The education gospel and its heretics

Education is as close as the U.S. gets to a secular religion, writes Steven Brint in the Los Angeles Review of Books.  “In a time when Americans have lost faith in their government and economic institutions, millions of us still believe in its saving grace,” writes Brint, a UC-Riverside sociology professor.

The American education gospel is built around four core beliefs. First, it teaches that access to higher levels of education should be available to everyone, regardless of their background or previous academic performance. Every educational sinner should have a path to redemption (most of these paths now run through the community colleges). Second, the gospel teaches that opportunity for a better life is the goal of everyone and that education is the primary — and perhaps the only — road to opportunity. Third, it teaches that the country can solve its social problems — drugs, crime, poverty, and the rest — by providing more education to the poor. Education instills the knowledge, discipline, and the habits of life that lead to personal renewal and social mobility. And, finally, it teaches that higher levels of education for all will reduce social inequalities, as they will put everyone on a more equal footing. No wonder President Obama and Bill Gates want the country to double its college graduation rate over the next 10 years.

Brint looks at books by education heretics: Education, edited by Feliciy Allen; What Is Education?, by Philip W. Jackson; Class Dismissed: Why We Cannot Teach or Learn Our Way Out of Inequality by John Marsh; and In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic by Professor X.

Brint calls the leading heresy  “the new restrictionism.” It argues that open access to higher education has flooded colleges and universities with unprepared, unmotivated students who spend all their energy texting, tweeting and “facebooking,” rather than studying.  Colleges must dumb down the curriculum and offer easy A’s to keep tuition flowing.

Professor X, who teaches writing at a community college and an unselective four-year college, sees students going into debt in pursuit of a degree of dubious utility that they probably won’t complete.

We don’t like to admit that one student may be smarter, sharper, harder working, better prepared, more energetic, more painstaking — simply, a better student — than another … Our quest to provide universally level playing fields has made us reluctant to keep score.

“Romantic” heretics argue that schooling crushes the spirit. The “fools’ gold” heretics challenge the idea that education leads to social progress. “True educators” don’t care about changing society. They want to transform individuals.

Like Brint, I think the education gospel’s strongest challenge will come from heretics who say college should be reserved for academically competent, motivated students. Even the gospel’s crusaders, led by President Obama, are talking about a year of “postsecondary education” –  job training — for all, not a bachelor’s degree for all, though they want to push more people to an associate or bachelor’s degree as well.

Failure rates are sky-high at open-admissions colleges and universities. In New York City, taxpayers shell out $17,700 (including federal and state financial aid) for every community college dropout, according to a new report. And only 28 percent of students complete a degree in six years. The community colleges with the highest student success rates are technical colleges, which specialize in job training, usually at the certificate level.  The two-year, for-profit career colleges also have strong completion rates, despite recruiting high-risk students. Everyone can benefit from college — if we define job training as “college.”

$5.6 billion for college remediation

College remediation costs $5.6 billion a year, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education. That includes $3.6 billion to provide remedial classes at two-year and four-year colleges and an additional $2 billion in lost lifetime wages because remedial students are more likely to drop out of college.

“Remediation is paying for the same education twice,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia. “It is a wasteful use of public and private dollars and an unrealistic solution to closing the preparation gap between high school and college. Doing it right the first time by delivering a high-quality high school education improves the chances of long-term success for students and for communities.”

One third of college students — 44 percent at public two-year colleges and 27 at public four-year institutions — take at least one remedial class.

Professor X, author of In the Basement of the Ivory Tower, teaches writing and literature  as an adjunct at a private “college of last resort” and a community college,  From the New York Times review:

“I do not teach remedial or developmental classes,” he explains, “and cannot transform my bona fide honest-to-God fully accredited college class into one.” He admits that he fudges nonetheless, sneaking in a great deal of “hidden remediation.” But 15 weeks is not enough time to bring many of his students up to speed, and he wonders about remediation generally, citing a study of Ohio community colleges that came to the tellingly modest conclusion that “remediation does not appear to have a negative effect.”

. . . Even in positive evaluations of X’s courses, though, his students offer revelations like: “Before this I would of never voluntarily read a book. But now I almost have a desire to pick one up and read.”

X wonders how to grade “a college student who progresses from a 6th- to a 10th-grade level of achievement?” He gives F’s.

At best, X’s students will earn low-prestige, low-value degrees. At worst, they’ll be discouraged, degree-less, debt-ridden, uneducated and unemployable.

A college-readiness campaign in high schools has cut the number of low-level remedial math students at El Paso Community College. But very few high school graduates at EPCC are ready for college math. The numbers are much better for writing and somewhat better for reading.

Also on Community College Spotlight: A new study finds community college placement tests aren’t very accurate for remedial students.

Professor X on ‘colleges of last resort’

In the Basement of the Ivory Tower, by an adjunct English instructor,  argues that unprepared students are going into debt to take “classes they cannot possibly pass” at “colleges of last resort.”

“Professor X” challenges the idea that everyone must earn a college degree or face a life of Dickensian misery, notes Dwight Garner in a New York Times review.

. . .  why is it so important to Barack Obama (a champion of community colleges) and those doing America’s hiring, he asks, that “our bank tellers be college educated, and our medical billing techs, our county tax clerks”? College — even community college — drives many young people into debt. Many others lack rudimentary study skills or any scholarly inclination. They want to get on with their lives, not be forced to analyze the meter in “King Lear” in night school in order to become a cop or a nurse’s aide.

More anti-baccalaureate backlash on Community College Spotlight: “College for all” distracts students from more achievable goals, such as a vocational certificate, and enriches for-profit colleges.