Thursday, November 13, 2008


Responses to the Gates Foundation

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has announced that community colleges will be the next beneficiaries of their largesse. A few responses:

First, Woo-Hoo! (insert video of DD doing the Snoopy dance)

Second, I hope they're willing to recognize the work that has already been done, so they don't spend great googahs of money reinventing the wheel. Philanthropists have been known to do that.

According to the IHE account, they're focusing on four key areas: backloading financial aid, changing student incentives, building partnerships, and improving remediation. I've written before on the first two, so all I'll say here is that innovation is more than welcome, but we underestimate the political hurdles at our peril. In terms of improving remediation, I'll just do a plug for a really serious look at how we do ESL. We have entire populations for whom college simply isn't an option unless we get better at ESL.

In terms of partnerships, though, I have some misgivings. At one level, this isn't anything we haven't been doing for decades. In cases with stable employers and long-term labor shortages (that is, hospitals, long-term care facilities, daycare centers, and, increasingly, hotels), we've been able to build very successful partnerships. But in many cases, the problem is precisely that there's a shortage of good local employers. We'd be more than happy to train people for high-paying jobs, if those jobs were out there. But the high-paying jobs that are out there require advanced (graduate) degrees, so our 'transfer' curriculum IS our vocational curriculum. I'm consistently annoyed at how many people don't get that.

A genuine, honest-to-goodness breakthrough – and one that the Gates Foundation is uniquely capable of fostering almost unilaterally – would involve recognizing the transfer curriculum as vocational, and therefore eligible for the resources that are targeted at vocational programs.

The distinction between 'transfer' and 'occupational' may have served certain purposes in the past, and I'll certainly admit that there are some degrees for which there's no relevant credential above the Associate's (yet). But in popular discussion – and, sadly, policy discussion – people fall back much too quickly into the old stereotypes of 'ivory tower' versus 'job training.' What the hell are you doing teaching literature when you could be teaching welding?

The short answer is that the local employers who used to hire welders have outsourced their production to another hemisphere, and the folks whose training was limited to that skill are pretty much SOL. But the folks who transferred their literature credits to four-year colleges and universities were able to get jobs higher up the value chain.

The longer answer is that 'job training' only makes sense when you're pretty sure that those jobs are going to be sticking around for a good long time. In areas like health care, law enforcement, and early childhood education, those are probably pretty safe bets. But other industries are wildly cyclical. (I'm reminded of a discussion we had a few years ago about running non-credit workshops for Realtors.) In my days at Proprietary U, where the entire curriculum was built around employability, we had a crisis of purpose when the tech boom crashed and companies started outsourcing a lot of their IT work to India. Training in a narrowly-defined skill set can leave you awfully vulnerable to industry swings.

(The other way around that is to train people for extremely low-end jobs. Those aren't going anywhere, either, but it's not clear to me what purpose is served.)

I've seen enough of these conversations to know that the usual line of attack goes something like this: you wimpy/feminine academics don't understand the REAL world (harumph, harumph), where manly male masculine stuff is valued, like construction and welding and using big tools. Don't you pinko liberal commie wussies understand that book learnin' is for sissies? College isn't for everybody – you should step aside and let us manly male he-men initiate the youth into real jobs.

You know, like building pickup trucks and houses.


This critique, which I think of as Archie Bunker by way of Charles Murray, simply misses the economic (not to mention social) changes of the last forty years. Anything that can be automated and/or outsourced, will be. That is the way of things. We can equip people to thrive in that world, or we can mutter darkly about kids today.

Maybe we can start by deep-sixing the false dichotomy between transfer and vocational curricula. In this economy, you move up or you move on. The 'employer partnership' model may have made sense when we had industrial behemoths bestriding the landscape, but they're mostly gone. (I wonder how many high-paying jobs at Microsoft don't require at least a four-year degree or its functional equivalent. Yes, Gates himself is a Harvard dropout, but he's hardly representative.) Employers are too volatile now, and industries change too quickly. Pipelining students into the GM's of the world may have made sense in the 60's, but it's insane now.

In this world, the way to prepare most students for high-paying jobs is to prepare them for more education.

If the Gates grants can get that ball rolling, I'll be doing the Snoopy dance for many years to come.

I agree that there is a false dichotomy between the 'transfer' and the 'vocational' programs -- ALL of my philosophy students say they are in the class because, long term, their education will get them better jobs -- they don't read Kant for the fun of it :).

I think one of the programs transfer programs have is about defining 'success' -- the vocational progams can say they place X number of students in jobs, Y number of students pass the national liscense exam etc. We can say that A number of students went to other schools -- BUT, those other schools get the credit for the job placement.
Just so you know, your "Manly-man Real World" vs. "Pinko-commie Girly Ivory Tower" description is hilarious.

