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Guided Pathways: Starting on the Right Foot

The road to increased student success begins with campus-wide common understanding  

(A. Solano

     I’ve had the privilege of working with California community colleges as they embark on planning and implementing Guided Pathways, by helping to facilitate conversations and provide structures and processes to get them started on the right foot.

     I will describe two key strategies I have used to help colleges to start their Guided Pathways journey, hoping you will find them helpful in your context. These strategies are:

1. Develop a common understanding of Guided Pathways
2. Create cross-functional design teams that inform the core group and the broader campus

     1. Develop a common understanding of Guided Pathways
Community college professionals often share with me that the commonly-used “four pillars” of Guided Pathways is a nice visual, but that it’s insufficient to help them fully understand the new framework and how it impacts them.

(In one-word descriptors, the four pillars are: Clarify, Intake, Support, Learning.)

     I encouraged one college to create a setting (see related article on settings) among stakeholders from all areas of the college, to come together and develop a common language around Guided Pathways. In the meeting, participants shared with me that they appreciated the think-pair-share activity because it helped them understand the difference between the status quo (cafeteria model) and the Guided Pathways model of student support and learning.

     I used Columbia University’s Community College Research Center “What We Know About Guided Pathways” piece (p. 2), along with the two-column model contrasting page, as a handout. 

     After working on the think-pair-share activity, participants shared their insights about Guided Pathways with the entire group. They had a rich conversation about how they have provided, and continue to provide, services to students, and how Guided Pathways constitutes a common-sense approach for students. The key take away from this activity was that they came to the self-realization that Guided Pathways wasn’t necessarily another “flavor of the month” or yet another mandate contributing to initiative fatigue. After the exercise, they said that Guided Pathways actually “made sense” to them. That’s significant progress.

     A second activity that I facilitated involved aligning all the college’s existing services, programs, projects, and initiatives to the four pillars. I placed four large chart papers on the wall, each one representing one pillar (Clarity, Intake, Learning, and Support), and participants worked in pairs to take stock of all services and align them to the pillars with sticky notes. This exercise was productive because it sparked a discussion about the opportunities and challenges of adapting a new framework that integrates instruction and student services. By performing this exercise early on, the key stakeholders got a glimpse of the meaningful and hard work ahead. To their credit, the Chancellor’s Office provided modest funding to help plan, implement, and make the necessary adjustments to Guided Pathways for their context. It’s important to note that Guided Pathways is not a one-size fits all approach, but rather, a framework that colleges can use in their unique context in order to glean optimal results for their students.

     Even with a cross-functional team in place, we could only inform so many people about the concept of Guided Pathways. What about the rest of the faculty, staff, and administrators? The next major step seemed obvious: hold a forum with the broader campus community, to develop a common language, and to clarify and understand Guided Pathways. I suggested that a faculty member and a student (who were both part of earlier discussions and meetings about Guided Pathways) take the lead roles in presenting, and that the forum be supported by the President, and the Vice Presidents of Instruction and Student Services.

     At the forum, the Academic Senate President engaged the audience with questions about which of their programs, strategies, services, projects, and/or initiatives fit into the Guided Pathways framework, and audience members provided an array of examples. By taking this approach, the Academic Senate President showed that Guided Pathways didn’t mean that the college needed to start from scratch; rather, they could build on their existing work to make it more structured and efficient for students.

     The student perspective was critical. She elaborated on why Guided Pathways would help her as a student by clarifying the path and stay on it. The counselors also contributed–especially the Articulation Counselor, who reminded everyone that Career & Technical Education is a good example of an existing Guided Pathways model at the campus. The Vice Presidents explained the processes and activities the cross-functional team has been up to thus far to continually develop a deeper understanding of Guided Pathways. They also explained that the forum was one component of many activities to come. The President also explained that, given the history of State initiatives and mandates, it’s understandable that some people view Guided Pathways as a new initiative/mandate, but that, as the community learns about it, they will see how it fits with the College’s existing efforts and strategic plan. The forum ended with a Q&A session to address an array of questions and concerns.

     One key take-away was that a cross-functional team, comprised of people who had participated in state-sponsored workshops and discussions about Guided Pathways, had been formed–but the broader community also needed to be involved in that conversation. The conversation doesn’t stop at the forum. Rather, the college will continue to plan activities to maintain the dialogue.

     2. Create cross-functional design teams that inform the core group and the broader campus

     I met with the Guided Pathways co-chair from another college to learn where they were in their Guided Pathways process. Having gone through common understanding activities already, they had reached a point where they had drafted their design teams and were ready to dig more deeply into the work.

