Tag Archives: education

Should Everyone Go To College?

Well, I’m back. I was in Pittsburgh late last week for a memorial service for my Dad. And I spent the long holiday weekend doing not much more than running, eating and drinking — and taking advantage of the early summer hot and sunny weather here in NE Ohio.

So I’m back at it this early a.m.

And I noticed over the weekend some pundits opining in national forums on issues involving education. That good. Quality education is the driver for our informed democracy and for our economic prosperity in what really is now a global economy. But I’m slowly and somewhat reluctantly coming to the view that attending college isn’t for everyone.

One reason is that clearly not everyone is prepared for college based on their high school achievements. [Or lack thereof.] Here’s from an AP story:

Each year, an estimated 1.7 million U.S. college students are steered to remedial classes to help them catch up and prepare for regular coursework. But a growing body of research shows that the courses are eating up time and money, often leading not to degrees but to student-loan hangovers.

The expense of remedial courses, which typically cost students the same as regular classes but don’t fulfill degree requirements, run about $3 billion annually, according to new research by Complete College America, a Washington-based national nonprofit working to increase the number of students with a college degree.

The group says remedial classes are largely failing the nation’s higher-education system at a time when student-loan debt has become a presidential campaign issue. Meanwhile, lawmakers in at least two states have pushed through changes, and numerous institutions are redesigning the courses.

Clearly, the cost of getting a college education has become an important issue, one that will play out eventually during the fall elections. And it becomes an even bigger issue and concern if students go into debt while not obtaining a degree.

Related is the issue of whether everyone attending college is gaining the skills that employers are demanding these days. Getting a quality education just for the sake of being better educated should have value. Yeah, I’ll admit it. I’m a fan of the liberal arts. But it’s becoming tougher to justify if you are facing years of debt and no job, or one that may not require a college degree. [Assuming that you even graduate.] Here’s Robert Samuelson opining in WaPo, “It’s time to drop the college-for-all crusade“:

The college-for-all crusade has outlived its usefulness. Time to ditch it. Like the crusade to make all Americans homeowners, it’s now doing more harm than good. It looms as the largest mistake in educational policy since World War II, even though higher education’s expansion also ranks as one of America’s great postwar triumphs.

Consider. In 1940, fewer than 5 percent of Americans had a college degree. Going to college was “a privilege reserved for the brightest or the most affluent” high-school graduates, wrote Diane Ravitch in her history of U.S. education, “The Troubled Crusade.” No more. At last count, roughly 40 percent of Americans had some sort of college degree: about 30 percent a bachelor’s degree from a four-year institution; the rest associate degrees from community colleges.

Starting with the GI Bill in 1944, governments at all levels promoted college. From 1947 to 1980, enrollments jumped from 2.3 million to 12.1 million. In the 1940s, private colleges and universities accounted for about half. By the 1980s, state schools — offering heavily subsidized tuitions — represented nearly four-fifths. Aside from a democratic impulse, the surge reflected “the shift in the occupational structure to professional, technical, clerical and managerial work,” noted Ravitch. The economy demanded higher skills; college led to better-paying jobs.

College became the ticket to the middle class, the be-all-and-end-all of K-12 education. If you didn’t go to college, you’d failed. Improving “access” — having more students go to college — drove public policy.

We overdid it. The obsessive faith in college has backfired.

For starters, we’ve dumbed down college. The easiest way to enroll and retain more students is to lower requirements. Even so, dropout rates are high; at four-year schools, fewer than 60 percent of freshmen graduate within six years. Many others aren’t learning much.

In a recent book, “Academically Adrift,” sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa report that 45 percent of college students hadn’t significantly improved their critical thinking and writing skills after two years; after four years, the proportion was still 36 percent. Their study was based on a test taken by 2,400 students at 24 schools requiring them to synthesize and evaluate a block of facts. The authors blame the poor results on lax academic standards. Surveyed, one-third of the same students said that they studied alone five or fewer hours a week; half said they had no course the prior semester requiring 20 pages of writing.

Still, most of these students finished college, though many are debt-ridden. Persistence counts. The larger — and overlooked — consequence of the college obsession is to undermine high schools. The primacy of the college-prep track marginalizes millions of students for whom it’s disconnected from “real life” and unrelated to their needs. School bores and bothers them. Teaching them is hard, because they’re not motivated. But they also make teaching the rest harder. Their disaffection and periodic disruptions drain teachers’ time and energy. The climate for learning is poisoned.

