Community colleges step into spotlight

President Obama wants to spend $12 billion on community colleges to produce 5 million new graduates by 2020. That would fund construction, online courses and $9 billion for “challenge grants” to encourage innovation.

Smart move, writes New York Times columnist David Brooks. America can’t regain its “human capital advantage” without low-cost, accessible, second-chance institutions. But two-year colleges have been ignored because “most people in government, think tanks and the news media didn’t go to community college, and they don’t send their children to them.”

Obama’s initiative will help community colleges get more students to a vocational certificate or two-year degree, Brooks believes.

Most schools have poor accountability systems and inadequately track student outcomes. They have little information about what works. They have trouble engaging students on campus. Many remedial classes (60 percent of students need them) are a joke, often because expectations are too low.

The Obama initiative is designed to go right at these deeper problems. It sets up a significant innovation fund, which, if administered properly, could set in motion a spiral of change. It has specific provisions for remedial education, outcome tracking and online education. It links public sector training with specific private sector employers.

No, the $12 billion will subsidize the status quo, writes Rick Hess on The American. Community colleges “may not provide the optimal platform for 21st-century job training.”

After all, community colleges maintain networks of campuses opened when the Internet was a science fiction conceit, when distance learning entailed mail correspondence, and when private providers like the University of Phoenix were a curiosity. These are teaching institutions that prefer to pay a premium to hire Ph.D.’s — even though the Ph.D. is a research degree that doesn’t have much to do with community college instruction.

Community colleges offer hope to a wildly diverse group of students, writes Donald Douglas, who teaches political science at Long Beach Community College.

Sadly, many students come to my classes unable to read. My second year teaching I had a young woman . . . who could not write a single paragraph on a page. . . . I sat her down in all seriousness and indicated that she was nowhere near college reading and writing ability. I made sure she was in touch with the appropriate staff on campus, so she’d have the remedial resources to help her succeed.

“It’s really an honor to work with such a population,” Douglas writes.

Community colleges, for all their faults, are much more flexible than four-year colleges. They’re more attuned to the local job market and more responsive to the needs of older students. We’ll get more gain for the buck at community colleges than at four-year institutions.

Learning from the 'Harlem Miracle'

The lessons of Harlem Promise Academy‘s success, writes Diane Ravitch on Bridging Differences, aren’t the ones columnist David Brooks points to in The Harlem Miracle.

First, spend lots more money. Spend enough so that children in the regular public schools can be in classes no larger than those in the Harlem Promise Academy. Spend enough so that every public school has facilities that are state of the art, and every school has excellent laboratories and a first-class gymnasium.

Second, it is worth exploring why so many public schools in the big cities have been unable to establish a clear, fair, and functional discipline and behavior policy. Is it because of long-forgotten court orders? Have public schools become so wrapped up in procedural rights and processes that they can’t provide an orderly environment for learning? . . . My own view is that schools are by definition middle-class. If they are good schools, they teach the knowledge, skills, and behavior that one needs to function well in work, in higher education, and in life. So, there is a common-sense element to the “no excuses” mantra.

The charter school is part of the Harlem Children’s Zone, which tries to provide a wide array of support services to families in poverty.  However, the study Brooks wrote about compares charter students with zone residents with access to the same services who didn’t attend the charter school.

Harlem miracle

The Harlem Miracle, a David Brooks column in the New York Times, praises a charter  school that’s dramatically boosted low-income black and Hispanic students’ test scores.  That shows schools can make big changes for children in poverty, Brooks writes. Of course, Promise Academy is part of the Harlem Children’s Zone, which provides a range of programs to help families, including prenatal care and parenting classes. But children who live in the zone but lost the lottery to attend the charter school didn’t show the same progress. “In math, Promise Academy eliminated the achievement gap between its black students and the city average for white students, Brooks writes.

Promise exemplifies “an emerging model for low-income students,” Brooks writes.

