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Sept. 27, 2023

Deficit by design

by Mark Largent, vice provost & dean of Undergraduate Education

Portrait photo of Mark LargentMy predecessor, Sekhar Chivukula, had long been an advocate for reform in STEM education.

A theoretical physicist with a deep commitment to equity and opportunity, he was the first among our colleagues to assert, “Every student MSU admits has the capacity to learn, thrive, and graduate.” As the Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education, he supported research, initiatives, and reforms that resulted in significant positive changes at MSU, such as the work that led to the elimination of remedial algebra (MTH 1825) and its replacement with a two-course algebra sequence (MTH 103a and 103b) and two quantitative literacy courses (MTH 101 and 102).

As we continue to operationalize MSU’s 2030 Strategic Plan, we see how incredibly important course reform work is to closing opportunity gaps in MSU’s persistence and graduation rates. To reach an 86% six-year graduation rate by 2030, MSU will need to reduce or eliminate inequitable practices, policies, and pathways that are leading to differential rates of student persistence. Colleagues across campus were tackling this challenge even before the 2030 Strategic Plan was adopted nearly two years ago, and we continue to see incremental improvements.

Central support for STEM gateway course reform was disrupted by the pandemic. The sudden and dramatic move to online teaching during the 2020-2021 academic year shifted the focus of Provost Office-led support away from traditional STEM gateway course reform and toward the professional development necessary to move more than 7,000 courses online. Nonetheless, reforms continued, albeit at perhaps a slower pace and with less central support and advocacy.

It is time to return to the example set by Dr. Chivukula of focusing on STEM gateway course reform. As we do so, we find that we have at least two significant advantages in this work that were not available to him six years ago.

The first advantage is to be found in the STEM Teaching and Learning Building. It was the first new classroom building constructed at MSU in over half a century, and it was clearly designed for the next century’s students and instructors. The 160,000 square foot building offers space for courses in the physical and biological sciences as well as engineering to be taught in classrooms that do not constrain instructors the way that older buildings typically do. The space has allowed for innovation, and as the pandemic abated, the building has filled with classes and students.

Along with the new building has come new opportunities for collaboration. Our office hired two new colleagues to help cultivate these opportunities. Stephen Thomas, assistant dean for STEM Education Teaching and Learning and Julie Libarkin, associate dean for STEM Education Research and Innovation provide central support for MSU’s STEM education research and teaching community by cultivating partnerships between STEM colleagues and counterparts in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. STEM+ Education @ State is a valuable source of cooperation and opportunity, and I encourage everyone to take a moment to visit it to learn more about the opportunities Drs. Thomas and Libarkin are providing for us.

The second advantage we have in advancing STEM education reform is found in new research findings that support and extend our knowledge about how course and curricular reform is capable of closing opportunity gaps. STEM education reform research has quickly grown, especially over the last five years. So much so that last year H. Holden Thorp, the editor-in-chief of Science, could authoritatively assert that to open “the doors to science for everyone requires that faculty learn the most effective methods for teaching a diverse student body.” He criticized the faculty and administrators who claimed that ‘accommodating’ legitimate social and pedagogical needs of marginalized groups would lower the standards of mastery and excellent in these fields. But, he asserted, “this concern is just a crutch that protects faculty and institutions from having to do the work of correcting social injustices in higher education.”

Parenthetically, I think it’s important to recognize that while Thorp argues for more inclusive teaching in STEM, he employs ableist language to make his argument. Clearly, there is much work to be done.

Many institutions – including MSU – have undertaken the work necessary to make STEM more diverse and therefore more robust and of higher quality. A recently published report that caught my attention comes from physics education researchers at the University of California, Davis and San Jose State University. They provide evidence that “demographic achievement gaps are the result of biases built into the structure of a course and may be removed by changing some features of the course.” They adopt the “course deficit model” in place of the “student deficit model,” which identifies the source of opportunity as being the insufficiency of a course’s design rather than shortcomings in students’ preparation.

I am very much interested in the course deficit model as a way of thinking about how to close opportunity gaps at MSU. The term “course deficit model” appears to have been coined by Sehoya Cotner and Cissy Ballen in 2017 and explains differences in educational achievement as being produced by “classroom practices that favor certain groups of students while increasing performance disparities.”

The course deficit model’s approach to understanding both the source and remedy for opportunity gaps aligns nicely with Michigan State University’s definition of student success. We believe that “student success is the measure of an institution’s ability to provide an inclusive, equitable curriculum and environment with the academic, social, wellness and financial support that enables all students to learn, thrive, persist, graduate and succeed after graduation.” We believe the remedy to opportunity gaps is to be found in the elimination of practices, policies, structures, and behaviors that favor certain groups of students and create opportunity gaps for others.

MSU has already started accepting members of the six-year graduating class of 2030, the class for whom MSU’s 2030 Strategic Plan promises to close opportunity gaps and attain an 86% graduation rate. These students will move into the residence halls in less than eleven months. Closing opportunity gaps for them will require us to reform every aspect of the university, from the Office of Admissions through University Advancement. Opportunity gaps begin before students even arrive on campus, and they reach their highest rate of growth during students’ first year on campus. Gateway course reform in STEM and elsewhere on campus therefore represents one of the areas of greatest potential to make MSU an even more equitable engine of opportunity for our students and their communities.

Feedback and suggestions, especially from the MSU community, welcome at