Beyond 'Tough Choices'

July 9, 2010

An article here last year, "Sophie's Choice for 2-Year Colleges," may create the mistaken impression that the crisis in our educational system can be managed and resolved through a bitter regimen of "tough choices." The article details the decision of San Joaquin Delta College, facing deep budget cuts, to preserve some programs by eliminating others, particularly those for students needing remedial instruction or starting to learn English. The thinking behind that decision reflects important issues, but also replicates false assumptions, and in so doing draws invisible boundaries around a discussion that deserves and desperately needs more imagination and perspective.

One unexamined assumption of many higher education leaders seems to be that we, not just community colleges but an entire society that purports to believe that education is essential to democracy, are earnestly doing our best to help "the unfortunates" but, heartbreakingly, are finding ourselves overwhelmed by how unfortunate they really are. Thus, the logic goes, we’re "left with no choice" but to retreat like a lifeboat captain tearfully paddling away from the Titanic.

Although this is a consoling thought, the reality is the opposite. Two-year colleges are being overwhelmed precisely because as a society, we were never fully committed to remedial students (or to democracy, or to equality) in the first place. Many young people from low-income communities who have been criminalized and imprisoned are told they are ineligible for federal loans at precisely the moment when they are taking steps to turn their lives around. And here in New York, many of the working poor who attempt to obtain a college education are met with a cruel Catch-22: denied even part-time aid funds unless they first meet an eligibility standard by going to college full-time for two consecutive semesters. To do this, of course, they have to take time off from their jobs, which many of the working poor will find it daunting to do.

Unfortunately such hypocrisy is common to government and even to college leaders, who often fail to provide two-year colleges and programs with needed support while simultaneously claiming to recognize the value of a strong education system. Late last year, New York’s governor proposed $53 million in cuts to the City University of New York, just a year after an already massive round of cuts that included a 15 percent tuition increase.

Although close to half of our nation’s college students (and larger shares of minority and low-income student) are enrolled at two-year colleges, these institutions receive but 20 percent of the funding received by 4-year colleges and a mere 3 percent of private college donations. This bewildering disparity cannot be explained away by advanced facilities for 4-year college "research" that cost more than 2-year college "classroom instruction." At our colleges and at most community colleges, even the relatively inexpensive instruction of basic writing skills is hobbled by class sizes far in excess of National Council of Teachers of English guidelines.

In a study by the Two-Year College English Association, 100 percent of community colleges surveyed were in violation of class size guidelines established by the Conference on College Composition and Communication. At a meeting of the latter body to discuss these findings, one audience member reported that at her institution, faculty attempts to persuade administrators to remedy the problem were not taken seriously: "You could have gotten laughter out of the room." Even more disturbingly, nearly 50 percent of the survey respondents revealed that class sizes, which the CCCC would want to be significantly lower for developmental courses to ensure that the least prepared students have correspondingly more time with their professors, were not merely in excess of this lower cap but actually considerably higher for remedial courses than for first-year ones.

Of course, community college presidents see the problems before them: they’ve told President Obama that their facilities are “bulging with students” and that they "have to build capacity." But by implying that the only alternative to cutting programs is expanding class sizes or finding other ways to leverage "economies of scale," college leaders participate in and thereby legitimize a zero-sum argument with dangerously limited social vision.

And the depth of our nation’s complacency over the fact that those who need the most receive the least is also clear in the fact that some students are reaching college age with third-grade skill levels. How is it possible that in the United States, this supposed beacon of hope around the world, students can reach the age of 18 and still have only third grade skills? That's not just about community colleges being overwhelmed; it's about our nation’s collective failure to commit to the principle of equality or even "equal opportunity" at every level of education. This lack of commitment is evident in the fact that the K-12 systems are just as overburdened and underinvested as the two-year schools.

Old solutions that deflect attention to pedagogy rather than policy have not taken care of these old problems. For many students in under-served public schools, the skills and knowledge they need and deserve have taken a backseat to endless drilling for state accountability tests that have become a curriculum in and of themselves. Such a curriculum concentrates on the most rudimentary and mechanically quantifiable facts and formulas, tying short spurts of “learning” to cycles of test-preparation and test-taking. This short-sighted approach to accountability, to the consternation of teachers charged with raising pass rates on these tests, undercuts the long-term and extensive preparation that students need to thrive in college, career, and life beyond the testing site.

The scope and tenor of the discussion at San Joaquin Delta and in so many discussions about community colleges are also limited by another false assumption: that "immigrants" are the populations most in need. The invisible and tragic irony is that masses of two-year college students who are insufficiently practiced in basic skills are not even immigrants. They are the ones some community college faculty worry about the most and they are the ones who would be hurt the most by cutting remediation because they don't speak any other language and they don't have any other country to go to. The tendency to focus on romantic, nationalism-affirming stories of “immigrant hardships” instead of native-born, underserved students who have spent their entire lives being disappointed by the system obscures half of the American story, and this convenient perspective is symptomatic of a deep, ideologically elaborate denial of race and class inequality in this country.

