Moving from Blame to Wonder

Mark Milliron Catalytic Conversations Civitas Learning Space

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If you’re interested in college access and success, take the time to visit a new site that just launched called EconomicDiversity.org. It’s an interesting look at the stratification of higher education that is occurring based on income. As college becomes increasingly expensive, with tuition increasing much faster than the rate of inflation, this is going to be a necessary conversation for policy makers, institutional leaders, community members, and parents. The institutional profile section is quite good, and the comparison tools allow you to do some benchmarking. Kudos to the Hewlett Foundation for once again driving the dialogue in education. EconomicDiversity.og reminds me of others like EdWatch Online and CollegeResults.org, which were launched by the Education Trust. EdWatch allows you to dive deep into public data about public schools. College Results allows you to break down public data about colleges, in particular their success with women and minorities. Then you can rate them against a peer group of institutions that fit their same profile. The Gates Foundation Transforming High Schools site has an interactive state by state profile of college readiness. Click on their interactive map on their front page and look up your own state’s performance. One of my favorite “put the data out there” sites is the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE). These data aren’t drawn from public data sets, but from actual institutional student engagement surveys that the institutions have allowed to be made public in an effort to create benchmarks, catalyze conversations about student engagement, and to learn from models of successful student outreach. Kay McClenney and her team at the University of Texas at Autsin have done an amazing job of pulling this national community of practice together. The long and the short of these services and sites is that there are more data available for education dialogues than ever before. This is a VERY good thing. Facing the brutal facts and celebrating the successes are both made easier by opening data to exploration. The challenge is that often these data don’t tell the whole story—there are real qualitative contingencies that just don’t show up in the neat charts and graphs. Moreover, some of these public datasets have REAL problems with missing data and other inconsistencies. Still, contingencies and conditions notwithstanding, without this first step – putting it out there–we’ll never begin to address what Steve Gilbert from the TLT Group calls “Dangerous Discussions.” I just hope we take a deep breath and as Steve Mittlestet, President of Richland College—a college that recently became the first educational institution to win the Malcolm Baldridge Quality Award—argues, “we turn to wonder, not blame.” Steve and his team argue that wonder makes you dive deep into root causes and solutions; blame gets you on the defensive immediately. We need wonder these days, coupled with doing the hard work of asking next-level questions and piloting solutions. The blame game just isn’t getting us anywhere.