Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Pounding the Table

A few weeks ago, in response to an IHE article about the new book Community Colleges and the Access Effect, by Juliet Lilledahl Scherer and Mirra Leigh Anson, I pledged to read the book and report back.  As promised...

It reminded me of the time I spent reading Christopher Lasch, back in the 90’s.  It’s well-written, it makes some great points, it fires off some nice zingers, and yet, when all is said and done, it falls victim to its own largely unexamined assumptions.  As with Lasch’s The True and Only Heaven, a book that starts out as a bracing counternarrative goes off the rails by the conclusion.  Looking back, the accident was inevitable.

First, the good stuff.  CCAE is a well-written and well-researched explication of a particular point of view.  It blends on-the-ground anecdote with research, and it sticks to its guns most of the time.  I can see why it was published.  Unlike the “Redeeming America’s Promise” authors mentioned yesterday, these have done their homework and given the issues serious thought.  One of them teaches at a community college in St. Louis, so she’s walking the walk, and it shows.  The book is a worthwhile attempt to provoke a potentially helpful debate.

All of that said, though, the core argument of the book has a glaring flaw.  As the book goes on, it gets harder not to notice.

At its core, the book argues that by virtue of being open-admissions, community colleges sap motivation among high school students to apply themselves academically; students know that even if they barely pass high school, they can still go to college.  Then, when they arrive at college, they quickly discover that years of blithe neglect of academics came with a cost: they get overwhelmed and leave, often needing to repay either loans or grants that they had to forfeit.  

Worse, the argument continues, the presence of such large numbers of badly prepared and/or undermotivated students has a corrosive effect on academic standards, since many faculty feel -- correctly or incorrectly -- that failing “too many” students would be professional suicide.  

Therefore, the authors conclude, community colleges need to have higher entrance standards.  Only admit those students who are capable of quick remediation, if they need any at all, and watch high school students raise their games accordingly.  In essence, it argues, if you remove the moral hazard of easy access, then students will work harder to get in, and higher performance will follow.

From reading CCAE, you wouldn’t know that the average age of a community college student nationally is twenty-nine.  (Granted, that’s a mean, rather than a median, but it still tells you something.)  The average twenty-nine year old does not have the option of re-doing high school.  Whatever the merits of higher standards in high school -- a motivator behind the Common Core movement, among other things -- any effects would be moot for folks who are beyond high school age.  The first-time, full-time, degree-seeking students on which the book is based -- and on which IPEDS graduation data are calculated -- comprise seventeen percent of the students on my campus.  I refuse to consider eighty-three percent to be outliers.  

The book presents tougher entrance standards as a cost-saver, noting correctly that remediation is expensive.  But it really struggles to answer the question of where else excluded students would go.  The “trade schools” to which it occasionally refers are typically either comprehensive community colleges or for-profits, which wind up costing far more.  If the preferred alternatives don’t exist, or exist already in community colleges, or exist as severely underfunded community agencies that have waiting lists already, then where, exactly, are the excluded to go?

And that’s when it all fell into place.

Chapter twelve is devoted to international comparisons.  It cites approvingly the case of Finland, where, as they put it, “it is the focus on competence over competition and completion that drives excellence.”  (p. 185)  It compares Finland’s virtually test-free environment, in which schools are not pitted against each other and teachers are respected, with Norway’s American-style approach that features standardized testing and accountability schemes, and finds the focus on competition misguided.  Educators should be trusted, they say.  Competition drives a focus on the wrong things.

Chapter thirteen offers the stemwinding call to action.  After approvingly citing Tom Friedman and Ayn Rand -- I don’t imagine Rand being a huge fan of community colleges, but never mind that -- it spends several pages extolling the virtues of competition in instilling a drive for excellence.  In the manner of business books everywhere, it cites coaches and athletes for inspiration.  Without a sense of urgency and competition, it argues, we go soft.  That’s why American students are so complacent.

And I thought, hmm.  Either the one who wrote chapter thirteen never read chapter twelve -- a hazard of co-authorship -- or something else is going on.  Because on its face, the argument has eaten itself.  

Suddenly, several of the strange little asides throughout the book made sense.  Why did it bother wading into arguments over affirmative action, taking the side that says that affirmative action hurts those it purports to help?  Why did it bother taking a shot at the debt ceiling debates of 2012, bemoaning a supposed lack of moral fiber among those who actually understand Keynesian economics?  Why did it compare community colleges to permissive parents, of all things?

Because the core assumption of the book isn’t about what it says it’s about.  

At its core, the book is about sorting the worthies from the unworthies.  What happens to the unworthies merits nary a mention.

Adult students?  From this book, you’d barely know they existed.  Vocational programs at community colleges?  Almost unmentioned.  Students who defy the odds and make their way successfully from the lowest levels of remediation to graduation and transfer?  At one point, the authors actually deny that such students exist (p. 13).  

If your goal is to sort the worthy from the unworthy, then it makes perfect sense to prescribe vigorous competition among other people while self-righteously exempting yourself.  After all, you’re worthy.  Your job is to apply pressure to everyone else, to see who rises to your level.  As for those who don’t, well…

If that’s your worldview, then the relative indifference to the “then what?” question makes sense.  If community colleges -- the last open doors in many communities -- start turning away the huddled masses, where should those huddled masses go?  If you’ve judged those masses unworthy, then you don’t much care where they go.  That’s not the problem you’re trying to solve.  You make a face-saving gesture towards cost savings from financial aid that will supposedly be enough to pay for all those new adult basic education programs, but even you don’t really believe it; it’s the tribute vice pays to virtue.  Invoke a thousand points of light and be done with it. The problem you’re trying to solve is all those unworthies walking around your campus.  If only they would go away and leave it to those who truly deserve to be there…

But that’s not what community colleges are for.  It’s a fundamental category error.

In Lasch’s case, a predisposition to narratives of decline eventually betrayed his egalitarian leanings; by the end of True and Only Heaven, the erstwhile leftist is reduced to defending Louise Day Hicks as a champion of local control.  In Scherer and Anson’s case, a temperamental affinity for sorting leads them to betray the open-access mission of the community college.  By the time they’re done describing who should battle for respect and who should just be entitled to it, the argument has become so messy that they’re left to resort to exhortation.  If you’re wrong on the facts, pound the law; if you’re wrong on the law, pound the facts; if you’re wrong on both, pound the table.  

They pound the table very well.