John McWhorter

Community Colleges Are More Interesting Than Tea Parties

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So the bloom is off the rose. President Obama’s Grant Park oration now seems as antique a moment as Ronald Reagan telling us it was “Morning in America.” As glorious as it felt at the time, it was longer on drama than substance.

Just why, with the state of the nation as it is now (and was then), did we suppose that anyone could “bring us together”? It was, I always thought, an unspoken idea that Obama’s “diversity” somehow enhanced his substance, his Mensch-liness. We were to think of him, as a member of a group suffering discrimination and especially as one also half-white, as a stand-in for the conscience of the nation, tempered into a kind of wisdom by the wells of strength required to endure abuse.

Well, what with the Tea Partiers calling for his head on one side and lefties feeling burned on the other, I guess that didn’t work out. Yet that doesn’t mean that the Obama presidency, just because it won’t be about drama, will offer nothing to inspire. Change can happen slowly and in fact usually does. That renders it neither less interesting nor less important.

Example: Obama is well on his way to becoming an Education President in the true sense. No, all of America’s public schools will not be turning into lushly funded academies churning out bright-eyed, civicly-engaged, readaholic yet well-rounded Übercitizens anytime soon, if ever. But great stuff is happening.

It’s happening both in and beyond Washington, and the real “coming together” that needs to happen is between these things – something much more plausible than a nationwide rebirth of nonpartisan ideology.

Take, for example, the National Center on Education and the Economy’s plan to have eight states experiment with allowing public school students to graduate after tenth grade upon finishing clearly stated requirements, and to then go on to community college. The states will have pilot schools using this program just two autumns from now.

The first benefit here is that it will allow students who don’t want to be in school to get out sooner. Let’s face it – a great many will always not want to be in school. Book learning is not everybody’s cup of tea (chalk it up to Multiple Intelligences if you prefer). Or, imagine this option in crummy schools almost no one would want to stay in any longer than necessary. The fourth season of The Wire, for example, is commonly received as an earnest depiction of the plight of inner city kids in lousy public schools. Well, if so, imagine an alternate universe where some of those kids could be directed to study for some board exams and get out of there two years early. No, their poverty would not have to bar them from help studying --  think of the services available to poor New York kids trying to place into top public schools, and what an easy sell funding them would be for philanthropists (such as the Gates Foundation, who are bankrolling this tenth-grade-and-out experiment).

But then there’s more. If students are to graduate after tenth grade, this inherently requires the formulation of a definite and viable curriculum for students to have mastered before moving on at the tender age of 16. Those who choose this track will have a concrete task before them of studying for the board exams.

Clearly having to give a tenth-grade education so much more bang for the buck will require better teaching than the average American public school student gets today. As it happens, this dovetails nicely with the growing clout that improving teacher assessment has gained over the past year in education circles. Nobody will be writing any songs about it or exclaiming about how they didn’t expect to see it in their lifetime, but something big is happening.

For one, Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top program includes funds for teacher assessment. And then, right on time, American Federation of Teachers head Randi Weingarten has actually openly come out in favor of stressing teacher assessment. She would say, one suspects, that she has never been against it -- in a speech a month ago she cited a poll of teachers showing that 69% agreed with prioritizing teacher assessment over union concerns. But this is a different language from the one that Weingarten has been talking until recently. There is a sea change afoot here, one not belied by any polite, parenthetical statements from Weingarten or anyone else along the lines of “Of course I think it’s important to evaluate teachers, but ...” We all do the parenthetical to be polite all day every day.

And on top of this, the old idea that teacher assessment is a mysterious business largely due to elements of chemistry and charisma unsusceptible to valid measurement is falling apart. Teach for America has been doing survey work on their own teachers over the past twenty years – ones whose work in the trenches of tough-nut inner city populations makes them perfect subjects of analysis – and has identified what makes for a good teacher (this Atlantic article was especially good on this).

All of this together could signal a paradigm shift – i.e. the way history really happens. The Tea Partiers may make for better YouTube, but I’m more interested in this stuff. Race to the Top, in general, may not be perfect, but last time I checked, No Child Left Behind was no good because it focused too much on just reading and math, shunted too much attention to “teaching to the test,” and wasn’t enforceable.

Race to the Top is an attempt to get at these problems – handiest is going from NLCB’s “if you don’t improve, you might get shut down” to RTTT’s “if you don’t improve you don’t get any extra money.” If providing a carrot along with the stick is considered common wisdom on Iran, surely the argument applies to schools.

It’s also easy to miss what’s special about our own times once the novel becomes normal. Think about how otherworldly it would have sounded just ten years ago that any Presdiential administration would commit itself, no matter how effectively, to narrowing the test score gap between black and white students? I recall a time when it was considered fresh and wise to object to calling attention to that gap at all (“..because what are we ‘implying’ ...?!?!” the questioner would pose).

And finally, the NCEE experiment can serve as a needed wake-up call to America about the value of community colleges, and more specifically, vocational training. One of the most ironically damaging aspects of the GI Bill in the 1940s was the notion, now so deeply entrenched in the American soul as to seem not an opinion at all, that four years of a liberal arts education at a university is a default experience for people after high school, and that to not do this is opt for, or be saddled with, the lowlier fate of “Not Going To College.”

In this era when we so often bemoan the plight of uneducated young men, it is high time we returned to championing vocational education as America used to – and once again the Obama Administration is on it, with its plan to put 12 billion dollars into community colleges. Speculating over whether Sarah Palin will run for President or how much the Tea Partiers don’t like Obama and why has a certain oomph, to be sure. But in the long run, what will be much more important to the fate of America will be a new awareness that learning how to fit a house with central air conditioning is as worthy a pursuit after high school as getting a BA in English.

Mark Tucker, the head of the NCEE, nails it: “We’ve looked at schools all over the world, and if you walk into a high school in the countries that use these board exams, you’ll see kids working hard, whether they want to be a carpenter or a brain surgeon.” If we really believe that Yes, We Can do anything – or if we really want to at least try to do anything – we must shed the tacit notion that we are doing something by intoning “Manufacturing jobs are shrinking and we have to get these people jobs.” The intonation should be “We must shunt people into community colleges and other vocational training institutions to train them for the jobs that exist” (and, I would add, the more that will exist when our current economic morass clears). The new funding for community colleges, and a plan like the NCEE’s, gives concrete reason to try thinking in these new ways.

There is an opportunity here for American education to be better than it has been not only over the past forty years but, really, ever. In downplaying what’s special in our present we romanticize the past as well. Here is Betty Smith in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (a novel that really does still kick) on what public school was like in Brooklyn a hundred years ago last year, when dropout rates were rampant just as they are now – the grandpa who speaks staunchly about how rigorous his education was back in the day is often leaving out how many of his classmates weren’t around by graduation.

Brutalizing is the only adjective for the public schools of that district around 1908 and 1909. Child psychology had not been heard of in Williamsburg in those days. ... Few teachers had the true vocation for their work. They taught because it was one of the few jobs open to them; because they had a long summer vacation; because they got a pension when they retired.

I could have pulled that journalistic trick of opening this piece with that passage and doing a “Last week in Baltimore? As a matter of fact, that was written way back in ...” Little has really changed. Can we do better than that? Lately, despite distracting noises of other kinds, there is all reason to think that Yes, We Can.

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