault when they fail—it’s the barriers to success (“structural inequities” related to race, gender, income) that are in the way. No wonder Achieving the Dream stretched the time frame set for students to complete their community college education—because they don’t expect much of students.

People aim however high or low they have to. When the standard is high, they aspire to reach it. Students need to be challenged academically, without being constantly told that being who they are is a barrier to their success. They rise to meet high expectations and slacken the pace for low ones. Of course, the same goes for professors. As our member concluded, “The Community College seems to be (de)evolving toward a lessening of faculty control of academic standards of performance, with an increasing number of professors becoming concerned not with their commitment to their disciplines, but with their passing rates and student evaluations.”

As a final thought, we noticed that Achieving the Dream receives funding not only from its parent organization the Lumina Foundation, as well as substantial grant from Bill Gates, but also from the Heinz Endowments. It looks like Heinz is living out its steady devotion to the slow pour.

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