And I think you're right- efforts to seperate "vocational" from "transfer" will have negative ripples.
However, when are we going to reassess what education constitutes the best foundation for modern life(including gainful employment)?
At a community college, you can always tell students who ask "why are we learning this?" that "we have to be like the four years so it will transfer". But ultimately, that's a pretty hollow answer.
Credit for transfer is one important real world constraint, but I think CCs are actually really well positioned to be innovative on this front. At least, they are better positioned than the hidebound Illustrious Institutions fixated on their own Tremendous Traditions.
Your comment about Realtors made me realize that we should have a short course for auctioneers ...

Your article indirectly answered the question about why you teach literature, so you should formulate it into a clean sound bite for future use. "We teach literature because future elementary school teachers and engineers are required to know something about literature and the arts if they want to get a license to practice in this state. It is a requirement for their job."
ccphysicist: But is it, in fact, a requirement? I'm not an engineer, but I'm pretty sure there's no American Literature section on the PE exam.

How about this: "Modern workers are expected to be adaptable, self-training, and good at communication. Our general education courses teach logic and good use of the language, and enable the student to learn new information through independent research. Recent history has shown that these are necessary tools for survival in a rapidly changing workplace."
Ah, ye of little faith in CCPhysicist. ;-)

Yes, it is a requirement, although it takes a bit of artistic license to say that a *literature* course is required. However, if you focus in on specific transfer schools, particularly large state universities, DD ought to be able to back that off-hand claim with specifics.

1) I know some states used to explicitly require a "literature" course for elementary education certification but I don't know the current situation in my state, let alone yours. But they surely require a broad education in the humanities.

2) Engineering does not put it on the PE exam, but they do require a general education that includes some specific minimum number of credits in the humanities and social sciences with details left up to each institution (which must defend its choices). They don't specifically require literature, but this general requirement is certainly the answer to why MIT has a literature department
that says 3/4 of all MIT students take a course in literature. Now it is true that the more extreme cases (e.g. Colorado School of Mines) only have a few courses that combine humanities, social sciences, reading, and writing to make more room for technical courses, but they are required to have *some* courses that address areas of thought that complement what is done in the technical areas. ABET insists on it.

The rationale for these courses is tied into the specific ABET requirement that graduates be able to communicate effectively, not only with other engineers (often in writing that is unambiguously clear) but also with clients who know nothing at all about physics or mathematics or engineering.

I'd also add that my own experience teaching physics says that many of my students would benefit greatly from a good course with "close reading" and critical analysis of every word in a paragraph. They often get physics problems wrong because they did not read the entire question with attention to detail. I've learned a lot from Dr. Crazy (a regular correspondent here) on converting skimmers to readers.
Hey, no argument that a literature course or two is a good idea for an engineer. I just don't think you can say that an engineer is "required" to know something about literature and the arts in order to be certified. Overstating like that tends to breed cynicism and suspicion that the humanities profs are featherbedding.

My alma mater, an engineering school, did require one class/semester of something other than science or engineering. I graduated without taking any courses in literature or art (I was more interested in sociology, philosophy, psychology, and linguistics).
Unfortunately, the Gates Foundation does not have a great track record for asking for assistance in assessing and finding solutions for problems. They had targeted my high school at one point. I went to a public school with about 2,000 students. The school was very old and falling apart, but the city residents wouldn't pass a levy for a new school for various political reasons. The school became desperate to find funding however it could.

At one point, there were discussions with the Gates Foundation about a significant grant to rebuild the school, if only we were to split it up into five smaller, separately running high schools. Apparently Bill Gates went to a large high school and felt that students didn't get enough personal attention in large schools. One of the main problems of doing this (and there are several, of course) is that some of the best parts of our school come about by our large size; we have enough diverse students to warrant several honors and AP classes, certain remedial classes, an array extracurricular activities, and several other benefits I'm sure I'm unaware of.

If we had accepted the grant from the Gates Foundation, we would have had a new building that might not have been leaking rain when it poured outside, but we would have had only four hundred students in whichever new school we were in, which doesn't give the variety of students (or sheer number of students) to necessitate (or to fund) a wider variety of opportunities for the students.
A fair point, Dictyranger, since the engineering school I used as an example took a similar approach. Similarly, only 75% of MIT students choose literature rather than some other humanities discipline to meet their general education requirement.

But my point remains that DD should have a ready answer to that question tied to typical requirements for "workforce" majors like education and engineering in his state. If he is in one of the states I consider plausible, most of his engineering students will transfer to a college that requires either literature or philosophy (probably even more esoteric in the minds of the person asking the question) for a general education. Ditto for education majors.
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