In September 2019, we interviewed Tim Littell, Associate Vice Provost of Student Success at Wright State University, as part of Sova’s contributions to the Strong Start to Finish “People in the Reform” series.
Because the People in the Reform series aims to capture just a glimpse of change in action – from the perspective of those on the ground — we wanted to find a way to share more of the conversation with Littell. As one of our favorites among dozens of interviews conducted in 2019 by the Sova team, the conversation with Littell resonated with us on a number of levels and felt important to share. What follows is an edited version of the interview, created with the hope that it serve as a reflection piece and discussion starter for other changemakers and leadership teams at colleges working hard to innovate at scale for today’s students. While this conversation focuses on developmental education reform, we believe that Littell’s insights are relevant to any serious change work aimed at fundamentally remaking institutional structures, practices, and work cultures in favor of significantly better and more equitable outcomes for today’s learners
Tim Littell has a long history with developmental education reform – a history that began because of his eclectic background in engineering and counseling.
In the 1990’s, in the early days of developmental education reform, Tim got a call from a friend at a community college who asked if he’d be willing to teach developmental math. He told her that he wasn’t qualified to teach math because he’s an engineer not a mathematician, and she responded by clarifying that it was his background in counseling, not math, that she was most interested in. The rest, as they say, is history. He fell in love with the work of supporting student learning, and quickly moved from teaching developmental math to overseeing developmental education departments, and he now leads the design and implementation of Wright State’s significant overhaul of developmental education. As of 2019, Wright State has scaled co-requisite remediation in English and the work of scaling co-req math is well underway.
Kadlec: Tell us about your early experiences in dev ed, as you moved from being purely a faculty member to leading work around developmental education redesign as an administrator. What were some of your big lessons?
Littell: I remember the first time I was tasked with leading dev ed work, a faculty member came to me concerned about repeaters, those students who take and fail dev ed courses repeatedly. The faculty member was concerned about these students who keep returning and keep failing, and I suggested we look at the data to learn more about how our students were doing and why…We learned a lot about what not to do at the time. We discovered that, no, making students take two years of developmental math and developmental writing is not the answer and we will have more success if we stop doing that. I think the big discovery for me was the idea of ‘time on task.’ What is it we need to do for a student to help them avoid spiraling in dev ed and getting stuck there, and how do we keep them on task with the things they need to know in order to get to the other side college ready?
Kadlec: So looking at data led you to interrogate what you were doing, and this really got you rolling in the work of redesigning dev ed. Is that right?
Littell: Yes, but it wasn’t until our funding formula changed that we got really serious. I’ve worked in a college setting for 33 years, and I’ve always worked in support areas. Suddenly, a few years back, we started seeing “student success” popping up. Today, I’m in a building that’s labeled Student Success. But it wasn’t until our funding model changed that Ohio really took it seriously. In the old days, if students were sitting in the seats in the fall quarter on the 15th day, that pays your bills for the year. The funding model didn’t care if they’re here on the 16th day. We didn’t care if they completed the term. We didn’t care if they came back next quarter. We didn’t care if they came back next year. We didn’t care if they graduated. Now, of course, that’s not true. We did care, and we did want to do better, but when the funding model and incentives changed, everyone got serious about it…and it’s been great because the resources we need to reform dev ed are there now. None of what we’ve done is without time and money.
Kadlec: I want to shift to learn more about what you have been doing and what you’re most proud of in the work, but before that, is there more yet to do on the funding model to support scaling of coreq redesign, scaling of dev ed reform?
Littell: That is a good question. I think this is the national discussion right now about return on investment. It’s something so foreign to our thinking as educators because we’re proudly not a business, we say. But it is, I think, appropriate to say, “Does the money we spend and the effort we give to something cause a result?” That’s another way to say return on investment. I think locally, colleges and universities still are struggling—they’re used to doing work as cheaply as possible, but this work costs money. Nothing we do is for free, and this work is expensive. Even though the data is showing that we’ll receive more subsidy in the long run, it’s hard for people to get that money to the places that support reform. We need to do a better job of not only giving the results to the world but giving them to our budget people and our internal folks to understand, to help them connect the dots, that yes, it was this thing that we did that helped increase that revenue.
