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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Friday, December 13, 2019

Who Should Go to College?: Unpacking the College-for-All Versus Occupational Training Debate

Happy Holidays, everyone…I am trying with everything I got to finish a book before the end of the year, so I’m going to cheat (again) and reprint something I have posted before, but that seems particularly relevant now. It is from Back to School and has to do with the complicated web of questions surrounding college attendance: Who should go? For what reasons? What are the benefits? The liabilities? Opinion polls show some diminishment in support for college attendance among Republicans—though these numbers fluctuate. Some conservative pundits have been assailing colleges and universities.  The Trump administration has been pushing occupational education (while cutting funding for occupationally related programs). And free college tuition advocated by some Democratic presidential candidates opens wide questions about college attendance. Given all this, I thought it might be useful to unpack some of the elements in the complex college-for-all debate…and other public policy debates surrounding it. 


            When I was in high school in the early 1960s, the curriculum was split into three tracks: an academic or college preparatory track, a general education track, and a vocational track. Upon entrance, students were placed in one of them based on their previous academic records or a measure of ability, typically an I.Q. score. The curriculum directed us toward a four-year college or university, possibly a community college, or toward service or low-level managerial careers, or into blue-collar work. The curriculum also contributed powerfully to our school’s social order. The college-bound were in student government, edited the newspaper and the annual, at year’s end had a thick list of activities under their class photographs. I swear, looking back on it all, the college prep crowd walked around campus with an air of promise.

            Since the mid-twentieth century, sociological and educational studies were documenting the bias at work in the way students got placed in these tracks, for example that working-class and racial and ethnic minority students with records of achievement comparable to their advantaged peers were more frequently being placed in the general ed or vocational tracks. And there was the more general concern that this way of educationally stratifying young people was simply un-democratic. John Dewey called it “social predestination.”

            A remarkable amount of effort by educators, policy makers, advocacy groups, and parents has resulted over the last few decades in a dismantling of formal tracking. Though patterns of inequality still exist in the courses students take – vocational courses are overpopulated by poorer kids – we have in our time witnessed the emergence of a belief that college is a possibility for everyone. Today, however, we are also witnessing the rise of a strong counter-voice, skeptical about the individual and societal value of channeling all young people into post-secondary education.

            The skeptics are a diverse group. Many are economists who point to trends in the labor market that reveal a number of good and growing jobs that require some post-secondary occupational training but not a four-year – or even two-year – degree. Some are educators (including, but not limited to, Career and Technical Education interest groups) who emphasize the variability of students’ interests and aptitudes, not all of which find fulfillment in the college curriculum. And some are social commentators who blend the economic and educational argument with reflection on the value of direct contact with the physical world, something increasingly remote in our information age. Though these skeptics come from a range of ideological backgrounds, they share a concern that in pushing post-secondary education for everyone, we perpetuate a myth that personal fulfillment and economic security can be had only by pursuing a college degree.

            This debate is an important one and is of interest to me because of my own history but more so because it directly affects the kinds of students I’ve been concerned with my entire professional life: Those who come from less-than-privileged backgrounds and aren’t on the fast track to college. It also catches my attention because a book of mine, The Mind at Work, is sometimes used in the argument against college-for-all.

The Mind at Work is the result of a study of the cognitive demands of physical work, waitressing and styling hair to carpentry and welding. Our society makes sharp and weighty distinctions – distinctions embodied in curricular tracking – between white collar and blue collar occupations, between brain work and hand work. But what I demonstrate is the degree to which physical work involves the development of a knowledge base, the application of concept and abstraction, problem solving and troubleshooting, aesthetic consideration and reflection. Hand and brain are cognitively connected.

            From these findings I raise questions about our standard definitions of intelligence, the social class biases in those definitions, and their negative effects on education, the organization of work, and our nation’s political and social dynamics.

Those who use The Mind at Work to champion some type of occupational education over a bachelor’s degree zero in on a core claim of the book: that physical work is cognitively rich, and it is class bias that blinds us from honoring that richness. But I go to some length to tease out the historical and social factors surrounding this core premise, particularly as it plays out in the division between the vocational and the academic course of study. I want to raise these issues again here, for they can get simplified in the debate between advocates of college-for-all and the skeptics.  In fact, I worry that, as is the case with so many education debates, it will devolve into a binary polemic. The predictable result will be a stalemate or a partial and inadequate solution that will not address the web of concerns that underlies this debate or honor the lives of the young people at the heart of it.

