June 23, 2017

Success Despite the Odds – AELP Credit versus Non-Credit

There had been a taxi-ride in D.C. rush hour, a two-hour security check and wait, a seven-hour flight to Frankfurt, a six-hour lay-over, another seven-hour flight, and another taxi ride. All in all, about a twenty-four-hour trip without sleep. I feel nauseous and disoriented, but I have to put on my hijab and abaya, the black cloak that women must wear by law in Saudi Arabia. I must continue to be alert because I don’t speak Arabic and I don’t want to commit a cultural blunder that could land me in jail. I feel completely illiterate because I cannot even read the signs.  As if to make the situation somehow okay, I remember that I have experienced this before when I was in China, where I ended up in the middle of nowhere and I had to walk an hour to get back to a place that I recognized because I couldn’t even distinguish four from six characters on the bus – “Just take the bus with the six characters”…… Right. “Dr.” van den Berg, alias Dr. Dummy was completely at the mercy of strangers.

Why do I bring this up? Because this is exactly how our non-native students feel. They have to overcome tremendous odds –culture shock, home sickness, poverty, war and trauma even- and in addition, they have to learn another language in a ridiculously short amount of time. If you have ever lived in another country, you know that even the “standard” seven years in too short to learn a foreign language adequately[1]. Therefore, the fact that the AELP/ American English Language Program of Montgomery College prepares students for academic classes within a few years despite all those extra obstacles is quite amazing. Instead of asking, “How does the AELP accomplish such an astounding feat?” non-AELP folks at MC often seem to ask “How can we make the AELP look better to the outside world regardless of  whether that is beneficial to the students or not?”

There are many enthusiastic supporters of the AELP, who do nothing but encourage us in our endeavors. However, lately, it has become apparent that there is also a group who doesn’t understand the AELP and what it does. I am always surprised by complaints that the placement process is “not transparent enough,” that the students “take too long,” and that AELP classes are merely “remedial tutoring” by another name. What strikes me though is that those who are least in the classroom seem to have the most outspoken and in my opinion misguided perceptions. – I would like to say to those people: Have you ever taken the trouble to see what the placement process involves, have you ever visited an AELP class, or perhaps learned another language from scratch well enough to dream in it? Probably not!

Maybe you should. Maybe that would diffuse the tension that has been building now for quite a while. Wouldn’t it be nice if the storm that has been brewing over AELP country would just blow over? Wouldn’t it be grand if AELP and non-AELP folk (including administrators and counselors) would live happily ever after? I think it would be very nice indeed. The problem is that there is a long history of good AELP folks who have been fighting for their students and possibly equally well-intended administrators and counselors who have disregarded their expertise. 

It all started with a review of the first ESL program on the Rockville campus in 1990. At that time, the college-wide AELP didn’t exist yet, but faculty in the new Rockville department of -what was then called- Reading and ESL undertook a review of the ESL program, looking at what type of ESL classes were offered at other colleges, best practices per current research in the discipline, and per professional organizations with regard to skills, number of levels, length of time needed to master English etc. In addition, ESL students were surveyed whether they wanted their classes to be credit or non-credit. An overwhelming 97.5% of all the students wanted their ESL classes to be credit. Despite some protest from four TP/SS faculty members, the ad hoc committee formed to deal with this issue recommended in March of 1992 that institutional credit (counting the grade on the transcript, but not applicable toward the degree) was the way to go for a college wide ESL-program.

In 2004, after a “battle” of twelve years with AELP folks pitted against an unwilling administration, the much needed Speaking/Listening track finally became a reality when  the course proposal was approved by the Curriculum committee. Why the same people who now often still complain that they don’t understand non-native students had to oppose the very program that at least addresses some of those issues is a mystery to me. Just like I am completely baffled by the convenience of calling us ten-month employees, while I know of two instances when AELP faculty were asked to do AELP placements throughout the year without compensation. I know so because I attended the CAPDI meeting in my capacity as Chair person at the time; I had a faculty member who had been doing AELP placements without compensation. Again, as Chair person, I was and still am fully aware that full-time faculty members have many obligations besides teaching. However, contractually, it is simply not right to demand that a faculty member who is not compensated be available during every break to read writing samples and do placements of non-native speakers. Why the faculty member and I had to “fight” to get the required compensation is beyond me. But wait….these are just minor incidents leading up to the grand finale – The AELP credit / non-credit debacle! And let me be clear; I am in no way vested in the outcome. Whether AELP should be credit or non-credit is almost beside the point; the point is that the AELP credit / non-credit debacle seems to be the culmination of a long history of disregarding the expertise and commitment of the AELP faculty. 

