Credit Check

Nancy Kral was confused. A longtime professor of political science at Tomball College, Kral considered herself well versed in college course material. And so far as she could tell, that was exactly why she had been asked to attend a meeting at Cy-Fair High School on that spring day in 1997.

Kral thought she would be evaluating a course, slated for the following semester, to determine if it was of college caliber. Government 2301 was part of a new program that allowed high school students to be taught college material by high school teachers during the regular class day. If the students passed, they received college credit before they ever set foot on a college campus.

But when Kral took a look at high school teacher Barbara Fargarson's proposed outline of the course, she didn't like what she saw. It seemed the course incorporated part of the college's Government 2301 and part of Government 2302 in just one high school semester. This, Kral figured, didn't give Fargarson enough time to properly teach all the 2301 material. Plus, Kral felt the syllabus did not provide enough specific information. Fargarson's syllabus said the course planned to cover political parties. Well, Kral thought, political parties could be taught at any level, from elementary school to graduate school. How could Kral be sure the topic would be taught at the appropriate college level when she had only a syllabus to examine?

She voiced her concerns to the others in attendance at the meeting: Fargarson, Kral's associate dean William Simcik and LaVelle Shelton, Cypress-Fairbanks ISD's director for curriculum and instruction. "As a professional who has taught this class, I know it is not the equivalent," Kral remembers saying.

"Honey, did you know your administration approved this already?" Kral quotes Shelton as saying. She recalls replying, "First of all, you call me honey -- not good." And then Fargarson started to cry in the meeting. "She was just upset that here I was, and they thought this was a done deal," Kral says.

Kral refused to sign off on the course. Simcik -- his teaching background is in biology, not political science -- later approved the class. For Kral and other faculty members at the North Harris Montgomery Community College District (which includes Tomball College), the Cy-Fair meeting was one of the first signs that something was seriously wrong when it came to the way the community college district was handling the new idea of concurrent dual credit.

Four years later the frustrations have only escalated for Kral and her colleagues.

Their concerns about the program are many. They believe hundreds of high school students both in their own college district and statewide are earning questionable college credit for courses taught in high school -- even after college professors have questioned if the courses are up to par. They say college administrators have written off their complaints, claiming that the angry professors are just a small disgruntled group of academic elitists.

Upset faculty members also counter that these concurrent credit courses are cash cows for the college, now pumping around $1 million into the NHMCCD system each academic year.

Worst of all, the concurrent credit program has been operating statewide for almost six years, with over 11,000 Texas high schoolers racking up college credit, yet there seems to be little state oversight and hardly any tracking of these students' performance in college.

"You have to have reviews, you have assessments, monitoring," says Kral. "And that is what is glaringly absent, except for administrators, who have a very vested interest in perpetuating it, because of the money. There is no academic safeguard in place at all."

High school students taking classes for college credit is hardly new. For ages Texas teenagers have been able to earn college credit by enrolling in advanced placement courses in their high schools. The classes are taught by high school instructors and have no connections with any community colleges.

Students who enroll in the rigorous classes prove their merit by taking a nationally administered AP exam at the end of the school year. Depending on the students' results and what their future universities set as qualifying scores, the students may or may not be able to take credit with them when they start their college careers.

But for students who did not have AP classes available, there were still options to earn credit. Motivated students could take night classes at community colleges, and NHMCCD also worked out a system to send professors to teach in the high schools. According to faculty members, this type of dual credit was carefully monitored. The district held faculty meetings to gather teacher input, and issues were addressed in faculty senate meetings. Professors felt they had a handle on this relatively small program, and because they were teaching the classes and preparing the exams, they felt confident in the caliber of the courses.

In 1995 the options widened dramatically when the Texas legislature voted to expand the program of dual credit.

Supporters argued that many high school seniors in Texas were bored silly during their last year of high school. Instead of killing time, why not make it easy for them to earn college credit by simply bringing the advanced courses to them during the high school day? And there was an incentive for the state: It's cheaper to educate the students in high school than in a state college or university.