Native-born or not, it’s hard to imagine that such students feel very respected or valued when the president of San Joaquin Delta College says "Your heart goes out to them" while cutting courses and whole programs. Similarly, you might be surprised how little solace community college faculty and staff take from being told, in the words of Thomas Bailey of Columbia University, that “‘if you get someone from 5th grade to 10th grade, even if that's not college level, that's still a useful function for the college to perform." When you are eyewitness to a building on fire, you’re not waiting to be congratulated for helping the residents make it halfway down the stairs – all you care about is getting the authorities to listen to you when you tell them that people’s lives are in danger.

Those of us who teach in the community colleges can't deal alone with the scandal of racism, classism, and other deepening social inequalities in this country, but given our place in this conversation, it is incumbent on us to sound the alarm. We need help. Our whole educational system needs more investment, not less.

Though too few and too far between, glimmers of hope can of course be found if you have the luxury of looking for them. For example, the Gates Foundation explicitly puts financial aid and other financial incentives such as scholarships at the center of its four-part plan to focus attention and resources on community colleges. Even President Obama, despite his dispiriting acquiescence to the testing industry, sounds like he understands how central the problem of capital is to the tragedy of low retention. Per the Inside Higher Ed article linked above, "When students drop out, he said, ‘That’s not just a waste of a valuable resource, that’s a tragedy for these students. Oftentimes they’ve taken out debt and they don’t get the degree, but they still have to pay back the debt.' "

But sometimes bold-sounding enterprises can incorporate elements that amount to simply evading the problem. For example, CUNY’s systemwide bid to improve retention has led to an ambitious proposal to build from the ground up a new community college that considers itself open-access but will require all students to attend full time. Sounds fair, doesn’t it? The problem is, the “full-time only” rule is, for many of our students, already a de facto requirement, thanks to the Catch-22 of the “part-time” state aid award that one can only “earn” by going to school full-time for two consecutive semesters first. How many students are already hit hard by this draconian requirement, and would therefore be ignored by CUNY’s proposal? The Community College Survey of Student Engagement reports that more than half of community college students “attend part time so that they can tend to pressing work or family obligations." This inconvenient fact leads the survey’s director, Kay McClenney, to wonder aloud if CUNY’s new project is “going to serve a small portion of students who are going to succeed anyway." The president of the American Association of Community Colleges echoes this concern, saying that such institutions "tend to succeed because they target students who are mostly not at risk […] catering to only those students who stand a better chance of success in the first place."

Action alone is not enough: it must be accompanied by frank, painful discussion of the unspoken and incorrect assumptions about the nature and real extent of the problem. In The New York Times, Paul Krugman bluntly reminded us late last year that "America, which used to take the lead in educating its young, has been gradually falling behind other advanced countries." If we ourselves continue to ignore and disrespect the emergency of our educational system, then we ought not profess astonishment when students show up in our nation's college classrooms and job fairs and voting booths lacking basic skills. If they don't have basic skills, then of course they will not understand complex college-level concepts – like evolution, for example. If they can’t understand evolution, then how exactly do we expect them to understand global warming, or health care reform, or how to get out of the economic crisis or the war in Afghanistan? Let’s not ignore the alarms or allow ourselves to be soothed by those who are simply changing the subject or repackaging old, failed solutions. We owe our students and ourselves more than talk about “tough choices” that change nothing because they end up being the toughest on those whom our society has left weakest.

Bio

Susan Naomi Bernstein, Sarah Durand and Sigmund Shen teach at LaGuardia Community College. The following individuals also contributed to this piece and its ideas:

Mitchell F. Balish, Miami University
Lenore Beaky, LaGuardia Community College
Nancy Berke, LaGuardia Community College
Evelyn Burg, LaGuardia Community College
Lorraine Cohen, LaGuardia Community College
Timothy Coogan, LaGuardia Community College
Gita DasBender, Seton Hall University
Junot Díaz, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Francine Egger-Sider, LaGuardia Community College
Kristen Gallagher, LaGuardia Community College
Joan Greenbaum, LaGuardia Community College
Rosann Ippolito, LaGuardia Community College
Heidi Johnsen, LaGuardia Community College
Peter Kwong, Hunter College
Daniel Lynch, LaGuardia Community College
Sally Mettler, LaGuardia Community College
Karen Miller, LaGuardia Community College
Keith Miller, New York City Department of Education
Terry Parker, LaGuardia Community College
LaRose T. Parris, LaGuardia Community College
Maria Rexhammar, Hunter College (student)
Dawn Saliba, Binghamton University (student)
Abigail Schoneboom, LaGuardia Community College
George D. Sussman, LaGuardia Community College
Laura A. Tanenbaum, LaGuardia Community College
Lynne Teplin, LaGuardia Community College
Phyllis van Slyck, LaGuardia Community College
Celestine Woo, State University of New York Empire State College

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