Saturday, November 19, 2011

Accountability and Community Colleges

As often happens, two stories appeared in the press on Friday that are essentially unrelated, but with contrasting elements that reveal something about our times. In this case, it is about the disparate expectations of accountability among public employees.

Mitt Romney -- though in many ways the least public-minded person in the country -- has been a public-sector worker and is seeking an even higher position as a government worker. Yet the "accountability" he and his ilk insist upon for others is something with which he cannot be bothered. He airily dismisses any questioning of his decision to erase most evidence of electronic communications from his term as Massachusetts Governor, and literally to buy the rest.

Meanwhile, "reformers" continue to push so many "accountability" measures on educators that it becomes increasingly difficult for them to educate. Any negative results, however, are assumed to be the fault of the educators, since the reformers themselves are never asked to account for themselves. Today's second story is about the most recent calls to squeeze even more out of the state's community colleges. Boston Mayor Menino suggests that educators -- whose work he cannot begin to understand -- be "taken to task if they don't perform."

Everyone consulted for the story -- which did not include the educators or even the administrators involved, incidentally -- conceded that the community colleges are underfunded and already do quite a lot with quite a little. Massachusetts, after all, is behind nearly all other states in the funding of public higher education -- some years ranking 50th, some years as high as 48th -- and community colleges have received the worst fiscal beatings. Some of the "reforms" suggested are simply ways to make the community colleges more effective at lobbying the legislature. For a legislative leader to insist on such a necessity is to shift the blame from the perpetrator and toward the victim.

Also mentioned in the article is the fact that community colleges have to accept any high school graduates who come their way. These graduates are a nearly pure sample of MCAS victims. That is to say that college readiness of arriving students continues to diminish as teaching-to-the-test becomes pervasive. It being too difficult to hold the promoters of MCAS accountable for their mistakes (and too costly for those receiving those testing fees), accountability is simply moved downstream, to the professors. Professors, incidentally, who teach ridiculous course loads, again because the governor and legislators are not held accountable for their unconscionable neglect of public higher education.

The same meager funding that lengthens the teaching day beyond what is reasonable also shortens the learning day, as students who pay ever-higher fees must work long hours flipping burgers or waiting tables, rather than focusing on their studies. Educators know that time on task is a crucial variable in achievement, but when time on task is reduced because the public has not supported its young learners, it is inevitably the learners and their teachers who are blamed.

Aside from misplacing accountability, those who would reform community colleges make an even more fundamental mistake by failing to understand the dual mission of community colleges. For certain students in certain circumstances, a community college is a place to get prepared for a particular trade or career. For other students in different circumstances, however, it is a place to get prepared for further learning at a four-year institution. For many students, community colleges serve both functions, one for a near future and one for a farther future.

The Boston Foundation should be aware enough of the dynamism of the world economy to realize that an education that is focused too narrowly on certain vocations is not an education for the future. The governor and legislature could more credibly improve community colleges by unshackling K-12 teachers from the MCAS and fairly funding the community colleges so that the teachers could be freer to teach and the learners freer to learn.

An op-ed published in the Globe on Sunday addresses the shortcomings of the "reform" movement from a different angle. University of California Vice Provost Russell Rumberger describes How College Prep is Killing High School, arguing that the emphasis on academic subjects poorly serves the one-third of future workers who will need other skills that were once taught in high school. He cites Thomas Jefferson, who stated in 1818 that "stated that the purpose of public education included giving citizens information for transacting business, the ability to express ideas in writing, and an understanding of duties to neighbors and country."

Rumberger's complaint is not limited to the amount of emphasis on college preparation; he also complains that the simplistic manner in which this has been done is leading to systemic failures for which the reformers are not being held accountable. High-stakes testing is associated with record low rates of graduation and a measurable decline in so-called soft skills -- a crisis, really, in the availability of even minimally prepared workers.

Moreover, all of this misplaced effort is not even achieving its stated objective: Rumberger confirms what those of us who teach at the college level have been seeing: standardized tests are making students less capable of college-level writing and critical, integrative thinking.

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