That’s why college-for-all has been a major blunder. One size doesn’t fit all, as sociologist James Rosenbaum of Northwestern University has argued. The need is to motivate the unmotivated. One way is to forge closer ties between high school and jobs. Yet, vocational education is de-emphasized and disparaged. Apprenticeship programs combining classroom and on-the-job training — programs successful in Europe — are sparse. In 2008, about 480,000 workers were apprentices, or 0.3 percent of the U.S. labor force, reports economist Robert Lermanof American University. Though not for everyone, more apprenticeships could help some students.

The rap against employment-oriented schooling is that it traps the poor and minorities in low-paying, dead-end jobs. Actually, an unrealistic expectation of college often traps them into low-paying, dead-end jobs — or no job. Learning styles differ. “Apprenticeship in other countries does a better job of engaging students,” says Lerman. “We want to diversify the routes to rewarding careers.” Downplaying these programs denies some students the pride and self-confidence of mastering difficult technical skills, while also fostering labor shortages.

There are plenty of reformers out there these days with ideas about improving education. In fact, that has kinda become a growth industry since the business community jumped into the education game in the early 1980s with the idea that you could run a school as you would a profit center or a division of a larger business. Not.

So perhaps the time has come to question whether college is right for everyone.

 

 

Student Debt: The Next Crisis?

Sixty-two percent of Bowling Green graduates have debt that averages $31,515. Wow. That’s most likely enough to buy one of the better houses in Cleveland. Sigh.

I believe that a college education is an investment that pays off over the course of a working lifetime. And it’s an investment that pays big dividends to our economic prosperity, the strength and vitality of our communities, and to our free society.

Sadly, it’s an investment that state officials and taxpayers are starting to pull back from. And it’s becoming more and more difficult for middle- and lower-income students and their families to finance a college education without mortgaging their futures. Note to education administrators: There is a limit to how much students can — and are willing — to pay. This isn’t like hiring football and basketball coaches where money isn’t an issue.

Two excellent articles in the NYT examine the student debt crisis — while putting the spotlight on the issues involving education financing in Ohio.

Here’s from “A Generation Hobbled by the Soaring Cost of College“:

With more than $1 trillion in student loans outstanding in this country, crippling debt is no longer confined to dropouts from for-profit colleges or graduate students who owe on many years of education, some of the overextended debtors in years past. Now nearly everyone pursuing a bachelor’s degree is borrowing. As prices soar, a college degree statistically remains a good lifetime investment, but it often comes with an unprecedented financial burden.

Ninety-four percent of students who earn a bachelor’s degree borrow to pay for higher education — up from 45 percent in 1993, according to an analysis by The New York Times of the latest data from the Department of Education. This includes loans from the federal government, private lenders and relatives.

For all borrowers, the average debt in 2011 was $23,300, with 10 percent owing more than $54,000 and 3 percent more than $100,000, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York reports. Average debt for bachelor degree graduates who took out loans ranges from under $10,000 at elite schools like Princeton and Williams College, which have plenty of wealthy students and enormous endowments, to nearly $50,000 at some private colleges with less affluent students and less financial aid.

And:

“If one is not thinking about where this is headed over the next two or three years, you are just completely missing the warning signs,” said Rajeev V. Date, deputy director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the federal watchdog created after the financial crisis.

Mr. Date likened excessive student borrowing to risky mortgages. And as with the housing bubble before the economic collapse, the extraordinary growth in student loans has caught many by surprise. But its roots are in fact deep, and the cast of contributing characters — including college marketing officers, state lawmakers wielding a budget ax and wide-eyed students and families — has been enabled by a basic economic dynamic: an insatiable demand for a college education, at almost any price, and plenty of easy-to-secure loans, primarily from the federal government.

The roots of the borrowing binge date to the 1980s, when tuition for four-year colleges began to rise faster than family incomes. In the 1990s, for-profit colleges boomed by spending heavily on marketing and recruiting. Despite some ethical lapses and fraud, enrollment more than doubled in the last decade and Wall Street swooned over the stocks. Roughly 11 percent of college students now attend for-profit colleges, and they receive about a quarter of federal student loans and grants.

In the last decade, even as enrollment at state colleges and universities has grown, some states have cut spending for higher education and many others have not allocated enough money to keep pace with the growing student body. That trend has accelerated as state budgets have shrunk because of the recent financial crisis and the unpopularity of tax increases.

