Thursday, September 19, 2013

Friday Fragments

Oregon continues to flirt with different ways to fund higher education.  Now a state senator has introduced a bill to make community college free to high school graduates in the state.

As with any “free” proposal, the key question is where the funding will come from.  Since that hasn’t yet been specified, it’s hard to tell whether the idea is brilliant, awful, or somewhere in between.  But it’s a far sight better than the twenty-five year titheing plan Oregon was considering a few months ago.  I’ll take progress where I can get it.


My colleague Lee Skallerup Bessette had a bit of a meltdown yesterday in her reflections on the heartbreaking death of Margaret Mary Vojtko, who had worked as an adjunct at Duquesne University for twenty-five years and died penniless.  Although I don’t especially care for Lee’s characterization of me in the piece, I have to admit that the piece rewards reflection.

From our different vantage points, we actually agree that the current system of higher education is unsustainable, and increasingly reliant on exploiting good people.  I suspect that our proposed solutions differ; I simply don’t believe that protest will bring back the staffing levels of 1970.  That’s why I’m so impressed by the College for America that SNHU has launched, which ditches time-based learning altogether, and why I’m constantly looking for new experiments.  

Whether the competency-based approach proves successful over time, or proves simply to be a bridge on the way to the next thing, it’s at least asking the right questions.  Restoration is not a viable project.  Holding our breath waiting for the Golden Age to return just leaves good people out in the cold even longer.  The way to go now is think through changing the mode of production in higher education is a much more thorough, even radical, way.  (For example, Votjko’s case illustrates for me that we simply have to separate health insurance from employment altogether.  Go with single-payer and be done with it.) The stakes are just too high not to.


This week we had Parents’ Night at The Boy’s junior high.  He’s in the seventh grade now, and the school genuinely feels different than the earlier grades did.

We did a walk-through of his daily schedule, more or less, and heard presentations from his teachers about what the classes are doing.  (We skipped French, just for the frisson.)  His teachers were all well-spoken, although some of them seemed impossibly young.  That seems to be happening more in general these days…

The real surprise for me, though, was the “technology” class.  It’s sort of the successor to the old “metal shop” or “industrial arts” classes that tortured me in junior high.  The shop classes I endured were all about using tools to do prescribed things.  Of course, some students chose to deviate; you’d be surprised what can be soldered to what, if you manage to distract the teacher long enough.

Now, it’s entirely different.  The class is all about engineering, and the major task for the students is to design, build, test, redesign, rebuild, and retest bridges out of balsa wood sticks.  The bridges are about 18 inches long, and they’re judged on the weight they can hold.  Last year, the teacher mentioned, one bridge successfully held a 68 pound load (from a hanging bucket).  Instead of spending their time making napkin holders, the kids are steered towards figuring out how to apply their math lessons to structural design.  I loved it, and I know TB will, too.

And of course, parents now can follow their kids’ grades online.  

Now if they would just stop spending consecutive days on “pretesting” and actually start teaching, we’d be in good shape.