"It's cost-effective," says U.S. Congressman Ciro D. Rodriguez of the San Antonio area. According to Rodriguez, who authored the successful college credit bill as a state legislator, there were more than 11,000 concurrent dual credit students enrolled statewide in the fall of 1999, the most recent statistic available.

"We've had some kids who can start [college] as sophomores," Rodriguez says. "If you've got problems down there, it is because it is not being implemented properly. It's a darn good program when being used appropriately."

But some NHMCCD faculty members aren't sure it's a darn good program at all. In fact, they think the bill has opened a Pandora's box of academic issues that no one is addressing. And they believe the ultimate losers are the students.

If the upset faculty members have leaders, they are Nancy Kral and political science colleague Carolyn Davis, a professor at North Harris College (Tomball, North Harris, Montgomery College and Kingwood College make up the NHMCCD). The two have written and documented dozens of letters and e-mails among the faculty, administration, government officials and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

Davis, a professor for 23 years at North Harris, speaks passionately about defending the tradition of "the academy." She worries that NHMCCD is turning into a "credit mill" with little thought given to the quality of some of the dual credit classes.

"In the end, we work very hard to make sure that the caliber of the course work we have is similar if not better than what they would be receiving if they were going off to A&M or Austin," says Davis. "For them to now lump these courses in without even letting us know, and we say they're not equivalent? They don't take our word for it."

At first glance, the new face of concurrent dual credit seems simple enough. Public school districts form operating agreements with a community college district. NHMCCD has agreements with all 15 ISDs in its service area.

In the spring 2001 semester, 2,220 high school students took advantage of the program at NHMCCD (around 8 percent of the district's 26,000 enrollment). These eligible high school students take college courses during the high school day, in the high school building. They are taught by high school instructors who must have a master's degree and at least 18 graduate hours in the discipline they are teaching.

The state reimburses the community college based on a funding formula determined by the legislature. The college pays the school district instructors at a basic adjunct teacher's rate. The only cost to the high school student is a registration and technology fee (about $20 a class at NHMCCD).

Those provisions cover the financial aspects and basic qualifications for teachers and students involved in the program, but the overriding problem is that there's no system of effective checks and balances to make sure the program is being implemented correctly.

General rules are set by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, the state agency that oversees state colleges and universities. But even though the board can establish regulations and conduct enrollment audits to verify correct procedures are being followed, it doesn't investigate complaints about the content of the courses. When Kral and other political science faculty members appealed to the agency, the board decided the NHMCCD administration could handle the problem internally.

"We don't spell out in those rules a procedure for investigating a complaint from the faculty," says Don Brown, the board's commissioner of higher education. "We don't have a regulatory force or police force."

Glenda Barron, the board's assistant commissioner for community and technical colleges, acknowledges the professors' concerns but admits she's at a loss for a solution.

"I can't imagine the faculty going to the extreme they have gone to to reach us and others unless they truly believe something is wrong," she says. "But I just don't see a role for us. If there is a concern of quality, we think it should be the institution's responsibility."

Brown and Barron say most complaints should be dealt with internally on the college level. However, Kral, Davis and other upset faculty members say they have become so frustrated with the administration's inaction and the lack of districtwide standards that they can turn to no one else but the press to make their point.

"You have to have much more in-depth review," says Davis. "That's what the coordinating board thinks is going on. But it's not going on."

Administrators flatly reject the accusations that they ignored the faculty's complaints. In fact, they think the faculty shouldn't have many complaints to begin with.

John Pickelman, the NHMCCD chancellor, even seemed to be confused about the nature of the faculty issues -- he referred to structures instead of scholastics, saying:

"I hate to say it, but I think it's elitism on the part of our faculty to say that these classes can't go on in certain buildings."

He and other administrators argue that the school's recent reaccreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS is the major accrediting body for over 12,000 schools in 11 Southern states) proves that NHMCCD is handling the program correctly.

However, Kral and others point out that less than two years before, a May 1999 internal audit showed several deficiencies.

