Saturday, October 13, 2007

The claustrophobic calendar

University envy

In the California's tripartite system of postsecondary public education, the prestigious University of California lords it over the more plebeian California State University, which in turn prides itself on its superiority to the humble California Community College system.

Okay, that's not strictly true. A lot of people recognize that the three segments serve distinct functions and mostly do a good job of it. The open-admission community colleges are a gateway to our most diverse array of education options, serving people whose academic backgrounds range from virtually nonexistent (those who wasted or missed their high school years) to UC-qualified (those seeking bargains or flexibility in our low-cost system while racking up units that will transfer to the CSU or UC). Still, we community college faculty members do occasionally notice that we are not held in the highest esteem. Sometimes, I'm afraid, we get jealous.

The most dramatic symptom of university envy in recent years has been the wide adoption among California community colleges of something called the “compressed calendar.” Because we're often lumped in with K-12 in the state's Education Code, all public community colleges have been bound to the 18-week semester used in elementary and high schools. A five-unit class, therefore, is a 90-hour commitment (allowing for the fact that a college hour is typically 50 minutes). The California State University, by contrast, uses a 15-week semester. That means our community colleges typically begin fall semester a full two or three weeks before the state universities open their campuses. You can see where that might stimulate some envy.

Since we offer many of the same courses as the state university, there has been a feeling among some community college professors that we ought to be able to align (that is, shorten) our semester with theirs. Despite that sentiment, however, there has never been a concerted effort to seek a legislative amendment to the Education Code that would put the CC and CSU systems on the same footing. It would probably have been a waste of time, so it's probably just as well that we did not take that approach. What we have been doing instead, however, may be worse.

The idea behind the “compressed calendar” is simple. If we're mandated to offer 90 hours of classroom time for five-unit classes (and 54 hours for three-unit classes), why not lengthen our class sessions so that we can rack up the necessary hours in fewer weeks? A bit of simple math shows that a 16-week semester is 11% shorter than an 18-week semester. If we make stretch our class hours from 50 minutes to 56 minutes (a 12% increase), we can squeeze our courses into the shorter semester without sacrificing any class time. (For those of you with sharp pencils, please note that a semester that is 8/9 as long as as regular semester would need class hours 9/8 as long as a regular 50-minute hour; 8/9 is 88.89% while 9/8 is 112.5%. Watch out for niggling round-off errors.) Simple, right?

Ogawd, no! The California Code of Regulations defines any period whose duration is between 50 and 60 minutes as a class hour. That is, we have to eat any excess over 50 minutes because we get no credit for it. The rationale behind this rule is simple: every 10 minutes out of 60-minute hour is reserved as break time, but if we want credit for minutes 51 through 60, we have to go beyond a 60-minute class period:
For purposes of this Article, the class hour unit for graded and ungraded classes is defined as not less than 50 consecutive minutes exclusive of passing time. In block scheduling of more than one class hour only one contact hour may be counted in each clock hour of 60 minutes, except that a fractional part of class hour beyond the last full clock hour may be counted from and including the 51st minute of the last full clock hour providing there is no class break in the last full clock or the partial class hour.
The consequences of this restriction are immediate: Our class periods must be longer than suggested by a simple computation of the minimum number of minutes. The longer periods create a surplus of class time over the course of a 16-week semester. How to compensate? We have to drop class meetings.

Fortunately for smaller schools, the Los Angeles Community College District has the resources to commit to a detailed analysis of the impact of the compressed calendar. A document produced in the LA chancellor's office in June 2003 was a primary resource as other colleges pondered whether to embrace the compressed schedule. The document's appendices offered precise guidelines for the class configurations feasible under different forms of the shortened school year. (This analysis is still available on-line at the LACCD website as a Word document for those eager to read the details.)

The compressed calendar rings the death knell for daily classes. Schools that adopted some version of it had to scramble to rearrange all their courses, with the result that twice-a-week classes became the rule. For three-unit classes, this meant periods approximately 80 minutes in length (longer if the college adopted a 15-week compressed calendar instead of a 16-week schedule), but five-unit classes turn into ordeals lasting two-and-a-half hours (with a short break somewhere in the middle). We have lots of five-unit classes in the math curriculum, which is probably why most of the math faculty voted against the compressed calendar when it was proposed for our college. Colleagues in other departments, however, provided the votes necessary to switch us to the new regimen.

Approximately half of the state's 100+ community colleges have moved to one version or another of the compressed calendar. There is less than a consensus concerning its success. Some schools, admittedly, did a clumsy job of implementing it, beginning and ending classes at weird times and stinting the passing-period interval that permits students and teachers to get from one class to the next. (One colleague at a bad-implementation school told me she was thinking of getting fitted for a catheter because her bathroom breaks were too far apart. I think she was kidding.) However, many faculty prefer teaching longer hours on fewer days. (I, frankly, don't.) Lots of students enthusiastically embrace the system. Why attend a class every day when you could attend it only twice a week on the compressed calendar?

Dare I mention learning outcomes? While the experiment is young enough that conclusive data have yet to be adduced, I do not believe that a subject like algebra is better learned in two big weekly doses in lieu of five smaller ones. The twice-weekly algebra class is a marathon, lasting over two hours. A format that used to be limited to night classes has boldly invaded the day schedule. Students do, however, happily sign up for those classes, filling twice-weekly sections first before settling for the sections that meet three or even four times each week. (At my school, we resisted the stampede to convert all classes to the twice-weekly format.) I have been fortunate enough to avoid teaching any marathon classes so far in our dalliance with the compressed calendar, but my colleagues admit they and their students are both flagging at the end of the long periods and the amount of material is difficult to digest in one session.

I've asked whether the students who eagerly signed up are still happy after a few weeks of the actual experience of a twice-weekly five-unit class. There is, of course, no single answer that covers all cases, but there is at least the hint of a problem with the bargain-hunting student. I asked a colleague, “Are students actually able to learn stuff after the ten-minute break, when the second hour-plus segment depends on material that was brand-new in the first segment?” He replied, “Some seem to. Others don't return from the break.”

I know where we'll see those students next semester.


The Ridger, FCD said...

Even if you could do a 56-minute class, you'd have to drastically rewrite your lesson plans. You can't just chop them up into 6-minute chunks and redistribute them, not if they were well-written modular lessons to begin with with.

Anonymous said...

I taught Calc 1 (for engineers) at a CC in the Bay Area, and I really liked the T/Th 6-8:30 slot. We could do a reasonable exam during the period and still have time for other things. We'd do a little break for the students to go out and get a smoke or something from the vending machines, and most of them usually came back.

I usually have much better experiences in night classes, though; the students are usually completely sure they ought to be there. The same thing at noon, with people still logey from lunch, might be pretty awful.


Lsquared said...

I don't even work for a CC, and some people here have schedule envy for the university next door. about 6 years ago they cut a week from the schedule and tacked 5 minutes onto every class period so there would be the same number of minutes (nope--you can't cover quite as much that way). Then, as soon as those students had graduated they took away the extra 5 minutes (nobody really uses the last 5 mins of class, right?) (nope--I cover less again than last time). I really hate being nickeled and dimed out of my instructional time by my colleagues.