• August 30, 2015

'Achieving the Dream' Produces Little Change at Community Colleges

Seven years into an ambitious project to help more community-college students stay enrolled and graduate, a study has found that while colleges have changed their practices significantly, student outcomes have remained relatively unchanged.

Most of the original 26 colleges in the Achieving the Dream project have relied on data to drive strategies designed to increase student achievement—for example, the introduction of learning communities and courses in how to succeed in college. But those efforts have not resulted in more students' completing developmental courses, a necessity for the many underprepared students who hope to complete degree or certificate programs.

The report, "Turning the Tide: Five Years of Achieving the Dream in Community Colleges," examines the 26 community colleges that joined the project in 2004 and tracks their progress through spring 2009. It was conducted by MDRC, a nonprofit social-policy-research organization, and the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College.

The Lumina Foundation for Education created Achieving the Dream to improve success among community-college students, particularly low-income students and students of color. The idea is to help the colleges build a "culture of evidence" by using data to track students' performance over time and to identify barriers to academic progress.

From there, community colleges are expected to develop strategies to improve student outcomes, conduct further research on student progress, and expanding effective pilot programs.

Since the start of the project, students' performance in developmental courses in math and English has remained relatively unchanged. About 25 percent of those assigned to developmental math completed the sequence of courses within their first two years of college; the proportion in developmental English is 40 percent.

Nor was there substantial change in students' persistence in or completion of developmental reading.

Lumina, which has put $76-million into the project, has acknowledged that meaningful change requires a longer-term effort.

The study's findings are not surprising, said Thomas Brock, director of policy for young adults and postsecondary education at MDRC, given that community colleges had never undertaken such a major effort. He expected more-promising results next year, when another report is scheduled to be released.

"We are certainly not shying away from the results," he said. "But at the same time, we are seeing a lot of good progress in terms of colleges' laying the foundation needed for student success."

Colleges Made Some Gains

Four out of five colleges had put into effect most of the practices associated with creating a moderate to strong "culture of evidence," such as developing more-sophisticated data analyses and more-efficient systems for monitoring efforts to improve student achievement. The one-fifth of colleges that struggled with many of the recommended practices were hindered primarily by weak institutional-research capacity, the study found.

Colleges that made the greatest strides shared several key characteristics, including broad-based support from administrators, faculty, and staff; strong institutional research departments that produced accessible reports on student achievement; regular evaluations of their programs; and an ability to scale up successful programs.

Mr. Brock said the financial and technical assistance provided to colleges by Lumina at the beginning of the project improved their chances of creating that "culture of evidence." But it hadn't been enough to change student outcomes—yet, at least.

"Ultimately," Mr. Brock said, "the success of Achieving the Dream is dependent on the colleges' own commitment to the work."


1. archman - February 09, 2011 at 09:11 am

So much for the carrot, let's bring back the stick and see what happens...

2. couragetoteach - February 09, 2011 at 02:24 pm

Let's make senior year more meaningful so students come to college better prepared for basic math, reading and writing skills. In my state, high school seniors can leave after one period of senior English, go to their fast-food jobs for the day, and come back to their high school campus for practice for whatever sport they play. One year later they take a placement examination, and of course they need developmental everything.

3. quicksilver - February 09, 2011 at 06:16 pm

This program is very similar to Head Start in that it is has not made a dent in achieving its "dream" in this case. The reason is that the very habits and traits that cause the target demographics to drop out are so ingrained in childhood as to be essentially "untouchable" by outside influence, no matter how well designed. If student do not possess the needed skills at HS graduation, playing catch up via programs like this are almost always 100% futile.

4. gadget - February 09, 2011 at 06:23 pm

Any project that focuses on data collection and analysis, without changing instructional practice, won't succeed.

I teach all levels of writing. Most writing teachers are English literature or creative writing master's degree recipients and haven't a clue on how to teach writing to developmental and regular freshmen students. They have never been exposed to any research on effective writing instruction--many of them assign personal essays rather than teaching academic writing, then wonder why students can't think or write. Very few have any training in L2 writing, when most of our students are not native English speakers.

5. resource - February 09, 2011 at 06:29 pm

Another bit of evidence that supports the conclusion that it is nature, more than nurture, that predicts academic outcomes -- and more so in higher education. Educational practitioners have jumped from one broken down band wagon to the next one going by for decades, yet the percentage of students who demonstrate different skills levels has remained essentially the same. See math acheivement. Once a population has full access to 'good enough' instruction, nature takes its course no matter how strenuous our efforts.

6. resource - February 09, 2011 at 06:43 pm

"Ultimately," Mr. Brock said, "the success of Achieving the Dream is dependent on the colleges' own commitment to the work."

er ah, what about the students' committment to do the work?

7. quicksilver - February 09, 2011 at 07:41 pm


Yes, at the end of the day, Lumina's $75m and taxpayers' money ain't worth jack if the work never gets turned in...funny how simple that concept is.

