Wednesday, January 26, 2011

State of the Union Address and Community Colleges

A significant part of President Obama’s Second State of the Union (SOTU) address dealt with education. Already flagged as the “education president,” Mr. Obama asserted that his “Race to the Top” program was superior to George Bush’s “No Child Left Behind,” because it is “more flexible and focused on what's best for our kids.” What do states have to do to qualify for the $4.3 billion fund in “Race to the Top”? They have to come up with "the most innovative plans to improve teacher quality and student achievement.” If they can do that, “we'll show you the money," the President said.

Teacher quality and student achievements will define the future of education in America. But how are these being implemented, particularly in community colleges? Oratory and eloquence cannot mask reality. The recession has forced many colleges to cut classes and programs across the board and layoff teachers or force pay cuts. A grim and uncertain air hangs over these institutions.

“Because people need to be able to train for new jobs and careers in today's fast-changing economy, we are also revitalizing America's community colleges,” the President said. He gave some examples of successes but overall, educators agree that the revitalization of community colleges exists only in theory and not in practice.

All the educational reforms of the past several decades share one thing in common: meager results. A report issued by the Institute for Higher Education Leadership and Policy at Cal State Sacramento, for example, documents abysmally low student transfer and completion rates at California’s community colleges. Of the students who started out with the intention of transferring to a University of California or Cal State school, just 23% had made the jump six years later. Transfer rates for Latino and black students were even worse. Only 14% of Latino students and 20% of African American students successfully made the move to a four-year college.

Clearly, community colleges are in dire need of revitalization. Giving pink slips to good teachers because they are younger and do not have tenure is the wrong way to go about it, however. Imposing outdated curricula on students that have no relevance to 21st-century skills is a prescription for failure. Community colleges routinely turn away qualified teachers because they do not hold this or that certificate, this or that equivalency, even though they have acquired a vast amount of useful knowledge in their fields through work and research. This is short-sighted and self-defeating.

While the government must do its share, community colleges themselves must also step up to the plate. They must get rid of arcane rules and regulations so that their classrooms can be filled with gifted teachers. When students interact with engaging and knowledgeable teachers, learning flourishes and doing big things becomes possible.

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