Guided Pathways Design Teams

     For optimal functioning, the College created six design teams, with key members of the core team also participating in each of the individual teams. The design teams include: 

• Mapping Existing Curriculum (Sequencing majors with pre-requisites.)
• Advising & Case Management (Includes the integration of discipline faculty into the advising process.)
• Academic Clusters (Which is a “place holder” name for this team until they decide on a final name. Some colleges are calling it “meta-majors” or “areas of interest.”)
• Student Support (How does student support play a role throughout the student journey.)
• Entry (Outreach, enrollment, matriculation, etc.)
• Communication (This team was created to work on internal communication about the Guided Pathways work but more importantly to evaluate their external communication to students. When to message students, what messages to send, are they sent just in time, are there too many, etc.)

     Please notice the two-way communication between the teams and the core group in the center. Each is informing the other. The core team is responsible for completing the Guided Pathways planning document, and for planning and implementing Guided Pathways for the next five years and beyond. The communication team, in collaboration with the core group, is responsible for informing the college at large.

     I worked with the co-chair (a faculty member) and select team members to plan and implement specific design team training. They expressed the need to give the teams a non-prescriptive structured process for getting productive work done. Given that integrated planning is one means to achieve Guided Pathways, I used the Integrated Planning Model developed by veteran community college professional and RP Group integrated planning consultant, Maria Narvaez.

     It’s important not to confuse this model with Appreciative Inquiry (Ai), which includes Discovery, Dream, Design, and Destiny. Appreciative Inquiry is often used as an organization’s transformational model, with the assistance of a highly Ai trained external facilitator to guide them through the process. In the Guided Pathways context, the Integrated Planning Model is more of a task-oriented process: it helps to tell a story of where an organization or team is, and what questions to answer at each stage. Also, because it’s iterative, it’s intended to help organizations and teams continually implement and assess their practices.

     The reality is that there’s nothing ground-breaking about the Integrated Planning Model. As human beings, we tend to go through this process naturally; albeit, as educators, we have a tendency to jump directly into Implement without the critical discussions that need to take place during Discover and Develop. It’s also worth mentioning that the co-chair and team members agreed to use the Integrated Planning Model, even though they could have used other process-oriented models. Use whatever process you think will work best for your campus.

     As the timeline below suggests, all colleges have at some point been (or are currently in) the Discover stage. When colleges begin to draft their plan, they’ll transition to Develop. Outside of this college, I found that articulating this was extremely helpful to some people who believed that key decisions were being made about implementation. Stressing that they were in a Discover (or brainstorming) stage seemed to alleviate concerns, especially given that a self-assessment tool was provided for colleges to in essence “discover” where they are with respect to Guided Pathways.

     While the integrated planning model can be used to show where a college is in their overall process, it can also be leveraged within teams.

     Each design team is in the Discover phase. Part of the training involved helping the design teams move from Discover to Develop. To achieve this, I had the teams undergo an activity where they answered three key questions:

What is your opportunity statement?
What phrase would galvanize the team to understand and support the work? What’s the elevator speech?

This activity isn’t easy. Rarely do teams come together to ask themselves this question. It takes a significant amount of thought and revisions, but when done well, it’s quite powerful. When teams begin their meetings, they always know what their purpose is. As a reminder, I encourage team meeting agendas to include that statement at the top, even though it can change over time. Some people like to use vision or mission statements for their teams. That’s fine. Identify your team’s purpose.

What are your indicators that measure success in your planning?
This is another item that is rarely discussed by teams. Teams need to think about their potential roadblocks, landmines, and opportunities as they proceed. For example, depending on the team, they might be looking for indicators of success in terms of faculty buy-in and ownership, the use of data, or multi-division coordination and contribution. It can be extremely granular, to the point where a team could consider how they might deal with a difficult person they must collaborate with outside of the team. Once indicators are established, the next step is to identify the “look fors.” For example, if faculty buy-in/ownership is listed, it’s important to look for participation and engagement in meetings and other settings.

What are your deliverables?
What will the team produce? Teams had to think not only about what they produced, but in what form they were producing it (e.g. a Word document, PowerPoint, a video, or an activity such as a forum.)

     I provided a “Design Team Project Snapshot” (below) for each team to complete. As you can see, the teams also need to consider and discuss their objectives, timing, and personnel involved.

     Again, use whatever graphic organizer works best for you (e.g. a logic model).

     We ended the session with an activity that involved how to ensure productive meetings. We discussed the strategies outlined in this article, and team members commented on which strategies best resonated with them, and how they plan to ensure productive meetings for their teams.

     Lastly, I’d like to share a key observation. I am unaware of any campuses that are not experiencing challenges, including a lack of faculty buy-in/ownership, and/or pessimism about Guided Pathways. It’s critical to emphasize that their concerns are understandable! Appreciate their concerns and invite them into the conversation.

