Friday, July 17, 2009

Community Colleges: All that and a bag of chips or two tacos short of a fiesta plate?

A friend of mine sent me David Brooks' column in today's New York Times. I think I was supposed to be energized and excited by it. Just like I think I was supposed to be "all-in" for the Obama administration's latest Community College announced initiatives. I guess when David Brooks is lauding a Democratic President its time to break out the parkas for the resultant frozen hell. But it is still hellaciously hot here in Texas. In my case, that article just opened all my floodgates.

Where do I begin?

Dear Mr. Brooks and Mr. Obama. I have been living under these very perspectives and expectations for a few years now and I would like to hit you both with big sticks. Too bad that I am soooo liberal I feel guilty thinking about acts of violence.

Recently, my Community College has been good enough to send me to two conferences both geared toward improving our success rates. You see, we Community Colleges only succeed in showing a fifty per cent completion rate for our students and it has been decided by the David Brooks of the world that we can do better. And here is my first problem, I think 50 per cent is a great rate. I think we are remarkably successful. After all, huge percentages of our students come needing remediation. (That rate is growing and I can tell in the students who show up in my class, btw.)

Those conferences. Real problem for me. I want to be positive. I want to drink the Kool Aid but my own undergraduate and graduate school experiences didn't prepare me for that. Back then, I was praised for critical thinking. Not in my present life. It isn't valued. Ala David Brooks and Barack Obama, we are to develop innovative measures and we are to be able to, well, measure them. Conference one: ways that I as a faculty member can "engage" my students. Conference two: ways that our college can become more "learning centered" and measure that success.

Here is the perspective we hear at these conferences as written in Brooks' column:

Nor is increased student aid fundamentally important. I’ve had this discussion with my liberal friends a thousand times, and I have come to accept that they will never wrap their minds around the truth: lack of student aid is not the major reason students drop out of college. They drop out because they are academically unprepared or emotionally disengaged or because they lack self-discipline or because bad things are happening at home.


Actually, I have many students who have severe financial issues and struggle to make it but I think of myself as "liberal" so I guess I just can't wrap my mind around that. Sorry broke students when you are choosing between that one hundred textbook and feeding your kids that just isn't the truth.

The second part is what hacks me off the most, simply, because I am deep fried to a crackly crunch with that thinking. It is true many of my students aren't ready for college. They are emotionally disengaged and lack self-discipline. Do you, honestly, honestly think there is a lot I can do about that? Does anyone seriously believe that you can innovate your way to engagement? If they stay out partying to the wee hours of the morning (I know they do. I smell it. If you have inhaled eau de day-after-student, you have taught at State U or JuCo. Its a smell you don't forget) does anyone seriously think that a Wiki will spur different life choices? And, of course, the answer is, yes, large numbers of people think that can happen. They probably don't, actually, teach. And when you teach long enough you realize that a good number of the party kids will, eventually, come back. Sometimes, its all good. Sometimes, its not but, hey, I can't control that either.

Funny, at conferences two, after breakfast while most of the audience was texting their loved ones or just anybody, somebody to relieve the stupidity; embedded in a twenty minute presentation, I thought I smelt the whiff of truth: in our six years of pursuing these innovated initiatives in our measures of our success, we can't show any. Completion rates remain the same. But then I can't really wrap my mind around the truth, so, I probably only think I heard that.

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