Let me begin by acknowledging current labor-market realities, for many low-income students are in immediate financial need. These students can commit to any form of 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 are good jobs out there that require training but not a two- or four-year degree, jobs that are relatively secure in a fluid global economy. The plumber’s and the chef’s work cannot be outsourced.

It is also true – and anyone who teaches and, for that fact, any parent knows it – that some young people are just not drawn to the kinds of activities that comprise the typical academic course of study, no matter how well executed. 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 vs. occupational training debate is typically focused on structural features of the K-12 curriculum and on economic outcomes with little attention 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 beginning 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.”

            The problem is that historically the vocational curriculum itself has not adequately honored the rich intellectual content of work. As the authors of an overview of high school Voc Ed from the National Center for Research in Vocational Education put it: vocational education “emphasized job-specific skills to the almost complete exclusion of theoretical content.” And the general education courses – English, history, mathematics – that vocational students took were typically dumbed-down and unimaginative. Reforms over the past few decades have gone some way toward changing this state of affairs, but the overall results have been uneven.
            The huge question then is this: Is a particular vocationally oriented program built on the cognitive content of work and does it provide a strong education in the literacy and mathematics, the history and economics, the science and ethics that can emerge from the world of work? Few of the economists I’ve read who advocate an expansion of Career and Technical Education address the educational (versus job training) aspects of their proposals.

            Another point that the skeptics make is the troubling record of student success in post-secondary education. Do we really want to urge more students into a system that on average graduates about 50-60% of those who enter it? The skeptics are right about the unsatisfactory record of student success. But their solution seems to fault students more than the colleges they attend and affords no other option but to redirect students who aren’t thriving into job-training programs.

            We need to be careful about painting this broad group of students with a single brush stroke. Some are strongly motivated but because of poor education, family disruption, residential mobility, or a host of reasons are not academically prepared. The question is what kind of course work and services does the college have to help them. (And it should be noted that many vocational programs recommended by the skeptics would require the same level of academic remediation.) Some students are unsure about their future, are experimenting – and in my experience, it’s not easy to determine in advance who will find their way. We also know that a significant number of students leave college temporarily or permanently for non-academic reasons: finances, childcare, job loss. Some of these cases could be addressed with financial aid or other resources and social services. So while I take the skeptics’ point about the poor record of student success and agree that college is not for everyone and that a fulfilling life can be had without it, it is a simplistic solution to funnel everyone who is not thriving into a vocational program.

            Such a solution also smacks of injustice. Right at the point in our society when college is being encouraged for a wide sweep of the population, we have the emergence of a restrictive counterforce that is seen by some as an attempt to protect privilege, or, at the least, as an ignorance of social history. Research by sociologists Jennie Brand and Yu Xie demonstrates that those least likely to attend college because of social class position – and thus, on average, have a less privileged education – are the ones who gain the most economically from a college degree. For such populations, going to college can also provide a measure of social and cultural capital. There is a long history of exclusion that has to be addressed before countering broad access to higher education.

All the above raises the basic question: What is the purpose of education? Both the college-for-all advocates and the skeptics justify their positions on economic grounds, but another element in the college-for-all argument is that in addition to enhancing economic mobility, going to college has important intellectual, cultural, and civic benefits as well. These different perspectives on the purpose of college play into – and are shaped by – a long standing tension in American higher education: a conflict between the goal of cultivating intellectual growth and liberal culture versus the goal of preparing students for occupation and practical life. I treat this issue more fully in other chapters in this book, but let me say here that I think this tension – like the divide between the academic and vocational – restricts the conversation we should be having. How can we enhance the liberal studies possibilities in a vocational curriculum and enliven and broaden the academic course of study through engagement with the world beyond the classroom?
A third option between college or work has emerged in the last few years: Linked Learning, which is also known by its former name, Multiple Pathways. There are various incarnations of Linked Learning, but a common one is a relatively small school that is theme-based and offers a strong academic curriculum for all students; the students then have options to branch off toward a career, or an occupational certificate, or a two- or four-year degree.

