The first thing to consider about noncredit instruction is that it is fundamentally different from credit. Most of us recognize the credit model of instruction because that's how we were educated. You register for a course, attend classes for a specified time (a semester, a quarter, a trimester), and are assessed at the end on the acquisition of course content. The key framing element is time. You do not get credit if you miss classes, do not submit homework, or do not pass the test. Our K-12 experience was similar. You moved to the next grade (or not) at the end of the school year, not at the point at which you acquired the content and/or skills.
Noncredit instruction is, conversely, based on achievement, not time. This is a difficult concept to grasp, because it is unfamiliar. Noncredit is also misunderstood because the lack of a time frame brings up issues of student accountability. Noncredit courses are often "open entry/ open exit." Students attend classes when they can - every day, several times a week, or intermittently - moving to the next level when they are ready. A certain number of course hours are available (for example 10 hours a week for 18 weeks), but students may not be able to attend the entire course. Noncredit is mostly associated with working adults, often working poor, who may have several jobs, childcare issues, housing issues, health issues, and so on, which take priority.
Credit students contend with these same issues, to be sure, but noncredit instruction is designed to take them into account. Yet we are more comfortable with the idea that credit students will either succeed or fail based on a grade, than we are with the idea that noncredit students may “stop out” for awhile with no penalty.
Many students do something we call "stopping out." We do not say "drop out" because they come back when their life situation allows. It is not because of a lack of interest, noncredit students tell us that they would like to attend every day, but life challenges make it impossible.
The interesting thing about this to ESL practitioners is the how these students come back to class after six months, or a year, or more, at a higher ESL level. How did they do that? They acquired more language with the learning tools they had been taught.
Here's an illustrative anecdote that I love: A teacher sees a student who was in her literacy class a year before but who had "stopped out." She asked him how he was doing and he told her he was a taxi dispatcher. Somewhat taken aback as she thought about the literacy and numeracy skills required for that job, the teacher asked, "But when did you learn to read?" He looked at her quizzically and said, "You taught me, teacher." This was a moment of revelation to the teacher: he recognized she had given him tools to achieve.
Noncredit challenges our traditional notions of education, but suits the adult learner in several important ways: it allows for scheduling flexibility for a population with serious life challenges; it allows for language acquisition in a natural and dynamic way. Credit instruction will always be with us; noncredit has never been so stable, but its loss would mean that access to ESL and many other forms of learning would be inaccessible to a large and underserved portion of our population.
KQED Education offers a wealth of ESL Resources for educators at www.kqed.org/esl
Gregory Keech is the elected chair of the Department of English as a Second Language (ESL) at City College of San Francisco - comprised of 250 faculty members and serving over 25,000 ESL students a year. Its curriculum encompasses literacy to advanced composition, in both credit and noncredit modes. The department complements academic pathways already in place for its students with strong pathways to the many Career and Technical Education certificate programs at the College.
Greg holds a BS in Portuguese from Georgetown University (1980) and an MA in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages from San Francisco State University (1985).