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How I'd fix higher education (essay)

My Goddamned Book
November 2, 2012

Week after week. From foes. From friends. “When are you going to write a book?”

From true friends? “Your book should have been on the shelves a year ago.  You won’t have any impact unless you’ve written a book.” 

I lead with the lamest excuse of all.

“And exactly when will I write this book?” The slides begin in my mind of all the people busier than I am who have written books. My slides put all these authors in earnest conversation with Charlie Rose, Faith Middleton, Jon Stewart, or Stephen Colbert. 

“And exactly when?” O.K., next excuse: “The bread is in.”  That’s a text message that arrives most weekday mornings.

“The Bread Guy” is my nickname at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, where we will soon have our seventh food bank in as many months.  To clarify “food bank”: the Greater Boston Food Bank unloads an 18-wheeler of frozen chicken, pork, bags of carrots, bread, and yogurt and whatever else at the back of the building. At first, an 18-wheeler's worth of food vanished in 90 minutes. The fourth was after summer classes ended and before fall classes had begun.  We wondered if students would show.  They did. At the sixth, last week, the food was gone in 60 minutes.  These hungry, remember, are human beings taking calculus, computer science, biology, nursing. 

The bread?  Oh, yes. Here’s an e-mail from the other day. 

I am a current BHCC student who is going through a rough time financially. My friends and I look forward to seeing the "bread guy" carting around the school with free bread and pastries. For some of us, it is the only thing that we get to eat that day. For others, it helps us save what we would have spent on food so that we can buy a T pass to get to and from school.

The food bank and the bread arrived after my March column here that I had thought was about using federal work-study funds to pay students to study -- so they’d have money for food.  Instead, the column broke the news of hunger on college campuses. "Here and Now," on NPR, picked up the story (Professor Suggests Paying Students To Study). That brought an e-mail from the parents’ association of Minuteman High School in Concord. Could they deliver every day four to six cases of day-old bread from Panera?  “Of course. Thank you.” Each morning, I or a colleague load the bread onto a three-tier steel cart that clangs and rattles as we roll the bread to the Single Stop office, where a colleague has peanut butter and jelly, too. 

Historical Aside/You Can’t Make This Up: That’s “Minuteman” as in Lexington and Concord. Remember in the Longfellow poem, Paul Revere on the 18th of April in ’75, “Then he said "Good-night!" and with muffled oar silently rowed to the Charlestown shore.”  That spot on the Charlestown shore is just a few blocks from BHCC. The Minuteparents, then, are bringing the bread to Charlestown along pretty much the same roads as Revere rode in the other direction in ‘75.  Surely the patriot silversmith had higher hopes for our nation than food banks in mind when he spurred his horse and looked over his left shoulder to where BHCC now stands.   

My Goddamned Book? Next excuse?

Here’s a showstopper. Wars. My colleagues and I are always working with two students out of money because of wars. The family of one is in hiding in the civil war in Mali. Car bombs in Damascus have shut the banks of another student’s family.  A refugee from the civil war a few years back in Kenya last year earned a few dollars over the Pell Grant limit. No more financial aid. He can’t come back to school. 

Every day faculty and staff all over our campus are helping the 500 U.S. veterans back from deployment in Iraq, Afghanistan, and, often, both. With the understaffed federal Department of Veterans Affairs, payments due to these men and women are late all the time.  The veterans are, then, at the food banks, too. 

Foes? How better to slow my nettlesome columns and convey me to oblivion than a year or two writing and (the real joke) trying to sell a book about the ease of educating the poor. My foes have the point that haunts me. Who cares, beyond my colleagues, the food banks and the Minuteparents, that these students have no food?

Who cares? The presidents of both my union, the National Education Association, and my lobby, the American Association of Community Colleges, blew off my suggestion to share with memberships the versions of Walt Whitman’s “I Hear American Singing” that The Nation published this fall. Click here for the poems. I had suggested that teachers and professors everywhere Steal This Assignment and have students flood the White House with the results. Not as literature but evidence that these millions of students have talent and motivation that’s worth lunch and a little help.   

