What is Noncredit?

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Two part series by Gregory Keech

Part 2

The Pedagogy and Funding of Noncredit

The pedagogy of noncredit is quite different from credit. Because students' attendance may be intermittent, teaching requires lot of repetition and "spiraling up," which can be described as repetition with a slight refocus or increase in difficulty each time a teaching point is covered. In ESL, repetition is not a problem - in fact it's a benefit. Language acquisition must involve repetition, and lots of it. All learning, to be clear, involves repetition, but noncredit builds the concept in. Students are not expected to acquire knowledge after one presentation and then reproduce it on a test. How many times would it take you to learn the correct endings of a Spanish verb? Voy, vas, va, vamos, vais, van. Got that? Or would you need to practice it many times in order to add it to your store of knowledge and experience?

Noncredit instruction fits in nicely with what Diane Larsen-Freeman calls Language as a Dynamic System. The adult human brain is not a vessel to be filled with knowledge; it is a living, changing organism which constantly adjusts and readjusts to new experiences and information (well, maybe not in current American politics, but certainly in language acquisition). Another way of describing it is that language learning is not linear. We are trapped into thinking of learning as linear by the time-focused framing of our traditional educational format, which we know as credit in community colleges and elsewhere. But in fact learning happens fitfully, in leaps and bounds, with fallow periods and moments of revelation (Oh, that's how to conjugate that verb!).


Noncredit lends itself to this non-linear reality in learning by allowing students to sip at the cup of knowledge at their own rate. And now that I've used that metaphor, I hasten to add that they are also acquiring experience and "tools" if you will, which they then incorporate into their own dynamic system. Measurements of this type of complex, highly personal and individual progress baffle folks charged with making education "accountable." How do you measure the student who leaves at Literacy and comes back at Level 3? Credit the school for giving him those tools. But not so fast.

"Metrics" are usually based on 1) test scores and 2) academic achievement awards such as degrees and certificates. Noncredit students don't achieve in these terms, and more problematically, they don't do it all "in house." Much of their achievement happens out in the real world. They move from busboy to waiter at a restaurant. They are able to help their bilingual child with homework in English. They become citizens. Community colleges don't get the credit for any of these achievements, not in any way attached to funding.

And this brings us to funding. Noncredit classes are often funded by Average Daily Attendance, i.e. butts in seats. Colleges tally up the total number of hours students have attended, and then report that to the state. Credit funding is usually based on census - a snapshot of class enrollment taken about 20% through the semester, and then extrapolated to arrive at a number of attendance hours. Both are funded according to the number of Full-Time Equivalent Students (FTEF) served, and the number of total hours considered "full-time equivalent" for both is 525. But now we come to a much maligned and misunderstood point: one FTES in credit is funded at $4650, but noncredit is funded at $3232 at best.

Whether or not this is fair is immaterial to my present point. The misunderstanding is that credit must be better for a college to run because the funding rate is higher. Well, that's not the entire equation. At City College of San Francisco, for example, credit instructors teach 15 hours per week plus preparation, assessment recording, and a set number of hours available to students; noncredit instructors teach 25 hours per week. So it's not really about the funding rate - it's what a college does with it. The formula at CCSF renders credit and noncredit equally "productive."

So which is better - credit or noncredit?

Of course the answer is that both are equally important, depending on the needs of students. The accumulation of college credits toward a degree or certificate is a venerable, measureable, and highly successful way for students to achieve their goals.

Noncredit presents certain challenges to 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.

Further discussion of these issues will take place at Northern Region CATESOL - A Collaborative Vision for Serving Adult Learners on May 4th at 1.30pm at Loma Vista Center, 1266 San Carlos Avenue, Concord, CA 94518

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).