8. triple_c - February 09, 2011 at 08:19 pm

So much for the "culture of evidence" thing...

Besides, I was really never a big fan of "evidence": it usually sent my clients to jail.

9. jffoster - February 09, 2011 at 10:36 pm

"Ultimately," Mr. Brock said, "the success of Achieving the Dream is dependent on the colleges' own commitment to the work."

How clever and convenient. That way if it doesn't succeed, it's all the colleges fault. They obviously weren't committed enough. No possibility at all that the program and scheme is wrong headed and ill conceived.

BTW, let's call remedial courses what they are and ditch the "developmental" crap.

10. 22216726 - February 10, 2011 at 08:05 am

Yes, what the Brock Study affirms is that increasing "achievement" in any area including post-secondary education offered by community colleges must be approached from multiple angles including the prior educational preparation, parental commitment, student motivation, etc.IF progress is to be made with student achievement. Operating in isolation of these other variables will consistently produce the results that Brock's study affirms. No surprise.

11. peter_h - February 10, 2011 at 10:49 am

"Gadget" is onto something. The residual value of Achieving the Dream is a nationwide data collection system for the benefit of Lumina foundation's policy studies. This allows the foundation to conduct large scale studies and recommend policy changes, whether or not individual colleges participate with their own interventions/pilots.
The carrot (or stick) with IPEDS is federal financial aid. What is Achieving the Dream's carrot remains to be seen.
Would love to know what is the residual cost to institutions collecting data for Achieving the Dream. Many schools I have talked to are left behind with no help to understand the meaning of the numbers and chaotic budget shuffles to cover radical operational changes.

12. kschopmeyer - February 10, 2011 at 10:53 am

While the initial findings of the first round of Achieving the Dream colleges shows small progress in student success, the tone of many of these comments imply that the program is a failure and should be ended. The fact is that we are dealing with major challenges which stem from many different causes, including poor pre-college preparation in high schools and student populations that bring many at-risk factors to college. Add in exploding enrollments in recent years that diverted resources just to accommodate the numbers and growing student populations brought to college by virtue of the economic crisis, the challenge is daunting.

It is important that the colleges involved in ATD have time to learn from their own experiences and from others and make changes in their efforts. The last thing we need is to have the rug pulled out so others can claim that nothing works and we should stop making efforts to change. Do we really want to return to just blaming...the students, the high schools, the cell phones, or whatever...instead of changing?

13. quicksilver - February 10, 2011 at 11:51 am


In a word, yes. We do want to blame the students because students, no one else, are ultimately responsible for their own learning. It is time for us to face the reality that nothing really does work when dealing with college students who cannot read, write, or solve single-variable equations.

14. resource - February 10, 2011 at 06:01 pm

quicksilver wrote: "It is time for us to face the reality that nothing really does work when dealing with college students who cannot read, write, or solve single-variable equations."

I would add to that: "and dont want to be bothered."

Regular old lecture, practice, and testing works for efficiently and effectively educating students who want to learn and value the process. All the clever machinations we apply do nothing for those who dont care and dont value learning for its own value. Nor should we torture them to try to make them, nor decieve them that everyone can if the teacher does it right.

15. awrosser - February 11, 2011 at 04:54 pm

I've read the report...not only the Chronicle article...and I was also in the session at the Achieving the Dream National Strategy Institute where the report was presented and then thoughtfully discussed. First, it is important to appreciate the transparency with which the study was conducted and released. The 26 colleges involved in this study are the first round, and although they have been in the initiative the longest, they only have a few years of data in the analysis. It is also important to know that all data in the report is averaged. As was pointed out in the discussion following the report's presentation, some institutions made dramatic progress. Others did not, but you learn from that variance...and the participants are indeed learning. I remain impressed by the committed individuals in our community colleges who are doing this work. There is certainly more to be done, but I believe Achieving the Dream is causing meaningful change in higher education.

16. gcastilla - February 11, 2011 at 10:43 pm

There does not seem to be anything new and groundbreaking behind this framework. HOwever, it looks good in your CV.

17. cw4ca - February 12, 2011 at 10:18 am

Perhaps they should also take a look at who is hired to teach these classes. While I am very engaged with my students, I am an adjunct. There is no real incentive for me to help out lower level students or to even try to reach them. No matter if I do an amazing job or a mediocre one, what will it accomplish? I will be reliant on maybe getting another poorly paid, part-time schedule next semester. Perhaps if CC's hired full-time professors instead of whoever happens to be able to teach for a few bucks, the instruction would improve.

And gadget, I beg to differ. I have a specialization in Creative Writing, but all my assignments are argumentative. I find that where I teach, it isn't the literature or CW specialists who assign those personal essay but the high school teachers with teaching certificates who teach a class or two on the side.

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