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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Monday, April 15, 2013

Q and A with Hector Tobar on Back to School

This is a Q&A I did with novelist (The Barbarian Nurseries) and L.A. Times columnist Hector Tobar, published in the on-line edition of the Times on 3/29/13 (http://www.latimes.com/features/books/jacketcopy/la-et-jc-on-the-school-of-second-chances-a-q-and-a-with-mike-rose-20130328,0,7850612.story). I appreciated the opportunity Tobar gave me to talk a little about writing about Los Angeles.


Question One:
You're the author of several books about working people and education. Especially about people whose talents are ignored, or who are seen as "problems" by many educators. How did this life-long interest of yours come about?
Well, their story is in many ways my story. My parents were Italian immigrants who were drawn west by the classic 1950s California dream, traveling to Los Angeles to create a better life. They, and all of my family, worked blue-collar and service jobs, and like many working-class kids, I didn’t do so well in school. I drifted along and was tracked into a general-vocational curriculum in high school. Then my senior English teacher turned my life around and steered me toward college – where I struggled before finding my way. So the lives of children migrating here from Mexico or Central America or Asia, or men and women doing physical work, or people in adult school, or the freshman who struggles in college – they all reach something deep in me. But I have to say – because it rarely gets said – that these people’s stories are also intellectually rich: the unacknowledged linguistic gifts of the immigrant kid, the brains it takes to do physical work, the cognitive intricacies of an adult figuring out algebra. All this is as worthy of research as landing a robotic explorer on Mars.

Question Two:
"Back to School" is about "second chancers" and the schools that serve them. Could you tell us a bit more about the wide variety of students you found at the adult schools you've visited and what kind of challenges that presents to the people who run those schools?
In an adult school in L.A., you’ll find everyone from the precocious 18-year old who could not stomach another day of high school to the newly arrived immigrant from Belarus or Taiwan or El Salvador, to a wide range of people in their 30s and 40s who quit high school to join the workforce and raise a family, to older folks who just want the stimulation of a classroom. You’ll find an even wider range of students in our community colleges, talking one minute to a young woman fresh out of high school with her sights set on transfer to UC, and the next minute to a guy who spent years behind bars and is getting his life together in an automotive technology program. I don’t think our policymakers fully understand the challenges of providing a quality education for such a wide sweep of students: specialized teaching and counseling, extra hours of services, high-tech facilities and a lot more. Yet budgets are being slashed, courses and programs and entire adult school campuses eliminated. We’re talking about denying opportunity to a broad cross-section of America. This doesn’t make long-term economic sense. And it violates our nation’s most basic principles.

Question Three:
"Back to School" has a wonderful blurb from President Clinton in which he talks about teaching students and putting America “back to work.” What kind of pressure has the economic restructuring of the last few years placed on “second-chance” schools? 
One way community colleges are responding to the changing economy is by improving or establishing programs to fill emerging occupational needs in fields like healthcare and industrial technology. In some cases, colleges forge partnerships with local industries. I have been impressed with the entrepreneurial savvy of some of our local colleges. As valuable as it can be, though, this kind of training does raise an important question: Does the training also provide a good education? One of the major liabilities of traditional American vocational education was its tendency to focus narrowly on job training versus teaching students the knowledge and ways of thinking involved in their area of study. If their jobs folded, they were limited in their ability to transfer their skills to new work. At heart, we’re talking about a 100-year-old institutional and cultural problem: the sharp split in the curriculum between academic and vocational study – a divide a lot of educators are trying to bridge. Occupations involving the car, the kitchen, the industrial plant, the computer, the human body all have within them a rich academic knowledge base and ongoing problem-solving, troubleshooting, ethical judgment, and the like. As we respond to the pressing needs of our students for decent jobs, we need to be vigilant that we are not simply providing them with a snazzy 21st century version of narrow vocational training.

