Finally! The Current Administration Supports Community Colleges

The education policies of the current administration have disappointed me more than encouraged me, because the emphasis has shifted from preK-12 educational excellence to postsecondary support.  The truth is, no one really knows how to fix K-12 education.  No one asks the teachers and parents, either, but that’s not the point here.  Finally, the Obama/Duncan team has rolled out the beginnings of a plan to stimulate successful completion rates of community college students.  This is an area of education that has traditionally been all but ignored, and I applaud this administration in its efforts.  As a political policy, I think the Obama administration has offered too little too late, as I suspect President Obama will have a very difficult time being re-elected, and the focus on community colleges will become a legacy.  The question is how sustainable the legacy will be.

Click over to the link below.  This is the opening of a summit that is actually all-inclusive in its stakeholder foundation.  This statement gives some excellent statistics and voices several historical concerns of community college supporters.

Many very bright people I know started their postsecondary education at community colleges.  The educational experience in these two-year schools is as good as the courses taken in the first two years at almost any four-year institution.  The differences are that community college tuition is usually a fraction of the traditional college tuition, yet community college students tend to have more opportunities for support with individual needs, be they academic, social/emotional, or vocational.  The quality of instructors and professors is comparable to traditional colleges, but there is a tendency among academics to look down on them because the focus of community colleges is the student, not research.  That does not mean that community college professors don’t do research; it just means that the institutions value teaching over research.  Especially for low-income students, the community college allows access to postsecondary courses that are usually transferable to four-year colleges.  However, too many four-year institutions–unless they have a direct agreement with the community college–accept only a portion of the community college credits the student earned.  Why this occurs baffles me, as the materials used and topics covered are the same.  There is even disagreement in the research on transitions from community colleges to four-year institutions as to why credits are often ignored.

The point is that the Obama/Duncan team have put the community colleges in the spotlight for the first time since the late 1960s.  Because community colleges are supported by both state and local tax dollars, students do not necessarily have to take SATs before being accepted.  Many community colleges are open to anyone who wants to attempt a college education.  With SAT fees increasing faster than gasoline prices (yes, I’m probably exaggerating), the entrance exams are often too costly for many students, meaning that scholarship funds to four-year institutions may not be accessible.  (But SAT prices should be another blog’s topic, so no more about them here.)

Interestingly, it is not just low-income students who attend community colleges as a prelude to four-year institutions.  I have met many people over the past ten years who hold advanced degrees (usually doctorates) and encourage their own children to attend community college first.  Two reasons: low tuition, and the guarantee of admission to a local state university upon successful (3.0 or better GPA) completion of two years of requisite courses (usually without having to take the SATs, which predict only freshman year success anyway).  Another note of interest: students who attend community college with the intent of transitioning to the affiliated four-year schools generally do not earn a degree.  These students are, however, counted as part of the 25% of students successfully completing two-year programs, as mentioned in the US Department of Education’s blog, linked above.  That means that, despite the fact that community college education is cost-effective and courses are comparable to those of four-year institutions, there continue to be unknowns about why 75% of community college students drop out.

Despite treatment as postsecondary education’s step-children, much energy has been put into researching the reasons for such poor completion rates among community college students–possibly more than research available on dropout from traditional colleges.  Community college attrition has not been a focus of mine, so I am unable to address what issues or characteristics are attributed to these institutions’ dropouts.  However, I have either served on or chaired enough dissertations regarding community college attrition to have a feel for some of the problems–or at least what some of the problems are not.  Cost is not an important factor; neither are academic support, vocational counseling, class availability, or faculty.

Because I am a staunch supporter of lifelong learning, the problems of retention among community colleges is interesting to me.  Because I believe community colleges are an excellent resource for individuals who are either earning a two-year degree or planning on continuing to a four-year institution, I am in full support of federal funding to research the causes of both retention and attrition in community colleges.  This makes a lot more sense to me than infusing education funds into postsecondary programs whose efficacy is unknown.  Selfishly, I also feel that learning more about attrition from two-year colleges might shed some light on dropout among junior and senior year high schoolers.  It might also inform four-year colleges about their freshman and sophomore attrition rates.  Perhaps the four-year institutions’ student support programs are not as effective for freshmen and sophomores as they believe.  The community college is in the perfect place to inform consumers of both secondary and post-secondary institutional attrition.

Finally!! An Obama/Duncan education plan I can feel good about!



