There and Back Again: Moving Toward Content-Review Based Prerequisites

Richard Mahon, Chair, Curriculum Committee

In Spring 2009, the Academic Senate adopted resolutions 9.02 and 9.03, calling for “changes… to Title 5 language on prerequisites that [would]… allow local faculty to base their determination for prerequisites of English, reading, or mathematics for collegiate level courses on content review” (9.02) and for “potential pilot projects, easily replicable at all colleges, for applying basic skills prerequisites to general education courses” (9.03). The question now is how to fulfill the requirements of these resolutions as effectively as possible.

Concern over establishing meaningful but not overly restrictive prerequisites has long been a concern of the Academic Senate. Searching past resolutions for “prerequisites” fills ten webpages from the Academic Senate’s resolution search engine and is the focus in an adopted Senate paper (Good Practices for the Implementation of Prerequisites 1997). More recently, Nancy Shulock’s “Rules of the Game” (2007) brought wider attention to the question of prerequisites as she criticized community colleges for their acceptance of enrollment policies which allow students to enroll in classes in which they are not adequately prepared to succeed.

Fewer and fewer community college faculty have been in the system long enough to recall the era when then-system chancellor David Mertes negotiated our current arrangement of “data [gathered] according to sound research practices” (Title 5 §55003(e)) as part of a 1991 out-of-court settlement in response to the Mexican American Legal Defense & Education Fund (MALDEF) suit against Fullerton College. It is to undo the requirement for “course-by-course” (53003(g)) data collection and validation that the Senate is now embarked on piloting content review based prerequisite validation in order to move away from the regulations developed under then Chancellor Mertes.

An ironic consequence of the 1991 Chancellor’s Office agreement with MALDEF is that §53003 requires that colleges be particularly concerned about “disproportionate impact on particular groups of students described in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, age or disability,” but it is arguable that success rates for these and other students in many courses have been adversely affected by the onerous process through which communication and computation prerequisites must be established under current regulations.

The pilot project called for in 9.03 is targeted on general education courses. A number of questions immediately suggest themselves. What general education area should the pilot focus on? What course should be the initial prerequisite? Where should the pilot project take place? Should they be regionally based? How many pilot projects can be established and evaluated across the state in a period of fiscal crisis?

Some answers are also clear: pilot projects should apply to a broad enough sample of classes that students can’t avoid prerequisites by taking non-pilot courses. The prerequisite course should be rigorous enough to provide the skills necessary to produce increased success but not so high as to decimate the population of students eligible to enroll in the target course. If a significant number of courses are involved in the pilot, the pilot should not take place at a college where students could easily enroll in comparable courses at neighboring colleges unless surrounding colleges are also involved in the pilot project.

Academic Senate president Jane Patton will be forming a task force, chaired by the Academic Senate and with expanded membership from administrative ranks and others to be determined. The goal of this group will be to anticipate and plan for the stumbling blocks that are likely to emerge as implementation of the Senate’s resolution seeks to identify ways of phasing in prerequisites based on content review via methods that are as undisruptive to students and colleges as possible. There will be a breakout at Fall Plenary Session to provide faculty the opportunity to learn more about how our efforts to revise Title 5 §53003 and prepare for pilot projects are proceeding.

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