The school's own audit of the dual credit program, performed by internal audits director Ronnie Darden, found inadequate record-keeping in several areas.

According to the audit, the colleges within NHMCCD broke SACS credentialing criteria by not obtaining proper faculty transcripts. Other deficiencies included missing admissions forms, dual credit waivers issued for incorrect amounts, and bookkeeping errors that allowed students to re-enroll in the dual credit program even when they had a below-C average.

Also, in a major violation of the coordinating board rules, NHMCCD had not even executed operating agreements with all participating ISDs during the fall of 1998, but students were signing up for the courses anyway.

While the deficiencies were apparently corrected in time for the SACS review this spring, Kral and others still feel there could be more problems before the next SACS review in 2011. And if there are, they aren't sure how the faculty will become aware of them.

Even more than the audit problems, the critics don't think that high schools are the best place to begin teaching college classes. Kral, who taught in public high schools for ten years before coming to NHMCCD, thinks many students lack the necessary maturity. And she isn't the only one.

"It is simply not possible to teach a college course in the high school milieu," says Bud Frankenberger, special assistant to the president of the University of Texas-Pan American in the South Texas town of Edinburg.

Frankenberger thinks the idea is rife with problems. Also an English professor, Frankenberger works with the Texas Business and Education Coalition, a group with the goal of improving public policy for public schools.

"The coordinating board rules are written rather permissively; there's no quality control," he says. More than that, Frankenberger's small study of dual credit students at UT-Pan American shows cause for concern.

In a freshman class at Pan American, only 18 to 20 percent of students who had taken concurrent dual credit courses made a GPA of 3.0 or higher. And even though concurrent dual credit supporters argue that the program attracts the brightest, most self-motivated kids, one in four former concurrent credit students didn't make a 2.0.

"Concurrent dual credit is a low expectancy program; it is teaching towards the mean," says Frankenberger.

Frankenberger argues that shorter class time, lack of convenient access to college libraries and labs, and everyday high school interruptions like ringing bells and requests for hall passes create an environment very different from a college campus. And class discussions can be limited by student maturity level.

Tim Howard, a political science professor at North Harris since 1990, agrees.

Howard, who has taught high school students in college campus classes, thinks teaching college in high school is like "trying to teach a zebra to be a giraffe." He believes that topics like sodomy laws, public profanity issues and the debate over flag burning can be too controversial for the under-18 crowd.

For instance, Howard says he could never teach the famous 1971 Supreme Court case Cohen v. California in a high school environment because it involved a plaintiff who wore a jacket bearing the phrase "Fuck the draft."

"High school students like to giggle and play with each other," says Howard. "Even when you have an experienced college professor teaching high school kids, it's an iffy proposition at best." One of Howard's biggest concerns is that the high school instructors teaching dual credit aren't always experienced with college-level work.

Concerned about these courses, Howard asked some of his students currently enrolled at NHMCCD to write a short paragraph describing their experiences, if any, with concurrent dual credit. One student, Jennifer Wilson, e-mailed her thoughts to both Howard and the Houston Press.

"I don't even know where to begin," wrote Wilson, who took a microcomputer application course at Klein High School her junior year. "The class persists [sic] of typing letters, memos, graphs, etc. I feel that the level of the class was for high school level, and has no comparison to the college level….I honestly believe that the class was taught at a level just to get the high school students a passing grade."

Another student shared her thoughts about a Spanish course she had taken at Jersey Village High: "The class itself was alright [sic]. I got the chance to learn another language. I think I did not get anything from it because I don't remember anything from that class. The only reason I took this course is because I was able to get credit from it for college."

Howard also received a letter from one student who wrote about how much he had enjoyed "dool" credit.

Added to the anecdotal evidence is the time professor Davis attended a student ambassadors' dinner. Student ambassadors are chosen by NHMCCD to represent the institution at various functions. As each ambassador stood up to tell his or her story, Davis was shocked when one began to heap praises on concurrent dual credit.