My Goddamned Book? Five years ago, I embedded myself at Bunker Hill Community College to find out who these students –- the millions failing to complete college –- are. What can they do?  What would it take for them to succeed? 

I’d had it with conferences on college access –- white tablecloths, sweating pitchers of ice water, pads and pens my students didn’t have. Speaker after speaker repeating demographics.  And the excuses.  And the excuses.  And at lunch, platters upon platters of free sandwiches.  Free drinks before dinner.  I found, then and now, no evidence to counter my surmise that T-Mobile and Red Bull know more about these students’ lives than anyone on the higher education research/foundation/conference circuit. 

My Goddamned Book would report my finding: 

We, the people, can put at least a million, maybe two million, students on the path to a solid 21st-century career with funds already available in the federal budget. No new taxes. 

My obstacles are that my blessedly simple, practical, finance-able ideas must be wrong. Otherwise, someone other than me would already have thought them up. Let me summarize. (This is only a column. You are going to have to buy the book.) Provide food. Give students a quiet place to study. Start with critical skills. 

To increase degree, associate, bachelor’s, or certificate completion by at least a leap and a bound: 

  1. Right now, begin a pilot program that used already-budgeted federal work-study money to pay students to study.  Click here for details.  Wages to put food on the table will always trump giving up pay to study and attend class. 
  2. For Pell-eligible college students, provide the same federal free and reduced lunches these students received in k-12.  Right now, we, the people, penalize students for continuing postsecondary education by taking away lunch. To fund this we can either cap federal direct-cost reimbursement for research grants (most now at least 50 percent) at 15 percent -- or just give me a few minutes with the Pentagon budget. 
  3. Require students receiving federal student aid to apply those funds first to being able to pass the Advanced Placement Exams in statistics and in English composition. Click here for details.  (No, we, the people, will not pay current prices to the College Board.) Stop complaining about low U.S. math scores. Do something. 
  4. Evidence of students worthy of this investment? Again, click here and read the poems The Nation published.

My target populations are those now in community colleges. Not every single student. Two out of 20 in every section I’ve taught so far have the intellect to follow any rigorous course of study, from a Cisco systems license to admission at a selective college. Ten percent, then, of eight million students in community college is 800,000. To the many who will call my estimate folly, I’ll adjust by 75 percent. Call it 250,000 students. I’ll settle for a 10,000-student clinical trial/pilot, the rigor of which education has never seen before.

These are the students worth the public investment now.  Our lack of an answer for the other 7,750,000 million students is no excuse for failing to educate, to the max, the 250,000 I will delineate in My Goddamned Book

Yes, stories sell books. My Goddamned Book will move aside what too often passes for education reform –- the hero teacher and hero student tales. Jaime Escalante, “Stand and Deliver,” and Erin Gruwell, “Freedom Writers,” inspire me every day.  Their work is evidence that these students are worth an investment.  Recommending these movies to a friend is not what My Goddamned Book will propose. 

My Goddamned Book will examine the shabby state of data with which to do real research in education. My Goddamned Book, and perhaps a column soon, will illuminate how education wonks and leaders over the past few decades have mastered (and doctored, I guess) excuses while medical doctors and scientists have found cures and treatments for many cancers. 

Exactly when will I write My Goddamned Book?  When the BHCC student who gave this stunning speech in Washington at the Opportunity Nation Summit has a funded plan for food for the balance of the semester. Click here and take a look.

My Goddamned Book will admit that I don’t think everyone needs college and that I have no idea how many more completions and graduations will energize the economy. My Goddamned Book will recognize that none of us has the slightest idea what would happen if a million more students per year, or even 1,000, could pass those two AP Exams. My Goddamned Book will propose that we, the people, give these simple ideas – food, quiet study time, high standards -- a try. 

Is 250,000 still too big a clinical trial still?  Is 10,000? O.K., how about the solutions I propose for 1,000 students at Bunker Hill Community College, starting Monday?  I’ll bet my job on their success.

 

 

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