Question Four:
Your book mentions the project underway to redraft the GED, and the possibility of splitting it into two degrees. I’m wondering where you come down in that debate and why the function of the GED in the “new” economy.
A counselor in one of the adult schools I studied told me this story. A GED student had both work and childcare responsibilities that made it impossible for her to attend classes more than one hour a day. But she came week after week, month after month. And after several hard years, she passed the exam. She was overjoyed, as you can imagine, and, the counselor explained, her success changed the way she thought about herself. I’ve seen this sort of thing happen again and again in “second chance” institutions; when people begin to master what had eluded them before, it can have a powerful effect on the way they see themselves and on their willingness to take on further challenges. But these accounts tend to get lost in statistical averages of completion rates and tables of labor market advantage.

Now, it is sadly true that of those who pass the GED exam, only a small percentage go on to complete a two- or four-year college degree. The current efforts to toughen up the GED exam are an attempt to bring the exam more into line with the demands of college. And on the face of it, that’s not a bad idea. When a previous revision of the exam added a writing sample, it led more programs to increase instruction in writing – a good thing. I’ve spent my whole career urging a higher-quality education for academically underprepared people, but I worry about the assumption that amping up a test will make students “college ready.” Many of those preparing for the GED carry big burdens, as we saw in the opening story. That woman would need safety net assistance along with her stunning determination in order to pass a tougher test. And we'd be asking her to take on this new test when LAUSD has been cutting its adult school budget by 75%! The social critic Michael Harrington once observed that in America we are always having the wrong debate about inequality. There are 40 million Americans who lack a high school diploma or GED certificate; at least 4 million or 5 million are under 26. So, yes, let’s improve the test, but in the context of a larger national discussion about how to help more, not fewer, people move out of our educational shadow-lands.  

Question Five:
The schools you profile in “Back to School” aren’t named. But you teach at UCLA and one senses, in the stories in the book, the diversity of the city of Los Angeles.
I’ve been fortunate over the years to be able to write about a wide range of schooling in the Los Angeles Basin, from kindergarten to graduate seminar to adult education and an equally wide range of work, from waitressing to surgery. This writing has taught me so much about teaching and learning but, more broadly, about the human condition as it plays out day to day in this dizzyingly complicated region: the yearning and disappointment, the intelligence and the barriers to achievement. You can’t really understand a school without understanding the community surrounding it, its economic and demographic present and past. I’ll give you one small example from the community where I grew up, South Central. You can be on a main drag with boarded-up storefronts and liquor stores and walk down a side street to find a block of modest homes with flower beds – people holding a community together. I don’t think I’ll ever forget a high school girl’s comment as the two of us were watching a local news broadcast on her neighborhood. The camera zoomed down a blighted street as the reporter compared the place to a Third World country. The girl, who certainly knew the problems and dangers of her neighborhood, was taken aback. “This isn’t the Third World,” she said after pausing a moment. “This is where we live.”

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Thursday, April 4, 2013

Teaching: The Missing Ingredient in College Success

            We are hearing a lot these days about the need to help students persist in college and increase their rates of graduation. Oddly, teaching gets limited mention in these discussions.

            A somewhat abridged version of this post was originally published in the Christian Science Monitor (http://www.csmonitor.com/Commentary/Opinion/2013/0322/Time-to-help-college-professors-be-better-teachers) and reprinted in the UTNE Reader online (http://www.utne.com/politics/time-to-help-college-professors-become-better-teachers.aspx).


            Right after I gave my opening lecture on Oedipus the King to the thirty employees of Los Angeles’s criminal justice system, I handed out a few pages of notes I would have taken if I were sitting in their seats listening to the likes of me. The students ranged from gang-intervention workers to traffic cops to a few detectives, and they were in a special program leading to a college degree.

            My course was Introduction to Humanities, and I knew from a survey I gave them that many hadn’t been in a classroom in a long time—and some didn’t get such great educations when they were. So we spent the last half hour of the class comparing my notes with the ones they had just taken, talking about the way I signaled that something was important, how they could separate out a big idea from specific facts, how to ask a question without looking like a dummy.