     Allow me to provide some context:

     Before transitioning to higher education, I began my career in K-12, a system that is “initiatived” and reformed to death. Reforms are rarely ever done well (or at all) in K-12 because, among other things, when the desired reform outcomes are not achieved fast enough, the system is conditioned to quickly and automatically apply accountability pressures (with no credible research--that I'm aware of--to support the fact that these accountability pressures actually help teachers make better sense of mandated inputs into their practice). As a result, many district leaders make hasty, unproductive decisions because of these pressures, while other, well-intentioned and thoughtful leaders are fired within two to three years, ultimately contributing to higher national K-12 superintendent turnover rates. Understandably, teachers are left frustrated, because yet another "flavor of the month” initiative has been injected into their practice without the opportunity to learn how to implement it well through proper structures, processes, protocols, settings, and the quality and consistent leadership that helps provide balanced support and accountability. While community colleges don’t have the same level of accountability pressures as K-12, the fact remains that, like their K-12 teaching counterparts, some college faculty often feel left out of the conversation, especially when there’s comprehensive new initiatives and/or mandates being planned and implemented. At least that’s the perception among many faculty--and, right or wrong, perceptions often become reality.

     While it’s nearly impossible to please everyone, make best efforts to reach out to everyone who has trepidations. As powerful as they are, don’t rely only on a cross-functional team or forum. Have coffee, lunch, and/or dinner with these people to understand their concerns. Also, be prepared to accept that some people will continue to be nay-sayers regardless of how good something might be for them and students. Failing to achieve 100% buy-in is not entirely the fault of the person’s role, but rather, often a part of their personality to be pessimistic regardless of the circumstances or outcome. (I have a family member who’s like that, but I digress.) Ensure multiple opportunities for faculty to be engaged and voice their concerns, and then support them! I’m not minimizing the role that administrators and staff must play. Quite the opposite! Administrator and staff support of faculty is a critical factor of success as colleges embark on Guided Pathways.

     For multi-college districts, district personnel need to think about the district’s role as well. Is it to provide settings to convene across campuses about the work? Is it to help improve processes in the areas of technology, planning, policies, procedures, professional development, etc.? What can you do as a multi-college district leader to support campuses? Let’s face it, not all districts and campuses have the coziest relationship. This is an opportunity for multi-district leaders to collaborate with campuses to discuss how they can contribute to this meaningful yet difficult work ahead.

     Interestingly, the term “coherence” has long been a topic of discussion in K-12 (see Michael Fullan's book on this subject, Coherence), and is now finding its way into community colleges. It’s not that coherence has never been a topic in higher education; it is my observation that, precisely because there have been so many California community college initiatives in recent years (basic skills initiative, student success & support program, student equity plan, basic skills transformation, strong workforce, etc.), coherence is beginning to re-emerge to the front and center at some campuses, which in turn elicits issues of culture change. Perhaps districts can play a role in coherence-building across campuses during these cultural changes.

     As human beings, we tend to resist change. Some of us are more flexible to change than others, but the simple fact that we can be averse to change shouldn’t be seen as a failure by those working to plan and implement Guided Pathways. If we give people the opportunity to contribute to the development of a common understanding, and to design settings, and to work productively in teams, then, through effective leadership at all levels of the organization (faculty members are also leaders), we will ultimately see that culture changes through the work. If people perceive their work to be productive, and see that it gets results (per student data), attitudes will begin to change. It’s highly unproductive to shoot down peoples’ concerns, hesitations, and feelings of consternation. Empathize with them, and as I mentioned, include them in the conversation.

     I’ve been in the field in K-12 and higher education long enough to know that coherence-building and culture change is highly underestimated in its implementation. It requires effective and collaborative leadership at all levels of an organization, and treating people with respect and kindness, to elicit hard work. I’ve come to believe that a meaningful test of success is how helpful we are in contributing to the happiness of our fellow human beings. It’s incredible how much we can achieve in our organizations when we think of success this way. Big egos and sharp elbows too often impede progress, and students end up paying the price for it.

     Finally, consider an external perspective. It may take someone from the outside to tactfully bring to the surface the elephant in the room. If the obvious is not identified and addressed, Guided Pathways (or any other initiative, or framework, or whatever you want to call it) will likely be compromised, or implemented poorly at best.

     I hope the above strategies help you get off on the right foot. As a good friend and colleague who has supported major comprehensive change efforts in education would say, “All you have left is everything.”


     Please feel free to reach out to me if you want any of the materials described or if you have any questions.


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(A. Solano)

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