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.


Google Groups
Email Me Blog Updates
Visit this group

Monday, June 20, 2011

Untangling the Postsecondary Debate

This commentary appeared in Education Week's "Diplomas Count", June 9, 2011. For a commentary on it, see Jay Mathews' column "Class Struggle" in the Washington Post, June 16, 2011.

Preparing all students for some form of post-secondary training or education is a hugely important issue, but I worry that—as is the case with so much education policy—it will devolve to a binary polemic. The predictable result will be stalemate or a partial and inadequate solution that will not address the web of concerns that underlie this debate or honor the lives of the young people at the heart of it.

As a person who has worked for many years with students who have not been well served by our schools, I am sympathetic to the push to prepare as many as possible for a college degree. Those who advocate an occupational education on strictly economic terms don’t fully appreciate tracking’s material as well as symbolic damage. And right at the point when college is being encouraged for a wide sweep of our population, we have this policy counterforce, which is seen by some parents and civil rights groups as an attempt to protect privilege.

Yet it would be foolhardy to dismiss labor market realities, for many low-income students are in immediate financial need. These students can afford post-secondary education only if it leads to a decent wage and benefits. Furthermore, the record of post-secondary success is not a good one. Many students leave college without a certificate or degree that can help them in the job market, and, in many cases, they incur significant debt.

There is also the pure and simple fact of human variability. Some students of all economic backgrounds are not drawn to the kinds of activities that make up the traditional academic course of study, no matter how well executed. It is true that better teaching and a more engaging curriculum would make a difference for a percentage of disaffected students—but not all.

In a community college fashion program I’ve been studying, I see students with average to poor high school records deeply involved in their work, learning techniques and design principles, solving problems, building a knowledge base. Yet they resist, often with strong emotion, anything smacking of the traditional classroom, including the very structure of the classroom itself. This resistance holds even when the subject (textiles, history of fashion) relates to their interests.

The college-for-all versus pathways debate is typically focused on structural features of the curriculum and on economic outcomes, and not much attention is paid to the intellectual and emotional lives of the young people involved: their interests, what has meaning for them, what they want to do with their lives. A student in a welding program gave succinct expression to all this: “I love welding. This is the first time school has meant anything to me.”

But goals, expectations, and what one imagines for oneself are deeply affected by information and experience. For a pathway approach to be effective and not rigidify into tracking, students will need a lot of information about college and careers and multiple opportunities to visit colleges, work sites, hospitals and courts and laboratories. The differences in cultural and social capital between my UCLA students and the students I work with at that inner-city community college are profound and widening as inequality widens in our country. Pathways advocates will have to confront this inequality head on, for it is as important as the construction of curriculum.

The fundamental issue underlying the debate, and one I don’t hear addressed, is the very divide between the academic and vocational course of study. This distinction emerged out of a cluster of troubling beliefs about knowledge, education, and the social order, and these beliefs continue to blinker our educational imagination.

The comprehensive high school and curriculum tracking was an early twentieth century response to the rapid increase of working class and immigrant children in urban centers, and separate academic, general, and vocational courses of study seemed an efficient way to address their wide range of educational preparation and ability. But conceptions of ability were made amidst the emergence of I.Q. testing and a full-blown eugenics movement. So there was much talk about the limited mental capacity of various immigrant and working-class groups and the distinct ways their brains functioned. As opposed to college-bound students (overwhelmingly white and middle to upper class) who were “abstract minded”, working-class and immigrant students were “manually minded.” We don’t use these phrases today, but there are echoes of them in loose talk about “learning styles,” “kinesthetic learners,” and other terms that reduce and reify cognition—terms heard in contemporary educational discourse.

Sadly such distinctions about cognition reflect broader social biases about kinds o f work (blue collar vs. white collar, hand vs. brain work) and the intelligence of the people in these different occupational categories. Though we are a country built on egalitarian principles, we also hold a number of anti-egalitarian beliefs about cognition, education, and work. We also make weighty status-laden distinctions among levels of post-secondary education—research university to community college—and these distinctions play into the college-occupation debate.

The academic-vocational divide affects both sides of the debate. It limited the practice of vocational education itself. Surveying the history of VocEd, the authors of a report from the National Center for Research in Vocational Education concluded “[V]ocational teachers emphasized job-specific skills to the almost complete exclusion of theoretical content. One result was that the intellectual development of vocational students tended to be limited at a relatively early age.” No wonder that the mere mention of an “occupational pathway” sparks fears of a return to tracking and a watered-down curriculum.

But the divide also has a negative effect on those advocating a college-for-all approach, for it can blind them to the significant intellectual content of occupations and the many ways that occupational study, as John Dewey saw, can give rise to the study of the arts and sciences.

My hope is that keeping the totality of these issues in mind will bring the discussion of post-secondary education close to the complex needs and circumstances of young people as they find their way into the world beyond high school.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Remediation at a Crossroads

My last few posts have dealt with K-12 school reform. With this entry, I shift to an important and pressing area of post-secondary policy and reform, one that has particular relevance to the more vulnerable among us. This was originally published in Inside Higher Ed, April 21,2011.

The young woman in the hoodie behind me whispers “cried” to her friend, whose head is resting on her folded arms. “Wrote,” head-resting woman whispers to herself as the teacher goes down a list of sentences on an overhead screen. “Repeated,” “ate,” “swam,” they and the two other students in their row answer softly, in between light chatter.