When in 2008, Federal laws changed, jeopardizing Financial Aid for AELP students due to their non-credit bearing courses, the administration took no action, which impacted over a hundred students. By fall 2009, this issue –which could have been fixed by a small editorial change in the catalogue- as well as the fact that TP/SS students raised a concern about the negative impact of institutional AELP credit on their GPAs was brought to the attention of the AELP faculty members. As a result, the AELP/IC (American English Language Program Institutional Credit) workgroup was formed, consisting of faculty, counselors, and deans to address these concerns.

From the summer of 2010 till the release of its report in April 2011, the AELP/IC met many times. Looking at overall and “adjusted” grade point averages of all students who completed EL104 in FY2007 (and were tracked for two years), it turned out that when AELP courses were removed, the GPAs increased only by .017. However, 64% of EL104 TPSS students would have benefited from the removal of institutional credits from the calculation of their GPAs compared to that of students completing EL 104 at the other campuses. Therefore, the AELP/IC Workgroup recommended institutional credit be maintained, but further data collection and analysis was needed regarding TP/SS. 

Late October, 2011, V.P. Paula Matuskey sent out an e-mail to AELP faculty members asking them to come to a meeting at 5 p.m. on November third, at Germantown. Since no agenda was provided, no one knew what the meeting we had been summoned to was about. We only knew that the deans, provosts, and AELP/IC workgroup was supposed to meet an hour before all AELP faculty were supposed to meet. When we were kept waiting in the hallway for half an hour, we decided to walk in. The mood was adversarial to say the least. To show my allegiance, I sat down next to a highly-respected faculty member who was irate and very vocal about the fact that the recommendations of the AELP/IC were disregarded. She pointed out that it was not only demoralizing but also simply a waste of resources and time. To my utter shock, in response, I heard things like “we must fix this broken program” and “council members wonder why we take so long to teach international students English.”  Had I missed something because we had been forced to pace the hall for 25 minutes? Since when was the program “broken”? The last Outcomes Assessment report I had read had indicated that AELP students did very well in subsequent classes….. Whatever council member it was, must have been joking. I speak four languages of which I speak two fluently, but to get to that point took me about 25 years. Talk about unrealistic expectations and not being well informed! This was a very strange meeting indeed, which made me feel slighted. Before I had to leave to go teach my evening class, it became clear that V.P. Matuskey was planning to make the AELP non-credit despite the recommendations from the work group. Before I left, I glanced over at my colleagues who had spent a year apparently on a wild goose chase. They looked distraught.

The next few days, the halls of MC were abuzz with whispered conversations about how people felt physically sick, sad, or at least ill at ease after the meeting. Then V.P. Matusky sent out an e-mail stating that she supported the “recommendations of the task group with the exception of the recommendation relating to institutional credit” and that “by the end of this academic year…courses [would have to be changed] from institutional credit to no credit” by a small subgroup led by AELP lead dean Hawkins and Professor Berman.   The same day, Professor Berman answered this e-mail confirming he would form a new committee that would gather more data and then, “based on the data, recommend a system that serve[d] students best…”

 On November 16, Laura Gardner, a TPSS counselor, sent an e-mail stating that “the decision to eliminate credit for the AELP program ha[d] been made,” and that “twenty years ago the English department abrogated the curriculum process to put [the AELP] in place” and that “this travesty [needed to be] rectified.”  On November 17th, Rick Penn (AAUP chair) met with Dr. Pollard to express concern not with the decision itself, but with the processes by which these decisions were made and communicated. Dr. Pollard answered that no decisions had been made. 