"This is what her story was," remembers Davis: " 'When I was in high school, I got C's and D's until I took a concurrent dual credit course and I got a B.' " The student went on to say that the experience had taught her how "easy" college work can be, and that it had given her confidence to go to college.

"She didn't realize the impact that was going to have on all of the faculty," says Davis.

Critics among the NHMCCD professors point out that they hardly oppose the basic concept of students earning some college credit while still in high school. Many are comfortable in the more traditional form of dual credit offered in college campus classes for advanced high school kids.

What the upset NHMCCD group believes is that the students need to demonstrate they have learned their subject, through methods such as the advanced placement courses and tests.

They also think stricter guidelines are needed to determine that the students are ready for the challenge. Unlike some schools that require above-average GPAs to enroll in an AP class, students wishing to take concurrent dual credit need only pass the Texas Academic Skills Program (TASP) to be eligible. That test can be waived if they score adequately on other exams such as the ACT and SAT.

Students who previously took an AP class may choose to take a concurrent dual credit class instead, avoiding the pressure of the mandatory AP exam. Adding to the college faculty's frustration is that Texas Coordinating Board rules allow AP students and concurrent dual credit students to take the course together in the same classroom. (Faculty members note that while most state universities and colleges accept concurrent credit, some smaller, private schools accept only AP, which is why some students continue to take it.) This, Kral and others say, leads to teaching toward a mean as opposed to keeping up a rigorous course schedule.

"The incentive is, these kids previously had to take the AP test," says Kral. "This takes the pressure off the high school teacher of having those students pass the exam. They are automatically given the college credit."

Nonsense, says LaVelle Shelton, Cypress-Fairbanks ISD's director for curriculum and instruction. Concurrent dual credit is the perfect solution "for students who have anxiety and are not good test takers." Shelton did not mention that they may not be good test takers because they haven't learned the material.

Shelton is not sure where the upset NHMCCD faculty members are coming from. "We screen our teachers very carefully," says Shelton. "The bottom line is, what's good for the kids? We need to have a cooperative spirit."

The concurrent dual credit program is gaining popularity in the Cypress- Fairbanks ISD. This past spring semester, there were 426 students enrolled, a jump from 201 students the previous year. Teaching some of these students is Barbara Fargarson, whose syllabus did not match up with Kral's standards a few years ago.

Fargarson thinks teaching a mixed batch of students does not hinder her ability to instruct. "I don't have the luxury to separate the AP kids from the concurrent credit kids, so they have to come up to the standards of the kids taking the AP test," she says. Fargarson, an 11-year teacher, brushes off Kral's and other faculty members' concerns.

"I never quite understood her objections," Fargarson says of Kral. "I never feel [the students are] being shortchanged."

But the faculty members' objections do not end with issues of academic integrity. One of the group's major sticking points is that NHMCCD encourages concurrent credit to generate much-desired funds through state reimbursement.

According to the district, NHMCCD tracks only the total amount of money reimbursed by the state (estimated at 40 percent of the school's funding), making it difficult to know how much the state receives for concurrent credit students. However after several requests by the Press, executive vice chancellor Stephen Head confirmed the state pays NHMCCD "between $900,000 and $1 million" for dual credit students. The Higher Education Coordinating Board says the state has paid the district $65 million in total state funding since the fall 1999 semester. Under the complicated reimbursement formula, a typical government course with 380 students would bring in $65,220 for the college district.

Adding to the faculty's concerns is the fact that public schools and college districts both get state funding for each student enrolled. As long as the student is enrolled in four or more instructional hours of high school credit, the kid is included in the average daily attendance figures of the high school, which increases funding for the public school district. So essentially some concurrent dual credit students are earning state money for two institutions while sitting in one room.

Critics also argue that even though NHMCCD compensates the public school district's faculty ($1,392 per class for every 25 students), not all high school faculty members in the program are paid for it. That's because not all school districts permit it -- prompting NHMCCD faculty members to wonder if high school faculty members are replacing essay tests with easier-to-grade multiple choice tests.