I am visiting the most basic class of a community college remedial English sequence, and the teacher is reviewing verb tense by having her students convert a list of verbs from present tense to past. No one seems to be having any trouble with the exercise. The quartet behind me does it under-breath while catching up on their day-to-day. They might make errors in tense in their writing, but they won’t be writing anything longer than a paragraph until they take the next course in the remedial sequence. Unfortunately, a number of students in such classes won’t make it through the series to get to fuller writing assignments of the kind they have to do in their other classes.

This little episode reveals some of the problems with college remediation as it is typically executed. It is built on a set of assumptions about language and cognition that have long ago been proven inadequate, like the belief that focusing on isolated grammar exercises will help students write better prose. The work students are doing isn’t connected to the writing they are required to do in their other courses, academic or vocational. Going beyond the standard remedial playbook—if the instructor were so inclined—would be a big challenge, not only because she lacks training, but also because she has no time; like so many of her peers, she is teaching at two other colleges to try to make a living. The sequence of three, even four, lockstep non-credit courses established to help students build proficiency is based on the same flawed notion of language growth that limits the curriculum of the courses in the sequence. The textbook market, college requirements, and departmental structures all further reinforce the standard remedial model.

For quite a while some teachers of basic or remedial writing have been working against the grain, creating challenging curricula that directly foster the kinds of writing skills and habits of mind needed for success in college. Or developing programs that link a writing course to a content course to provide a meaningful context for writing. Or placing those students who test low into credit-bearing freshman composition and providing additional support.

But now we are at a watershed moment when not only individuals and programs are trying to do something fresh with remediation, but national attention—public and philanthropic—is focused on the issue as well.

The big question is whether we will truly seize this moment and create for underprepared students a rich education in literacy and numeracy, or make some partial changes—more online instruction, shortened course sequences—but leave the remedial model intact. To make significant change, we’ll need to understand all the interlocking pieces of the remediation puzzle, something we’re not oriented to do, for our disciplinary and methodological training and public policy toolkit work against a comprehensive view of the problem.

Most higher education policy research on remediation does not include historical analysis of the beliefs about cognition and instruction that inform curriculum. In fact, there’s not a lot of close analysis of what goes on in classrooms, the cognitive give and take of instruction and what students make of it. And I’m not aware of any policy research crafted with the aid of people who actually teach those classes. Finally, we don’t get much of a sense of the texture of students’ lives, the terrible economic instability of some of them, but even less of a sense of the power of learning new things and, through that learning, redefining who you are. Profiles of students in remedial classes, when we do get them, are too often profiles of failure rather than of people with dynamic mental lives.

Most of us are trained and live our professional lives in disciplinary silos. Let me give you one example of how mind-boggling, and I think harmful, this intellectual isolation can become. In all the articles I’ve read on remediation in higher education journals, not one cites the 40 years’ worth of work on basic writing produced by teachers and researchers of writing. There is even a Journal of Basic Writing that emerged out of the experiments with open admission at CUNY in the 1970s. Not a mention of any of it. Zip.

In addition to disciplinary silos, there are methodological silos. You won’t find a randomized control trial in the 130-plus issues of the Journal of Basic Writing, and that for some is sufficient reason to ignore them. But if we hope to really do something transformational with remediation, we’ll need all the wisdom we can garner, from multiple disciplines and multiple methodologies, from multiple lines of sight.

Along with a wider scope of inquiry we will need a bountiful philosophy of education –and the leadership to enact it. At the same time that there is a push to get more low-income people into postsecondary education, cash-strapped states are cutting education budgets, leading colleges to limit enrollments and cut classes and student services. In my state of California (and I’m sure in other states as well) some policy makers are wondering—not fully in public—if we can no longer afford to educate everybody, if we should ration our resources, directing them toward those who are already better prepared for college. We have here the makings in education of a distinction the historian Michael Katz notes in the discourse on poverty, a distinction between those deserving and undeserving of assistance. In the midst of a powerful anti-government, anti-welfare-state climate, will there be the political courage to stand against the rationing of educational opportunity?

The democratic philosophy I envision would among other things guide us to see in basic skills instruction the rich possibility for developing literacy and numeracy and for realizing the promise of a second-chance society. Such a philosophy affirms the ability of the common person and guides instruction that goes beyond the acquisition of fundamental skills and routine toward an understanding of their meaning and application, the principles underlying them, and the broader habits of mind that incorporates them. In such instruction, error becomes an intellectual entry point. If a young adult is having trouble with fractions, for example, how did his misunderstandings and flawed procedures develop? What formal or informal mathematical knowledge does he have that can be tapped? How does one access that cognitive history and lead the student to analyze and remedy it?

The de facto philosophy of education we do have is a strictly economic one. This is dangerous, for without a civic and moral core it could easily lead to a snazzy 21st century version of an old and shameful pattern in American education: Working-class people get a functional, skills-and-drills education geared toward lower-level work. To be sure, the people who are the focus of current college initiatives are going to school to improve their economic prospects. As one woman put it so well: “It’s a terrible thing to not have any money.” But people also go to college to feel their mind working, to remedy a poor education, to redefine who they are. You won’t hear any of this in the national talk about post-secondary access and success. For all the hope and opportunity they represent, our initiatives lack the kind of creativity and heartbeat that transform institutions and foster the unrealized ability of a full sweep of our citizenry.