Kadlec: I’m glad to hear you say this. We, like you, have observed that it’s extremely difficult for leaders to take the financial long view of their student success work. And when the CFO and people in charge of the institution’s finances aren’t involved in the conversations about what it will take to achieve student success goals, this becomes even more difficult. It’s clearly a gap plaguing many institutions, this distance between those designing the student success work and those responsible for the financial health of the institution. So, shifting gears a little, tell us more about how you’ve approached the work of scaling co-requisite English and math at Write State?
Littell: We’ve certainly had some challenges along the way, and it is hard work, but I was very lucky that I had a boss that was visionary. Collectively, we had some smart people in our English department and math departments, and we had a provost who saw what was coming. I think he set the stage and created conditions in such that we were able to incrementally do the work.
It really started in our English department. The thing that made a difference there is we hired an academic director to oversee our developmental writing. Remember, developmental education was outside of the English department, as it is still today. So is developmental math. We hired someone who could both serve as the academic director overseeing developmental writing, developmental math, but who was also embedded in the department with faculty standing. Their job was not only to teach in the department, but they were the glue for the clear pathway from developmental writing to college-level writing and developmental math and college-level math.
Kadlec: That’s a great idea – bridging across silos by embedding people in the right places. That traditional separation of dev ed and English or math departments continues to be a major challenge for institutions trying to scale co-req and yours is a creative solution that accepts the world as it is but also challenges those long-standing and deeply entrenched silos. So what’s been hardest?
Littell: I must say, it was easier in writing than math. In math, I got a lot of pushback. We were always behind in math, so I thought, “Well, I’m going to do it in English and show them it can be done. And then I’m going to try to show them, ‘Look if we can do that in English, certainly you can do that in math.”
Now, the truth of the matter is, it mattered who the people were. We had a change in leadership in the math department. Once that happened, we were good to go because the truth is, we always had the expertise and we always had the resources to do it. What we didn’t have was the commitment to shared goals. Sort of in that Boyer—remember Ernest Boyer talked about true partnerships? Not just collaborative, cooperative relationships but a true partnership in which we not only had shared goals; we had a partnership that was one. That, I think, is the secret sauce for Wright State. I think it was the commitment to the working relationships to get it done. That made a difference in math.
Once we had that leadership change, we started in math with the Math Emporium model. That was the first pass where we got rid of teaching developmental math in the old way. Students preferred the old way and would say, “I prefer it this way.” I said, “No, you prefer it because it’s what you know best, but you still don’t learn better that way.” We still had a 50% pass rate. When we went to the Math Emporium model, we jumped to a 65%; we’re now at a 75% pass rate. Why would we go back to an old model that doesn’t work for the student just because they’re more comfortable? The next phase was the coreq. Now, the truth is, the Math Emporium model was a lot cheaper than our corequisite model, but that’s the investment because the coreq is working great for the gateway completion. That’s where the Math Emporium didn’t necessarily provide the pathway to the college level. We did all that in eight years.
Kadlec: As you’re talking, when you described the change in leadership really making true partnership and a shared vision possible, I’m curious to know from your perspective more about the traits and the kinds of support that chairs, for example, need, or deans—those frontline, midlevel folks who have to lead the hard change on the ground? What are your observations there?
Littell: Well first, deans and chairs need to know they have top-down support, administrative support to do the work. But then, beyond support from above, I’ve always viewed my job in all of this to be the glue that helped ensure the departments have the resources from us to do it. Not only from our provost and administratively, but also from our advising group, our registrar, all of those—that infrastructure that we had to wrap around it to ensure that it would work. We knew to make this sustainable—you always have a handful of faculty that love innovation and they love to create and they love to do something new. The problem is, there’s not enough of them to take it to scale. We knew that we had a handful, a cadre of folks, that could get this started, but to get it upto scale and sustainable, we had to convince the unwilling.
From my perspective, anything in the infrastructure that failed—an advisor that misadvised, something in the registration process that was in error—we had to make sure those were pristine and as perfect as they could be because the skeptics were looking for a reason to say, “See? This doesn’t work.” We need to provide a clear expectation and a clear structure for everyone involved. If we don’t do that, then we’ll have—it creates conflict. With advisors, we don’t say, “Hey, could you maybe talk to students about this?” We say, “Here’s the program. Here’s what we’re asking you to do.” We’re very specific about their expectations of how to advise to this new program and the benefits to the student. We have to do the same with the faculty. I think our chairs have done a tremendous job of sort of diffusing conflict by providing clear expectations.