After that, the AELP credit versus non-credit issue kept surfacing in e-mails zinging through cyberspace, floating in whispered gossip behind closed doors, and drifting aimlessly down the hallways poisoning our working environment. 

What is the end result of this debacle?

We don’t know yet, and honestly, in my opinion, the end result cannot be more earth-shattering or devastating than the way this was handled. I am a reasonable person who can adapt to circumstances and even a flawed system, so I am sure that I will learn to live with whatever the decision is. What I find much harder to live with is that a growing sense of discontent -of a feeling that those who do not teach don’t respect me or value my professional opinion – has been growing deep inside me like a cancer, weakening me and sapping me of the energy and strength that my students deserve. 

What was that again?

I remember something vaguely of the students “being the center of our universe,” or that our mission was to “empower students”….. Forgive me if I forgot what I was here for; my mission was buried in a quagmire of paper-pushing, busy-work, and committees that apparently don’t always matter. No, joking aside now; the only reason that someone in his or her right mind would invest a tremendous amount of time and money to obtain a Master’s Degree or Ph.D., teach at a community college, and put in 60+ hours every week for a salary that is far below what anyone with those credentials would make in other fields is because that person loves students.

I do.

I stayed at Montgomery College when life almost took me elsewhere because I love particularly those non-native students I started my story with. I want to teach precisely those brave, unique, intelligent, diverse, and amazing human beings from other countries who teach me so much each and every semester about myself and the world I live in. If Montgomery College would just let me. 

I appreciate the efforts of Deans who make sure that we comply with MHEC. However, I do think that ultimately, AELP people should make the decisions that affect them and their students. The person who was so angry when I walked into that infamous meeting said it best: “Why cannot the AELP, as a discipline, be left alone to make its own decisions?”

Why indeed?  

By Jorinde van den Berg, Ph.D.
AELP / EN – Germantown

February 5, 2012


 

[1] ESL-expert J. Cummings states that children need five to seven years to develop Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency. Adults, however, take much longer.  

 

Comments

  1. Karissa Silver says:

    Jorinde,

    Thank you so much for this article. I was one of the people on the AELP/IC Workgroup and I can vouch for the fact that we did very detailed and lengthy research on the issue of the effect of AELP courses on students’ GPAs. I too love working with international students, and I too feel our goal should be to do what is best for them.
    Hearing that all of our hard and lengthy work was about to be disregarded was maddening. What indeed is the point of forming a committee, having us meet on Saturdays during the summer, etc. etc., do careful research, present what we feel are the best suggestions possible for our students – and then have all of this hard work disregarded? I am a counselor, not an AELP professor, but I agree that the AELP department knows what it is doing.

    Karissa Silver
    Counseling and Advising, Rockville
    February 13, 2011

    • Phineaus St. Claire says:

      Prof Jorinder van den Berg:
      Thank you very much for your informative and inspirational article on the state of AELP Courses. I am most touched by your respect, admiration, and love you have tor your students. I have taught EL 104 and Philosophy courses at the Rockville Campus for over a decade. I share with you as intense admiration and love of students of what ever background. Nevertheless, there is a certain charm and greatness about the courage and hopefulness of non-native students that inspires me every single day. I am not a native born American either, but when I went to school here, I had sufficient fund to carry me through years of schooling in some of the finest Universities in the nation. I did not have to work two jobs, provide for a family with children, or care for sick parents et cetera. I learn from my students what it means to have great courage and how to face a rather dreary/bleak World with hope and great fortitude. It is important that one be aware of the great challenge non-native students face every single day. Let us help them and serve them well with all our resources. Thanks again for a wonderful article.
      Phineaus

    • Thank you both for your comments. I know that MC boasts many good people who do understand what is needed for AELP students, and it makes me feel good to hear from you!

      Like I wrote, even those who do things that I think are not beneficial for AELP students might do so with the best intentions. The thing is that in the meantime, it hurts the most vulnerable population, which by the way also seems to be a population with tremendous potential- Just think of the percentage of non-native speakers who end up winning awards and getting honors and scholarships. We cannot let those who do not know this population well dictate the course of the AELP.

