California Dreamin'

David Clemens

Following release of “Draft Recommendations” from the Chancellor’s Task Force on Student Success, panic has roiled the usually placid waters of the California Community Colleges (CCC).  The recommendations, since adopted unanimously by the CCC Board of Governors (BOG), in fact have nothing to do with either real students or real success but if implemented, they will fundamentally retool the largest higher education system in the world.  Their adoption by the BOG puts California in a familiar place: on a collision course with reality.  Simply put, the reform scheme is pure behaviorist claptrap based on fictional students being taught in fictional ways by fictional teachers. 

Does California’s 2 ½ million student community college system need retooling?  Undoubtedly.  For decades, the 800 mile archipelago of 112 campuses stretching from Oregon to Mexico has basked in the community college concept.  Replacing a 1917 junior college concept, 1967’s community college model always was a dance with the devil.  California taxpayers shell out millions in property and other taxes (88% of CCC funding) to keep community college fees and per unit costs affordable for all (currently $36 per credit hour, rising soon to $46).  But instead of primarily delivering lower division requirements to students as junior colleges did (with a nod to remediation and trades), the community college concept offers an irresistible economic temptation:  turn everything into college and rake in the dough.  Tiny tot swim club members and geriatric flamenco dancers: college students!  Fourth grade level readers and doodad ceramicists: college students!  Ellipticals, Yoga, Weaving Practicum, Volleyball Practicum, fitness, fitness, fitness: count `em all and hear that cash register ring!  Cheap golf, cheap tennis, cheap swimming pool, cheap fitness center, cheap kilns and studios, all subsidized by tax payers.  And with dozens of financial aid options available under a blizzard of acronyms, often these “students” pay nothing at all.  Too many are not students at all either, but attend classes only to collect edu-welfare, to prevent deportation, or to maintain athletic eligibility.   

But as California’s regulatory and tax nightmare drives out business, tax revenue and property values sink.  With a head-slapping “Doh,” Sacramento has realized that, “Whoa, we can’t afford this!” and Mr. and Mrs. Taxpayer have started asking, “What?  I’m paying for ellipticals and flamenco grandmas?”  A nearby community college offers 31 courses in Physics, Chemistry, Biology, and Astronomy combined.  The same college offers 13 flavors of remedial English and over 200 courses in Art, PE, Physical Fitness, and Theatre Arts, most of them repeatable.  Cha-ching.  California Governor Jerry Brown, the once and future “Governor Moonbeam,” complains that only 25% of community college students ever earn a degree.  Is that educational failure, as he implies?  Is it mission failure?  Or is it because so many students aren’t there for college at all?

So the Chancellor’s Office and the BOG are trying to close some of the more egregious loopholes by capping enrollment and by eliminating enclaves of dubious academic merit (soccer majors, financial aid grifters, or commercial artists sponging off the colleges’ equipment). 

The recommendations also seek to make K-12 through CSU a continuum of standard course names and numbers, descriptions, outcomes, placement, and assessment.  That’s a good thing, right?  Only partially, because the plan ignores human nature and is predicated on magical thinking.  The draft recommendations’ first words are:  “There’s a story that each member of this Task Force wants to be true . . .” and a gauzy fantasy unfolds.  Imaginary students are college-ready upon high school graduation and eager to learn (because we so want it to be true!); students have a major and an academic plan after one semester and are upper-division-ready after two years of community college (hurry, please!); students are job-ready upon college graduation (it has to be!); and remediation is trimmed and/or accelerated (the 33-year-old student who struggles to read Harry Potter will be soaking up Joyce and Heidigger in a matter of weeks).   

How will such wonders be accomplished?  With software, of course!  Placement software, instructional software, assessment software.  This is how out of touch the draft recommenders are and how willing to maintain the poisonous fiction that college is for everyone.  Granted, maybe the taxpayer should question paying Ph.D.s to teach fourth grade reading, but technology is faring no better. 

In an essay titled “Lost Arts of Teaching,” Scott Jaschik of Insidehighered.com reports that two professors at the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development conference in 2010 “asked: If technology is helping us teach better, why are we seeing so much evidence that students aren’t learning as well as we would like? Current college students have had more exposure to technology in high school and college than previous generations did, but are they better off for it?”  Similarly, the Chronicle of Higher Education, reporting on last month’s Higher Ed Tech Summit at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, quotes Troy Williams, vice president and general manager of Macmillan New Ventures, “We’re beginning to get lots of data on things like time of task, but we don’t have the outcomes yet to say what leads to a true learning moment. I think we are three to five years away from being about to do that.”  That’s right.  At enormous expense and time, software is now beginning to produce learning analytics from self-reported, anonymous data about how much time stronger students spend reading chapters and solving problems compared to weaker students.  I’m guessing they spend more time. 

That is, what the draft recommenders dream of is not new whizbang edu-tech but a new and fundamentally different kind of student.  In grand behaviorist fashion, the recommendations obsess over inputs and outcomes, testing, benchmarks, loss points, and scorecards, virtually ignoring the greatest influence on student learning: the student.  Despite all the social engineering efforts of identity politics, humans remain stubbornly individual—unpredictable, emergent, irreducible, conflicted, and ambiguous.  Chris Hedges quotes a teacher who says: 

Not only have the reformers removed poverty as a factor, they’ve removed students’ aptitude and motivation as factors. . . .  They seem to believe that students are something like plants where you just add water and place them in the sun of your teaching and everything blooms. This is a fantasy that insults both student and teacher.

Even were it possible, no money is allocated to produce these fundamental changes in human capacities, talents, desires, and behavior.  The Task Force fantasy includes the assumption that somebody has not been doing his job well enough, and that’s gonna change in a data-driven culture of evidence.  Dream on.  Over and over, California has proven itself the world leader at adopting unfunded utopian ideas and programs as a laboratory for the progressive agenda:  the self-esteem movement, the whole language movement, students’ “right” to their own language, and so on.  “Student Success” is no different.     

In reality, the Draft Recommendations are a power grab by the Chancellor and a profit center for software peddlers.  The end is uniform, dutiful, and predictable workers rolled out in minimum time at minimum cost and with minimum personal, ethical, and aesthetic development.  Self-discovery?  Over.  Along with lifelong learning, creative arts, and P.E. will go frills such as Shakespeare and French as it’s not clear how they increase job readiness.  The preoccupation with vocationalism will produce workers, but what sort of workers?  Drones who may possess a skill-set but have no imagination, depth, historical consciousness, or values because they have been denied the opportunity to develop them. 

Even if it gets off the ground, this Student Success boondoggle will all end badly, collapsing under its own weight and faulty assumptions.  But that will happen only after tremendous energies are expended, vast amounts of money and time are wasted, and thousands of teachers and millions of students are harmed in trying to build a California edu-topia.  

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