About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Some New Books on Opportunity – and a Note on the Threats to Opportunity at the University of California

This week I want to tell you about four new books that have been sent to me; collectively they are on subjects that have played in and out of this blog over the last year-and-a-half: educational equity and opportunity, college teaching, and underpreparation and academic support. Three are focused on college; one on federal intervention to support compensatory education in public schools.

This issue of opportunity is much on my mind these days as the federal initiatives “Race to the Top” and “The American Graduation Initiative” are being developed, one aimed at K-12, the other at the community college. And in my state of California – which is in both political and financial crisis – higher education is facing budget cuts, tuition hikes, reduced classes for undergraduates, and the trimming away of support services. Though perhaps not as dire, higher education in many other states is undergoing the same.

A lot has been written over the last few weeks about the situation in California: from coverage of student protests over tuition to broader rumination about the negative long-term effects the cuts to higher education will have on California’s economy and social structure.

What I haven’t heard much about, though, is the way the cuts – certain cuts particularly – will enable the university to divest itself of some introductory and remedial instruction and thereby further shape itself as an evermore restrictive public institution. At UCLA, for example, the campus-wide writing center has been cut, a center that served students across campus in a wide range of courses. Also there are proposals floating through the UC System to move introductory language courses, or English as a Second Language programs, or freshman composition off campus to nearby community colleges.

I appreciate the fact that the University of California and California State University systems are in big trouble, and I don’t for a moment want to downplay the difficulty – the true double-binds in some cases – of decisions facing college administrators. But it’s times like these in which core values, basic beliefs and assumptions, play out – and a crisis can provide the chance to enact them. What is revealed in these moments is the low status of introductory courses, of the lower division educational mission of a public university. There is a long history of university faculty calling for the removal, the pushing down to another institution like the community college, of introductory courses and even the whole freshman year. Though the removal of the freshman year has never happened, once particular courses and programs are disbanded or moved away, it is very hard to get them back. So the lower-division mission of the university is compromised.

It is timely then to read Charles Muscatine’s Fixing College Education, for his fixes are driven by a very different set of commitments and values. Muscatine, an emeritus professor of English and French medieval literature at Berkeley, has a long history of involvement in undergraduate, particularly lower-division, education, including the important 1970’s Strawberry Creek College at UCB. He has walked the walk and draws on his fifty years of experience in this little book to level criticism at the incoherence and missed opportunity of the typical university curriculum, at the narrow obsession with research, and at a hyper-specialized graduate study. His is a full-throated cry for a revitalized undergraduate education, with a lot of attention paid to introductory and lower-division instruction.

A very different kind of book from Muscatine’s is the statistical analysis of college completion, Crossing the Finish Line by William G. Bowen, Matthew M. Chingas, and Michael S. McPherson. Crossing the Finish Line is a detailed quantitative study of the completion rates at 21 major public universities – completion rates that are less than 60%. And the authors’ analysis reveals systematic disparities in attainment: “Minority students and students from poor families have markedly lower graduation rates – and take longer to earn degrees.” In line with my interests, further findings reveal the importance for completion of financial aid, an environment of success and completion (thus more demanding schools can have higher completion rates), and the need for resources like counseling, faculty availability, and academic support services – all the things threatened in the current budgetary environment. The authors also have an interesting empirically-based discussion of what they call undermatching, which occurs when students “enroll in either two-year or four-year colleges that are less demanding than the colleges for which they were presumably qualified.” Underrepresented minority students from low SES backgrounds were especially vulnerable to undermatching.

From a long, philosophical view of college education, to a statistical analysis of students’ rates of completion, we get to the third book, The College Fear Factor by Rebecca D. Cox, which takes us in close to 34 community college students and their teachers. Cox’s qualitative study focuses on the beliefs and behaviors about education displayed by these students and teachers and the frequent mismatches among them. For example, students’ notions of what constitutes good teaching and effective learning versus the notions held by their instructors. One of the things I like about this book is the detailing and teasing apart of such mismatches and tensions with an eye to how to address them – for it is such mismatches, Cox contends, that contribute to student discouragement and possibly failure.

The final item in this list of books of opportunity is David K. Cohen and Susan L. Moffitt’s The Ordeal of Equality, and it is a study of Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the federal legislation initiated during the War on Poverty to improve the education of children from poor families. The book details the various tensions and contradictions in this ambitious policy and the significant gaps between the intention of the policy and the realities of poor schools – including the idea itself that a federal education policy of modest resources can correct wide-scale inequality in employment, housing, and health care. Cohen and Moffitt offer a careful analysis of the various incarnations of Title I – a history of policy development and enactment – and it’s current expression in NCLB. In doing so, they provide a useful critical perspective on current federal school reform efforts (like Race to the Top), a perspective that will be familiar to readers of this blog.