  2. As the other counselor who participated in the deliberations of the AELP/IC Workgroup, I hasten to point out that the views expressed by Karissa Silver do not necessarily reflect the opinions of other counselors. And she certainly does not speak for the Takoma Park/Silver Spring counselors when the GPAs of their students are disproportionately affected by AELP grades! To be sure, graduates of AELP generally do well in college-level courses, and some data suggest that they even outperform their peers who tested directly into EN 101/101A. In fact, some of our students who started at the lowest level have gone on to succeed in Honors EN 102. So concerns about certain aspects of AELP cannot reasonably be interpreted as an assault on the program or the faculty for whom I have the greatest respect.
    Nevertheless, thorny issues persist. It is unfortunate that these have not been addressed over the last two decades. First, Dr. Berg ,in her article ,
    stated that 97.5% of students surveyed said they wanted their AELP classes to be credit. My question is, did someone bother to explain to the students the meaning of “institutional credits”? Indeed, this is the point of contention. If one has so much faith in the award of credits, why impose restrictions on their use? As a member of the Workgroup, I found no justification for the reversal of an earlier proposal by the discipline that would have granted variable DEGREE credits for AELP courses. Second, I am baffled by the apparent indifference of some AELP faculty to the fact that “64% of EL 104 TP/SS students would have benefited from the removal of institutional credits from the calculation of their GPAs compared to that of students completing EL 104 at other campuses.” To argue that on “aggregate” analysis, the GPAs of AELP students increased by only .017 masks the crucial campus difference.
    In my opinion, the argument regarding the infringement of pedagogical rights is misleading and unwarranted. Adherents of pedagogical freedom tend to talk around the critical issues rather than about them. Further, it is incorrect to state that the administration rejected the AELP report in its entirety. A number of AELP/IC recommendations were accepted, including the need for improved communication and further study. My hope is that we can all focus on the most important issues and move forward in the best interest of our students.

    Harold Barber
    Counseling and Advising, Takoma Park/Silver Spring Campus.
    February 17, 2012.

    • Dear Harold,

      Thanks for your comments. I am glad we can have a discussion here to clear the air so to speak.

      First, I am not sure how thorough the explanation of what having AELP credit classes really means was at the time because I was not at MC, but I trust the faculty members who were in charge did their best to present things in a fair way. I know most of the people who were involved and I respect them.

      Second, there is no need to be “baffled” by what you perceive as “indifference of some AELP faculty to the fact that “64% of EL 104 TP/SS students would have benefited from the removal of institutional credits.” I am not, nor I believe is anyone, of the opinion that we should just forget about the fact that especially TP/SS EL104 students seem to be affected. That’s why “further research was warranted.” In fact, this may point to something else completely, such as the fact that perhaps the populations that we serve in EL104 may be very different per campus, and maybe we don’t address their needs sufficiently, or perhaps the other two campuses are not strict enough. I really don’t know. We need to do more research, and like we all say, do what it best for the students,

      I am not sure why you say that the “argument regarding the infringement of pedagogical rights is misleading and unwarranted.” Like I said in the article, I think most of the deans and provosts involved have the best intentions, and I know most of them and like them. However, the way this was handled was not good, and I did feel like what the workgroup had been working on for so long was disregarded and that is not right.

      I think you assume that I am against removing institutional credit, but I never said that. I refuse to express my opinion for or against in this forum because that was not the point of this article at all. The point is that we all want what is best for the students, but I don’t think that the way we are trying to find the solution has been very classy.

      Have a great day! Best, Jorinde

  3. Laura Gardner says:

    Professor Van Den Berg’s description of feeling bewildered and feeling as though she may have been considered “Dr. Dummy” in a new land with a new culture and language is exactly the basis of the concern about students being judged at Montgomery College by their grades earned in American English Language courses. These courses represent a student’s acquisition of a new language, not their abilities in subject areas once the student has achieved a level of comfort in writing, reading, and speaking a new language. If Dr. Van Den Berg were to move to Saudi Arabia and compete for a space at a prestigious university to complete a bachelor’s degree, would she want the decision to admit her and possible scholarship monies awarded to include a judgment of her grades earned in her first struggles in language courses?