It is important to remember here that goals, expectations, and what students imagine for themselves are deeply affected by information and experience. For a pathways approach to be effective, students will need a lot of information about college and careers and multiple opportunities to visit colleges and potential work sites: hospitals, courts, and laboratories. The differences in cultural and social capital between my UCLA students and the students I know at inner-city community colleges 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 college-for-all advocates would applaud the emphasis on a strong academic core but worry that this system could devolve into a new form of tracking. And the college-for-all skeptics, I suspect, would applaud the presence of a vocational pathway, though worry that anti-vocational biases would still stigmatize the option. These are legitimate concerns, and many advocates of the Linked Learning approach acknowledge them. The advocates also admit the significant challenges facing such a reform: from faculty development and curriculum design to the ancillary academic and social services needed to provide a quality pre-pathways education for all students. Still, this is a promising alternative, and some schools are demonstrating success with it.
Though this college versus work debate can slip into a reductive either/or polemic, I think that it does raise to awareness a number of important issues, ones not only central to education but also to the economy, to the meaning of work, and to democratic life. There is the sky-rocketing cost of college and the poor record of retention and graduation in higher education. There is the disconnect between the current labor market and the politically popular rhetoric of “educating our way into the new economy.” And there is the significant commitment of financial and human resources that will be needed to make college-for-all a reality.

On a broader scale there is the purpose of education in a free society. There is the issue of the variability of human interests and talents and the class-based bias toward entire categories of knowledge and activity – a bias institutionalized in the structure of the American high school. There is, then, the need to rethink the academic-vocational divide itself and its post-secondary cousin, the liberal ideal versus the vocational mission of the college. And finally we need to keep in mind that the college-for-all versus work debate takes place within a history of inequality and that the resolution of the debate will involve not only educational and economic issues but civic and moral ones as well.

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Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Scenes from a Community College Tutoring Center

Many years ago I ran the Academic Advancement Program Tutoring Center at UCLA (at UCLA the Academic Advancement Program is our Educational Opportunity Program), and years before that, I worked in a community college writing center, so tutoring/ learning/ writing centers form a significant part of my professional background, and they have contributed to the way I think about learning, teaching, and higher education. A project I have been working on has brought them strongly back into my consciousness, for a number of the people I have been interviewing talk about the crucial role these centers played in their success in college. 

These interviews make me think of the time I spent in a community college tutoring center when I was doing the research for Back to School. Put simply, I loved the place and would sometimes go there late in the day just to get a taste of its vitality…and to remember my own time working in a tutoring center. Here are a few scenes from that center. I hope they give you a sense of what drew me to it.


