Two topics central to the College – how Pima Community College can prepare students for careers, and how educators assess learning – came up in an interesting conversation during my visit last week to the El Rio Learning Center.
The Adult Education students who took part in forums and discussions with staff and faculty come from diverse backgrounds. All are on the road to a high school equivalency, but are setting their sights on the next steps of their education journey.
I told them the College has to provide students with more on-ramps to a career or a profession, such as internships and apprenticeships. A promising example for Adult Education students is the Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training program. IBEST is a nationally recognized model that improves students’ literacy and work skills so that they can earn credentials and get middle-class jobs. In an IBEST classroom, two instructors — one teaching professional content that students will need in the real world of work, the other teaching basic skills — work together so students can move through school and into jobs faster.
Northwest Campus is developing an IBEST component for its Hotel and Restaurant Management program; students in the program receive contextualized Adult Education, but a high equivalency is not the endpoint; the ultimate goal is employment in a growing industry that offers the opportunity to work all over the world.
One El Rio instructor spoke of students who make huge gains in learning that do not translate into improved scores on high school equivalency tests. Assessing student learning is a struggle for higher education, which relies too much on examinations that often aren’t sufficiently sensitive gauges of progress. The jobs of the 21st century require so-called soft skills – communication, problem solving, teamwork – whose mastery is difficult to reduce to a single number on an exam. Portfolios of work and capstone projects are more sophisticated measures of learning that account for differences in learning styles while still satisfying the need for assessment.
At El Rio, I asked the students, “What is your North Star?” In other words, what is your unwavering goal, your passion, the aspiration that other aspects of your life revolve around? Their answers indicated a deep desire to give back to the community. Putting students at the center of the learning process is essential to helping them reach their North Star, and to moving the College forward.