    Students who come to MC as native speakers of American English who need to take courses to improve grammar skills do not have grades in those classes (EN 001/002 and RD 095/099) counted toward their official overall grade point average. This issue of fairness was washed over by the Committee’s conclusion that half of all students are helped and half are not by the inclusion of AELP grades in the overall GPA. Even more AELP students at the Takoma Park/Silver Spring campus have lower GPA’s with the inclusion of AELP credits. I objected to this premise when it was raised during the committee’s deliberations and have continued to lobby for a better answer to this fairness issue through every avenue possible. The solution of using institutional credit, which will calculate an internal GPA for AELP students, will serve the same purpose as external credit without penalizing AELP students. This fairness will extend to all students in programs designed to give students college-level English and math skills, so all students will generate an institutional GPA to be used by MC internally to track progress, but it will not be published as an official external GPA on college transcripts. Grades earned in AELP and developmental courses will continue to appear on transcripts, but the overall GPA will include only college course grades earned, not AELP or developmental course grades.

    Another important issue that was not addressed at all in Professor Van Den Berg’s article but is just as important to this discussion is the transferability of AELP courses. A suggested proposal to count the 3 credits earned in EL 104 as a credit-bearing elective or as a language course which would apply toward an MC degree was made in the AELP report referenced in the article. However, this would require curriculum action that is required to show evidence of transferability to institutions to which MC students typically transfer. The following schools have been identified as those to which most MC students transfer: American University, Bowie State University, Catholic University, Columbia Union College; Frostburg State University, Georgetown University, George Washington University, Howard University, Morgan State University, St. Mary’s College of Maryland, Salisbury University, Towson University, UMBC (University of Maryland Baltimore County), UMES (University of Maryland Eastern Shore), UMUC (University of Maryland University College), and UMCP (University of Maryland College Park). None of these schools except Bowie whose course equivalency is as yet “to be determined” give equivalent credit for English as a second language. The examples used in the AELP Proposal of 12/09 to support the transferability of EL 104 do not include institutions to which MC students typically transfer.

    It is unfortunate that the original committee’s recommendation did not stand; however, had there been no merit to continued concerns, the SVPAA’s Office certainly had the right to say that the case was closed following the committee’s findings. The decision to consider offering institutional credit is an excellent solution and brings fairness to the process of grading all students.

    I have never met Professor Van Den Berg, but I am a faculty member. I joined Montgomery College in 1978 therefore, I am well aware of faculty perception of treatment by the administration. I am sensitive to her and other AELP faculty feelings that they have been treated unfairly however; I am more concerned about fairness to non English speaking AELP students. After all, as Professor Van Den Berg correctly points out, students (and no others) are the center of our universe.

    • Dear Laura,

      My feelings of bewilderment in a country I am not familiar with do not necessarily imply that we should not “judge [non-native speakers] at Montgomery College by their grades earned in American English Language courses.” Around 2005 in an AELP coordinators’ meeting, -like you- I once questioned the fairness of counting grades of AELP students in their GPA, while not counting the grades of Developmental native speakers in their GPA. In the name of what I perceived as injustice, I was overly passionate about the issue. Looking back, I think my intentions were good, but I was inexperienced and not the professional I hope I am now. In the meantime, I have been Chair person of the Communications Department (-including AELP at GT), which has turned me into a more well-rounded and wiser person who is able to see the bigger picture and might “attack” issues, but never people. I addition, I have changed my position because AELP students and native speakers in developmental classes are not the same populations and consequently don’t have the same needs.