            “The wonder of it,” is how William explains his fascination with astrophysics. “What’s out there?” he asks softly but with emphasis. “What’s really out there?” He knows he’s got a ways to go, but he’s getting closer with every semester. He’s taking calculus now and Chemistry II, then next term it’s more calculus and a physics course on the mechanisms of solids. “This is where my heart is.” In a year, he plans to transfer to a university.    
            We’re sitting at an old table in the back of his community college’s Tutoring Center, where he works. He’s in his mid-20s, a lightweight boxer’s build, jeans, a hoodie, quietly articulate. The origins of his interest in science lie not in science but in homelessness and his mother’s desperation.
            There was a time, he explains – he was 7 or 8 – when he, his younger brother, and mother lived in their car, then in an abandoned house. His mother worked three jobs, but she still couldn’t make enough for rent. He would wake up in the middle of the night and find her crying, “turning to the sky and praying to God to ‘Help us. Help us. Help us.’ … And I would wonder ‘Why is she looking to the sky? I know she says there’s a God, but what’s really out there?’”
            He started doing well in his science courses. Middle school and high school. But, according to him, the thing “in the end that really topped it off” was the Discovery Channel. William was “amazed” to learn about “all these people looking at the stars and sending robots out into space. So I started doing research on it, and I found out that it all had to do with physics.”
            It took years of working, being dissatisfied, taking one class, then another, changing jobs, learning the ins and outs of college, trying to balance work and school, trying the graveyard shift, starting a family, taking more classes, asking more questions. William finally got all the pieces together. “I kind of had to discover everything on my own, but now I’m not gonna let anything stop me.”
            The Tutoring Center is one large room with computer stations along two walls; there are also five round tables closer to us with computers on them. Two old couches sit side by side close to the entrance, and other tables – like the one William and I share – and chairs are spread around the room, some separated from the others with movable partitions. A lot goes on here. In addition to tutoring, the Center hosts workshops on everything from using the computer to writing the college admissions essay. A sizeable number of students on this campus do not own a computer or lack Internet access, so they come here as well to do assignments. And some students have grown attached to the Center and stop in for quick advice on everything from course selection to problems with home life. There’s a homey feel to the place. While I was interviewing William, an older woman was chatting with one of the tutors, urging her to get her flu shot, and a guy from the culinary program, white coat and chef’s hat, came in bringing a tray of pastries.
            In front of us, a tutor is helping a woman narrow down her topic for a psychology paper. “I’m trying to figure out how people become more tolerant.” Over to our left, another tutor is sitting alongside a big man in a muscle T-shirt. “Give us some insight as to why you’re using this quotation,” she says, and he nods and leans into the keyboard. Alongside them, another tutor is encouraging a diminutive young woman; he cradles the side of his head in his hand, looking at her sideways: “You do have some second-language writing issues, but your vocabulary is great.” Then, “Don’t let the frustration beat you. You’ll get this.”
            I started coming to the Tutoring Center because the remedial classes I was observing required students to complete some online assignments there. I was impressed with the tutors, with their intelligence and camaraderie, and with their commitment to the work. They talked about “making a difference,” about wanting to do more, about feeling “overwhelming gratitude” for the opportunity to be so involved in other people’s lives.
            The tutors were either preparing to transfer to a university or had already done so and kept their job at the Center. I got to know them pretty well, and, once my other work was completed, would increasingly stay late and talk with them.
            Antonio did well in high school – he was the editor of his school’s newspaper – and went straight to college, but had to quit because of illness. He picked up again at a community college in another city, then came here, and transferred last year to a local private university as an English major. He loves to talk about books and writing, about the way literature becomes part of you, the characters and plots becoming “engraved in you.” He’s reading Raymond Chandler and laughs as he explains how he’ll be walking down the street and “the next thing I know I’m describing what I’m doing,” in that distinct Phillip Marlowe voice.
            Larry is the tutor who, head in hand, was encouraging the young woman who wasn’t a native speaker of English. He’s in his mid-thirties, an ex-Marine who was in and out of prison after his discharge, got his life together at this college, and is now a double-major at one of the state universities, Linguistics and Conflict Resolution. He says in amazement how much he loves what he’s doing, given that he hated, just hated high school. He’s taking an African Studies course, sociology of the family, labor studies, and a course in the psychology of peace building taught by a former United Nations negotiator. He tells me about his project: designing a charter school in the occupied territory for Arab and Israeli children.
            Many years ago, I worked in a tutoring center at another community college and later went on to direct one at UCLA, so I have a soft spot for them, for the very idea of them: a common space where students come to learn things in a more personal way, to test their own understanding of material, to try out ideas, to practice a developing skill with the guidance of more skillful others.
            There’s a lot to say about the center we’ve been visiting – the students it serves, the dedication of its tutors – but one thing that particularly strikes me is how frequently the current tutors were once receiving services here themselves. The same is true for the fellow who manages the Center. He’s now a graduate student in education at a nearby state university, but he began his post-secondary career at this campus after an injury made it impossible to continue in the meat-processing industry. He placed into low-level math (pre-algebra) and equally low in English. He had a lot of remedial course work in front of him. But he came to the Center, slowly made his way up the remedial ladder, took his general education requirements, transferred, got his B.A., entered graduate school, and came back here to tutor, and then to help run the place. Within the little institutional niche of the Tutoring Center, there is both upward mobility and reciprocity, whereby members of this miniature community over time have the possibility to sit on both sides of the table. Maybe that’s one reason they seem to have such understanding of the students they work with. “It’s a different world if you go straight from high school to college,” a tutor named Cassandra told me. “I was that student sitting across from me.”