            I taught that humanities course over thirty years ago, but I was thinking about it as I read the new report from the National Commission on Higher Education Attainment, “College Completion Must Be Our Priority,” a call to leaders in higher education to increase graduation rates by scheduling courses and services to accommodate working adults, developing more on-line learning, easing the ability of students to transfer, and a host of other sensible solutions to the many barriers that are contributing to stagnating graduation rates.

            But if we want more students to succeed in college, then we have to turn full attention to teaching. Students spend more time with their teachers than with all other institutional agents combined, and as a community college administrator I know puts it, students succeed one class at a time. To their credit, the authors of the college completion report call for better professional development for college faculty; however, most reports of this type have little to say about teaching, focusing instead on structural and administrative reforms outside the classroom. It is a glaring omission.

            Perhaps the authors of these reports believe that teaching is such an individual activity that not much can be done to affect it. Another reason has to do with the way college teaching gets defined in practice. Faculty become expert in a field and then they pass on their knowledge to others in introductory or higher-level courses. Some teachers get very good at this delivery—compelling lectures, creative demonstrations and assignments—but it is rare that a teacher thinks beyond her subject to the general intellectual development of the undergraduates before her, to enhancing the way they learn and make sense of the world. Finally, I don’t see much evidence at the policy level of a deep understanding of teaching or a respect for its craft.

            The problem starts in the graduate programs where college instructors are minted. Students learn a great deal about, let’s say, astrophysics or political science, but not how to teach it. They might assist in courses and pay attention to how their professors teach, but none of this is systematic or a focus of study or mentoring. And there is no place in their curriculum where they consider the difficulties students might have as they learn how to think like an astrophysicist or political scientist or the reading and writing difficulties that can emerge when encountering a discipline for the first time. The same is true in acquiring a trade. People are trained to be diesel mechanics or cosmetologists or nurses but not to teach their occupations.

            The majority of new college faculty want to teach well—and many do. But they won’t find on most college campuses an institutional culture that fosters teaching. To be sure, there are rewards for good teaching—awards, the esteem of students—and most institutions, even research universities, consider exemplary teaching as a factor in promotion. And some campuses have programs that provide resources for instruction, but they tend to be low-status and under-utilized operations. As a community college vice president I interviewed said, “We don’t cultivate a professional identity around teaching.” In the untold number of faculty meetings I’ve attended, teaching has been discussed as part of an individual’s personnel action, but never as a general topic of interest.

            Teaching has special meaning now, as the authors of the report on student success point out, because close to half of American undergraduates are a bit more like those students in my humanities class than our image of the traditional college student fresh out of high school. Particularly in the community colleges and state colleges where the majority of Americans receive their higher education, students are older, they work, and many have children. A significant percentage are the first in their families to go to college; somewhere between forty to fifty percent need to take one or more remedial courses in English or mathematics.

            To do right by these students, we need to rethink how to teach them. This does not mean rushing to electronic technology—a common move these days—for on-line instruction of any variety will only be as good as the understanding of teaching and learning that underlies it.

            We can begin by elevating the value of teaching and creating more opportunities to get better at it—which would also mean seeing the classroom through the eyes of our new students. For those students who need help with writing, mathematics, and study skills, there are tutoring centers and other campus resources. Faculty should forge connections with them but realize that we too can provide guidance to learning our subjects, provide both tricks of the trade—like taking good notes—as well as an orientation to our field: this is the way an astrophysicist or political scientist or diesel mechanic thinks. And, in my experience, students at flagship universities and elite colleges could also benefit from this approach to instruction. Just ask them.

            Doing such things does not mean abandoning our subject area but rather enhancing it and opening a door to it. It is through our subjects that students can come to better learn how to learn and how to think scientifically, politically, or mechanically.

            Working with those humanities students on their notes helped them develop better notetaking techniques. But as we studied technique, we also thought hard about how to determine what’s important—and how to make someone else’s information your own. All this involved talking further about Greek tragedy, about literary interpretation, and about what the humanities can provide for us.

            Finally, what’s at stake is not only increasing graduation rates but also making the acquisition of knowledge more democratic, providing a quality education for those who, a generation or two ago, would not have seen college as possible.

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