Kadlec: Yeah, absolutely. There really isn’t much that can be done about those individuals, but the—a lot of the work that we do is focused on how to clarify the train so that their microphone is a little bit muted. Those who aren’t so entrenched in their opposition, who are thoughtful skeptics who’ve seen a lot of stuff come and go or who are anxious, are able to see a path forward where they can be successful and successful for their students and they’re less weight, if you will, than the hardcore naysayers.
Littell: For the folks that were—some of those folks that were sort of—that camp has gotten smaller and smaller as time has passed, but there were folks in that camp that were legitimately just saying, “I don’t know what to do.” To me, that’s not saying, “I don’t want this to work.” That’s saying, “Give me the tools to do this thing that I’ve not done before.”
I think a good example is to remember our faculty are seeing these students now almost maybe a year ahead of where they’re used to seeing them. In other words, this is their first term they’re taking their college-level course. They’re used to them having to come to them after a semester or two where they’ve learned how to be a student. They’ve learned the institution; they’ve learned the campus. But now, they’re coming in raw. The faculty, just by default are going to deal with some of those non-cognitives a little bit more. Again, that’s my job and our job as the infrastructure wraparound to say, “What tools do they need so they can be very effective in the classroom?” By and large, we’re seeing them embracing those opportunities and doing that.
Kadlec: As you think about the last eight years, what are the one or two biggest lessons that you have learned along the way? Another way to come at this would be what are the big pieces of advice that you would give to a peer who was asking how to achieve what you are achieving and how to pursue what you’re pursing over the long haul?
Littell: I interviewed for this job actually eight years ago by saying, “Relationships are the key thing to our success in the work that we do,” and I would say eight years later I wouldn’t change that statement at all. The key to this working are the relationships of the faculty, staff, and the students—the team of people that implement this thing…All we’ve got are our relationships.. Our lack of ability to get things started was because we didn’t have the right relationships. When those relationships, when we committed to them, it made all the difference.
Kadlec: That’s wonderful. I’ll tell you, that’s music to Sova’s ears. I know it’s the conviction about the importance of the work and the urgency around improving student success that generates momentum, but that’s not what gets the job done. It also, and ultimately, the relationships that make or break the work. It’s really interesting hearing you talk, because what you’re pointing out is an interesting combination of unwavering conviction and clear-eyed attention to the human beings.
Littell: It really is. I remember very distinctly. In fact, one of my colleagues whom I love dearly one time sent a really mean email. She’s an English person, she can write them really well, these terse emails. It had to do with the trickery we had to do in the registrar’s office to make the coreq work. This was our third term. We had piloted in the spring, we piloted in the summer, so this was going into fall. This thing started to get big, and it failed because of a thing that took us three minutes to fix.
She sent, what I perceived as, this really mean email. I was really hurt, so I ran over to the registrar’s office. My guy over there, I said, “Hey, we need to do this, this, and this.” It was a simple fix. It was just something that was missed. Then I ran over to her office. She knew I was mad. She knew I was hurt. I stood in the door and I looked at her and I said, “Well, we can’t talk about the election,” because this was during the 2016 Presidential election. I said, “We obviously now can’t talk about work, so I came over here to talk about religion. Maybe we can talk about that.” (Laughter.) She gave me a big hug and says, “I’m so sorry.” I said, “Look, we’re both frustrated. It’s fixed. It’s going to be okay.” Then I said to her, “But please don’t send me a nasty email like that again.” We are great friends to this day.
My point of that story is, we were committed to the relationship. To me, once you’re committed to that working relationship, you can do all sorts of things. You can mess up and have grace with one another, but if you’re not committed to the relationship, it doesn’t work.
Kadlec: Yeah, if you’re not committed to the relationship you don’t get up and go to that office. You don’t walk over there and make the effort. That was you fighting for that relationship in the face of being hurt.
Littell: That’s exactly right. We messed up. Somewhere it got messed up. I don’t know how, but it was a mistake. If I had sent an email back and then waited for two days—ugh.
Kadlec: That is excellent. I must say it is a delight to have a little time just to hear more about how you think about the work and where it’s come from and where it’s going.
Littell: It just gets so personal because you get attached to these folks you work with—the students you work with, the faculty, everybody. It’s just delightful. I would have never thought I’d say that, to be honest, but it just becomes fun in that way.