      The success of non-native students in post-AELP courses largely depends on their ability to communicate well in English, so I am not so sure that it would benefit non-native speakers to make AELP courses non-credit. Honestly, I don’t know what the solution is, or whether I would feel judged in an unfair way on my grades in Arabic if I were to move to Saudi Arabia to pursue an education there. I agree that it would be just as daunting a task for me as learning English is for our students, but perhaps it would motivate me to work harder; when I used EAP funds to take a Spanish class, I felt strangely compelled to study harder knowing that auditing was not an option, and so my Dean, colleagues, and perhaps worst of all, I would see a “bad grade” if I didn’t give that class my all. I know that is silly and I know that Arabic is quite difficult, but I also know that I am still –since you use that term- “judged” every day because I am in fact a non-native speaker myself. I always tell my students, that I am trying to get them to that wonderful point where they can dream in two languages, but in order to get there, they need to learn how to think in English first. The only way to do that is by giving 100% because let’s face it, non-natives speakers need to work harder and be better than their native peers to succeed in this highly competitive metropolitan area full of well-educated people. This is why I do not think that we can compare the developmental courses or students to AELP courses or students.

      Like I stated above in my response to Harold Barber, I fully acknowledge as did and does the IC/ AELP committee that more research needs to be done and further action needs to be taken to address the fact that AELP students at TP/SS have lower GPA’s with the inclusion of AELP credits.

      I did not discuss the issue of transferability of AELP courses because it is not relevant to the point I was trying to make nor to the IC/AELP report and its ensuing discussion so far. The report did point out that the University of Maryland, to which the majority of our students transfer, does not look at AELP credits of transfer students. If one of the alternatives to make only EL104 a credit-bearing elective is taken under serious consideration, issues of transferability should be studied in more detail. In addition, I do not think that we should let AU, Bowie, Columbia, Frostburg, or any of the other universities you mention dictate what we should do. I thought we were supposed to be leaders instead of catering to the needs of other institutions. Now that it has recently become clear that we are the largest college in Maryland, we can set the standards.

      Before concluding, I want to reiterate one last time, that all of this, however important, is not what my article is about. My comments here signify the last time I will address any issues pertaining to whether AELP courses should be credit or non-credit because that is not what bothers me about the whole situation. What bothers me is the unprofessional way the issue was handled not only by some administrators but by counselors/ faculty members as well. The usage of inflammatory language and stating that a decision to eliminate credit for the AELP program has been made when no such thing has been confirmed do not help, nor does labeling the AELP as a “broken program.” When I am in meetings with colleagues, I want to feel as good as I do when I am working with the students, and I want to know that if I am asked to invest a lot of time and effort in committee work, that what I have been doing was useful and will be take into consideration.

      Have a good day! Jorinde

  4. I think TP/SS counselors have over stepped their boundaries with this. Leave it to the discipline to make the decision. TP/SS Counselors need to about how they would feel if someone outside of their discipline told them what to do with their DS courses.

    Please know that not all counselors agree with the TP/SS counselors on this issue.

    • Laura Gardner says:

      We can all have a difference of opinion, but it is hard to respect a person that will not stand up for their conviction. This is not just a discipine issue, this is an ethical and moral issue. This issue has been discussed in the abstract too long, so let’s put a face on it. There are students past and present who have applied or are considering applying to competative academic programs. Their academic performace in discipline courses (high level math, chemistry and biology courses) is excellent. However, they received grades of C in AELP course. These AELP courses have negatively affected their grade point average thereby jeapordizing their chances for admission. To his credit, our Vice President and Provost, Dr. Brad Stewart, has offered to write letters to the admissions committees on behalf of these affected students. Why should he or anyone have to explain that academic credit for courses that not even Montgomery College allows to be used toward any degree or certificate (please see the catalog discriptions for EL and RD AELP coruses) should be omitted when evaluating applicants academic record. If annonymous and those like annonymous cannot see the blatant discrimination involved in this issue that only affects one class of students at this college, then perhaps this issue needs to be settled in a court of law via a class action law suit. Thankfully the law is not interested in pedagogy, the law is only interested in fairness. Unlike annonymous, I am not afraid or ashamed to take a principled stand on this issue. Laura Gardner, counselor, TP/SS.

      • Laura Gardner says:

        PS. Please don’t bother to comment on my spelling mistakes. If that is all you can get out of my response, then so be it. I am past caring about trivial matters.

  5. And this lack of respect for others and their opinions is why you are not representing your constituents well.

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