Over the past decade, dozens of charter and independent schools, like Promise Academy, have become no excuses schools. The basic theory is that middle-class kids enter adolescence with certain working models in their heads: what I can achieve; how to control impulses; how to work hard. Many kids from poorer, disorganized homes don’t have these internalized models. The schools create a disciplined, orderly and demanding counterculture to inculcate middle-class values.

It takes time to get left-behind students caught up.

Promise Academy students who are performing below grade level spent twice as much time in school as other students in New York City. Students who are performing at grade level spend 50 percent more time in school.

The middle school struggled in its first few years, writes Paul Tough in Whatever It Takes, the story of the Harlem Children’s Zone. Teacher turnover was high. Too many students were behavior problems. But as students moved from the elementary to the middle school, those problems were solved.

For more on no-excuses, culture-building schools read Sweating the Small Stuff by David Whitman and, of course, Our School by me.

Update: On Gotham Schools, skoolboy calls Brooks gullible.

Perspiration vs. inspiration

Practice, practice, practice creates geniuses, writes David Brooks in the New York Times. Forget the “divine spark.” It’s not easy being a genius.

If you wanted to picture how a typical genius might develop, you’d take a girl who possessed a slightly above average verbal ability.

Introduce her to a famous novelist to give her “a vision of her future self.”

It would also help if one of her parents died when she was 12, infusing her with a profound sense of insecurity and fueling a desperate need for success.

Hmmm. Seems a bit extreme.

Armed with this ambition, she would read novels and literary biographies without end. . . . Then she would practice writing. Her practice would be slow, painstaking and error-focused.

I think this is a formula for producing competent writers, not geniuses.

The revolution is not a picnic

“The revolution is not a dinner party,” student radicals used to say. Quoting Mao, I assume.  In education, change is “no picnic,” writes David Brooks in the New York Times. Like me, he likes Obama’s story, retold in his education speech, about his mother waking him up before dawn to study correspondence lessons when they lived in Indonesia.

That experience was the perfect preparation for reforming American education because it underlines the two traits necessary for academic success: relationships and rigor. The young Obama had a loving relationship with an adult passionate about his future. He also had at least one teacher, his mom, disinclined to put up with any crap.

Brooks thinks Obama can recreate that for young Americans by expanding “nurse visits to disorganized homes,” improving early education and extending the school year.

And will they all the children of Africans so smart and motivated they managed to study graduate economics at Harvard and Americans so motivated they earned a doctorate in anthropology?

Brooks also believes Obama’s “vision” will transform teaching.

Most important, it would increase merit pay for good teachers (the ones who develop emotional bonds with students) and dismiss bad teachers (the ones who treat students like cattle to be processed).

Merit pay for caring? There are teachers who love kids but don’t teach them well — sometimes for reasons beyond the teachers’ control. And there are teachers who teach well but don’t create emotional bonds. I’d prefer to making effective teaching the priority.

Brooks is more cynical about “the education establishment’s ability to evade the consequences of data” on children’s progress.

Obama’s goal is to make sure results have consequences. He praises data sets that “tell us which students had which teachers so we can assess what’s working and what’s not.” He also aims to reward states that use data to make decisions. He will build on a Bush program that gives states money for merit pay so long as they measure teachers based on real results. He will reward states that expand charter schools, which are drivers of innovation, so long as they use data to figure out which charters are working.

Will Obama follow through? Brooks admits that the president “caved in on the D.C. vouchers case.”

Democrats in Congress just killed an experiment that gives 1,700 poor Washington kids school vouchers. They even refused to grandfather in the kids already in the program, so those children will be ripped away from their mentors and friends.

. . . Obama has, in fact, been shamefully quiet about this. But in the next weeks he’ll at least try to protect the kids now in the program.

We’ll see. Words are cheap. What Obama does — or fails to do — for the D.C. voucher students will show whether he’s serious about changing education or just hoping.