"You've got to have compensation," says Davis. "Otherwise, what teacher would spend the 30 hours I just spent Thursday, Friday and Saturday grading essay tests that go on for pages and pages?" Davis and Kral suggest that uncompensated high school teachers still teach the program to help their students earn college credit without having to deal with the pressures of the AP exam.

"There might be policies that school districts have that teachers cannot be compensated beyond their salary," acknowledges chancellor Pickelman. But what the school district chooses to do with the adjunct faculty salaries is beyond the college district's control, he says.

Kral and her colleagues also believe one of the reasons Kral's disapproval of the Cy-Fair High government class was met with such surprise is that NHMCCD was eager to have Cypress-Fairbanks ISD residents vote to join the NHMCCD (which they did August 12).

"We wanted to suck up to Cy-Fair in any way, shape or form," says Kral. "Cy-Fair is the tax-base prize of the district, because its tax base is so huge."

Pickelman laughs off the idea of generating funds through concurrent dual credit or coddling public school districts to join his college system.

"If our interest was to make money on this deal, we would charge tuition," he argues. Pickelman says concurrent credit is a useful, cost-effective benefit for all involved.

"It's a service to our community," he says. "We want to see as many students getting through the system as quickly as possible."

Pickelman believes program critics are just a small group of faculty with a "professional disagreement" over the philosophy behind concurrent credit. While he believes faculty members need to somehow be involved in the development of college courses, they are ultimately not the ones to determine which courses can be taught -- and who can teach them.

"We don't have faculty coming in to approve each of our adjunct professors," he argues. "We want these courses to be treated like any other college course."

With just a few weeks left in the school year, Stephen Head and members of an ad hoc committee of the Tomball College faculty senate gather in a room. They're trying to reach a middle ground to this four-year debate over concurrent dual credit, for the Tomball campus if not the entire college district.

Head, executive vice chancellor of NHMCCD, says he is a very "pro-faculty, pro-staff" kind of administrator, and his ties to faculty go beyond the classroom; his wife is a professor of computer information technology at Tomball. A soft-spoken man, he almost seems surprised that he has risen through the ranks of those in charge. As a former professor, he jokes that he can be "anti-administration," even though he is an essential part of it.

"Everybody involved in this is a friend of mine," Head says. "I'm just listening."

Philosophy professor Michael Capistran, head of the faculty committee, says concurrent credit has been "the most important issue regarding faculty morale." Nancy Kral's not here. She's on the committee but believes it best that she not attend -- she's already been vocal in the discussion and shared her thoughts with Head.

"My position on this, and my discussions with the chancellor, our communication…," Head pauses.

"Was poor," offers Capistran.

"Was poor," agrees Head.

Capistran and the others provide Head with a list of proposals. They include tracking methods such as districtwide exams to monitor the long-range success of concurrent dual credit students.

"I will concede we need some sort of districtwide standards, and more importantly we need some kind of regular review," says Head.

The committee has also proposed that the faculty have a role in implementing the concurrent credit classes and assessing their quality. Professors of each discipline should be directly involved with developing the curriculum, they say. And by working with the high school teachers in the program, the college faculty will feel more comfortable with the teachers instructing the high school students.

For more than an hour, the two sides discuss and debate. Finally, the professors agree to bring the proposal list to their senate. Head says if it is approved there, he'll take it to the executive council of NHMCCD. With the time-out for summer break, that means nothing could happen before next fall.

After the meeting adjourns, Head assures Capistran that everyone wants a solution.

Kral, who helped begin the fight over four years ago, isn't so sure. She's not positive the administration will really make it happen this time or if the committee's suggestions will be quietly ignored by the higher-ups.

"I'm optimistic they can set up some standardized process where faculty feel the dignity of their discipline is upheld," she says, choosing her words carefully. But after a pause she adds, "When I balance that with the money, I'm not as optimistic. At this point it's just a money grab; in the back of their minds, that's the motivator."


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