Cassandra is in her late-20s, has a bright, round face, brown, wavy hair that fans out across her shoulders. Her eyes hold yours when she talks. Students come to the Center requesting her. She is a skillful tutor, working with a wide range of students, from those needing help developing an essay to those who are just learning English and are struggling with their textbooks. If you watched her at work or met her – she sticks her hand straight out to shake yours with a firm grip – you’d be as surprised as I was to hear her story. She moves through the Center with assurance. She’s planning to get a graduate degree in psychology. She is passionate and articulate about her work, has a sensibility forged from her own difficult experience. She lays out the problems some of her students have – poor academic preparation, little money, prison records, tumultuous personal lives – but “I would hate for them to just wither away without realizing their full potential, to know what they’re worth, how smart they really can be.”
            Like most of the tutors here, Cassandra’s path to college was neither linear nor certain. She did enter college right after high school and took a number of classes, but she felt out of place and inadequate and eventually quit. For some time, it had been hard for her to concentrate on school. Her mother was chronically ill and her father was distant and demeaning. “I was always worried.”
            I have known so many students like Cassandra; in fact, I in some ways was one myself. She never got into big trouble, but drifted through her classes, undistinguished. Things were unstable at home, and she was consumed with worry and disengaged at school – a disengagement that some teachers took to be intransigence, or worse. Several teachers did try to intervene in a way that might have been well-intentioned, telling her that she’d better get focused or she “wasn’t going to amount to anything.” But that kind of talk only wounded her all the more. The damage of tough love. She was caught in an awful spiral of insecurity and retreat, which was interpreted as disdain, which led to Cassandra’s further marginalization.
            For much of her academic life, Cassandra felt like an outcast, ignored, not very bright, going nowhere. She’s worked since she was 16, through high school and through and after her first stint at college. Those jobs were increasingly unrewarding. “I was just lost.”
            One day a few years back, a friend of hers invited her along to a basic skills math class at her college so that they could then hang out afterward – an utterly random act. Sitting in the math class, Cassandra began to think about school, how long it had been, how this didn’t feel so bad. The next term, she signed up for a speech class, “just for my own growth. I had no intention of going full-time or transferring.” Then next term, one more class, a philosophy class. Then one more term, one more class. Then one year after that serendipitous visit to math, she enrolled in an English composition class that “totally changed everything for me.”
            This professor wasn’t easy; he’d challenge students, make them defend what they wrote or said. But according to Cassandra there was something about the way he looked at you while he was challenging you. “You knew he meant well.” This professor called on the reluctant Cassandra, spoke to her in the hall about her papers, asked for her opinion about things, asked what she wanted to do with her life. “I never had a teacher talk to me like that. He was poking at my brain. ‘Wow,’ I thought, ‘I’m not dumb!’”
            While she was taking the professor’s course, Cassandra was coming to the Tutoring Center, working regularly with two tutors. Toward the end of the term, one of them laid down his pencil, put his hands on the table and said flatly, “One of these days, you’re gonna be sitting here tutoring somebody else.” This was one more in a string of light-bulb moments Cassandra was having at the college. And she began to think, “I have to do this. I’m going to transfer.”
            One of the major goals of public and private initiatives aimed at the community college is to increase the rate of transfer to a four-year college or university. There are just over 1,200 community colleges in the United States, and depending on their location and the demographics of the high schools and neighborhoods that feed into them, they have varied levels of success in fulfilling their transfer mission. Community colleges can provide services and programs to support transfer, and one strategy that helps is to create “learning communities,” or “first-year experience programs,” or programs built around “at risk” populations – programs that create cohorts of students who take classes and receive services together.
            In an informal way, the Tutoring Center functions as such a program. The management model encourages cooperation and shared responsibility among the tutors, and I frequently saw tutors conducting workshops together, sharing students, covering for each other. The tutors use their minds collectively in the service of others, creating in the process an intellectual community among themselves. Larry told me he considers the people in the Center his family.
            There are a lot of roads leading to a college degree, from the one straight out of high school to the retiree going back to school to complete a journey that was interrupted decades before. And there are many, many roads that lead to an intellectual pursuit, to physics, or literature, or psychology, or the study of conflict and peace. The more varied the pathways to degrees and to intellectual pursuits – the more personal histories, the more points of view – the richer we are for it. Cassandra’s experience in school and her work as a tutor will shape her study of the way people learn. Larry’s life on the streets and in prison and the particular way he survived it all gives him a certain understanding of violence and reconciliation. And William’s fascination with astrophysics has a heartbeat to it. Even if they end up asking the same kinds of questions that are asked by others in their courses, they will ask them in a different way.

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