The Obama/Duncan Plan for Higher Education

Today I was thinking a lot about the Obama administration’s plan to churn out more math and science teachers in the next decade.  I call it the Obama/Duncan Plan.  Now, I haven’t checked on this yet, but I will bet that there are plenty of undergraduate students in math and science education programs to meet the needs of middle and high schools throughout the country.  The problem is that these people may teach for a year or two (if at all) before they are snatched up by the business sector.  No matter what the economy is doing, teachers get paid poorly for the education levels they have achieved.  You can reduce interest or forgive payment on student loans all you want if a math or science education major actually teaches.  However, that will not keep these people in their jobs.  Why?  Money.

In most modern nations–and especially in developing nations–teachers are both respected and well-paid.  In the U.S., a teacher can be one step down from God and still not have the deserved respect for an extremely difficult job.  If you are not a teacher or postsecondary instructor, imagine having 30 ten-year-olds for six or seven hours a day, all at the same time.  Teachers have to get all the children listening and working together with a learning purpose or goal in mind, while maintaining the peace between two sworn enemies, soothing a bunch of chronic complainers, patiently listening to  three or four “goody two shoes,” enticing at least one student who sits in the back of the room and challenges the teacher to teach him (or her), make certain that students are improving their reading, writing, and arithmetic skills as well as learning how to take standardized tests, and modeling how to behave appropriately with each other and with the teacher.  Five days a week, at least 40 weeks a year, year after year.

Could you do that job?  Or let’s look at the high school level.  Imagine teaching the same thing to five classes a day.  The high school teacher has the same difficulties as the teacher of 10-year-olds, but the high school teacher sees his/her students for 45 to 50 minutes each day, and the kids are a lot bigger.  Additionally, the teacher has to remember where each class left off in discussions, whether a particular activity was adequately covered in all of the classes, and whether–by the fifth class–the intended information was actually delivered to the students.  If a teacher is expected to teach the exact same material to all his/her classes, the teaching can become pretty stale by the end of the day, even if the teacher practices cooperative learning techniques.

That’s what classroom life is like for most teachers.  At the end of the day, their work is not finished.  It is often in the evenings, after the needs of their own families have been met, that the teacher once again sits down and plans for the next day’s classes, or for all of the following week.  In addition, any papers that need reading and correcting are done in the evening, as the bit of non-teaching time that is build into their day is too short to score five sets of multiple choice tests.  On top of this, both the state and the school administration expect the teacher to take continuing education and professional development classes, usually on their own time, not the school’s time.  Teachers often use their summer “vacations” to do that, and to plan out their teaching strategies for the following year.  Teachers are not paid for the summer.  However, they are often given the option to be paid only during the 10 months they are actively teaching, or to have their pay spread out across 12 months so that they can manage their income better.

More often than not, teachers are constantly looking for new ideas and new items that their students might find unique and interesting.  If you have ever gone on a social outing with someone who is a teacher, you are guaranteed to hear, at least once, “Oh, this would be perfect to share with my students!” or “This will make a great anecdote when I teach (fill in the topic)!”  If you haven’t shared a social event with a teacher, try it.  See if an entire evening or day trip can go by without a single reference to something that students might like.

People who teach for more that three years are teachers first and everything else second.  That is why they are willing to accept pay that is lower than they are worth to the business world.  However, when math and science teachers see that they can make double what they are making if they work for a company instead of a school, many of them think about how much better the extra money will be for their family.  So, they take the job outside of teaching, and another hole in the math/science teaching sector opens up.

The Obama/Duncan plan to supplement higher education is certainly commendable, but it is not realistic in the long run.  We will have a steady progression of science and math teachers cycling through schools just to have their student loans forgiven.  Money given directly to higher education institutions will not necessarily be used wisely to shore up the education departments and graduate schools.  Whatever plan eventually comes out of the Oval Office will need to be carefully tailored with all environmental variables considered.  So far, this administration has not shown me that they are capable of covering all the territory on any issue, much less on education–specifically higher education.  I will continue to believe that more money must go into preK-12 education–much more than the amount of money going to postsecondary institutions.  From a feasibility standpoint, the better grade school education becomes, the less money will need to go into postsecondary institutions.  It’s simply a more sensible investment.  

Meanwhile, the children cannot wait a minimum of 4 years before the first graduates of the Obama/Duncan postsecondary education plan are ready to teach.  For three years. Or until their student loans go away.  And the lure of much higher salaries draws them away from teaching…