Nationally, state and local spending per college student, adjusted for inflation, reached a 25-year low this year, jeopardizing the long-held conviction that state-subsidized higher education is an affordable steppingstone for the lower and middle classes. All the while, the cost of tuition and fees has continued to increase faster than the rate of inflation, faster even than medical spending. If the trends continue through 2016, the average cost of a public college will have more than doubled in just 15 years, according to the Department of Education.

And here’s the policy issue:

From 2001 to 2011, state and local financing per student declined by 24 percent nationally. Over the same period, tuition and fees at state schools increased 72 percent, compared with 29 percent for nonprofit private institutions, according to the College Board. Many of the cuts were the result of a sluggish economy that reduced tax revenue, but the sharp drop in per-student spending also reflects a change: an increasing number of lawmakers voted to transfer more of the financial burden of college from taxpayers to students and their families. (Local funding is a small percentage of the total, and mostly goes to community colleges.)

“To say that tuition goes up because the state doesn’t pay enough money, well, that is the taxpayers’ money,” said Ohio’s governor, John Kasich, a Republican elected in 2010 whose budget included cuts to higher education because of the end of federal stimulus money.

Donald E. Heller, an expert on higher education, said elected officials in both parties had figured out that colleges were one of the few parts of state government that could raise money on their own. If lawmakers cut state financing, the schools could make it up by raising tuition.

And in Ohio:

Ohio’s flagship university, Ohio State, now receives 7 percent of its budget from the state, down from 15 percent a decade ago and 25 percent in 1990. The price of tuition and fees since 2002 increased about 60 percent in today’s dollars.

The consequence? Three out of five undergraduates at Ohio State take out loans, and the average debt is $24,840.

If any state is representative of the role government has played in the growth of student debt, Ohio makes a good candidate. While other states have made steeper cuts in recent years because of the recession, Ohio has been chipping away at it far longer. It now ranks sixth from the bottom in financing per student, at $4,480.

In the late 1970s, higher education in Ohio accounted for 17 percent of the state’s expenditures. Now it is 11 percent. By contrast, prisons were 4 percent of the state’s budget in the late 1970s; now they account for 8 percent. Federal mandates and court orders have compelled lawmakers to spend more money on Medicaid and primary education, too. Legislators could designate a greater percentage of the budget to higher education by raising taxes, but there is no appetite for that. Governor Kasich has signed a pledge not to raise taxes, as have about two dozen legislators.

Some Ohio elected officials say state colleges and universities have brought the debt problem upon themselves.

They suggest, for example, that state schools are bloated, antiquated and don’t do a good enough job graduating students or training them for the work force. Some complain about the salaries of football coaches and college presidents, like Mr. Gee, who has a compensation package of $2 million a year as president of Ohio State. Mr. Kasich questions why all state universities need to offer every major, like journalism or engineering, instead of parceling those programs among the schools.

“It’s not just inefficiencies,” said the governor, an Ohio State graduate. “It’s, ‘I want to be the best in this.’ It’s duplication of resources. It’s a sweeping change that is needed across academia.”

And here’s from the second NYT article, “Slowly, as Student Debt Rises, Colleges Confront Costs“:

In a wood-paneled office lined with books, sports memorabilia and framed posters (including John Belushi in “Animal House”), E. Gordon Gee, the president of Ohio State University, keeps a framed quotation that reads, “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.”

Mr. Gee, who is often identified with a big salary and spendthrift ways, says he has taken the quotation to heart, and he is now trying to persuade Ohio State’s vast bureaucracy, and the broader world of academia, to do the same.

At a time of diminished state funding for higher education and uncertain federal dollars, Mr. Gee says that public colleges and universities need to devise a new business model to pay for the costs of education, beyond sticking students with higher tuition and greater debt.

“The notion that universities can do business the very same way has to stop,” said Mr. Gee, who is also the chairman of a commission studying college attainment, including the impact of student debt.

College presidents across the country are confronting the same realization, trying to manage their institutions with fewer state dollars without sacrificing quality or all-important academic rankings. Tuition increases had been a relatively easy fix but now — with the balance of student debt topping $1 trillion and an increasing number of borrowers struggling to pay — some administrators acknowledge that they cannot keep putting the financial onus on students and their families.

An important issue.

And one we need to address soon — and correctly — before it becomes the next crisis.

Especially in a state like Ohio, we desperately need a skilled workforce — and the kind of quality jobs that will keep them from relocating to other areas.

Hey. Somebody has to be able to afford to buy the houses in Cleveland and elsewhere.

 

Celebrate Teacher Appreciation Day: It Matters

Today is Teacher Appreciation Day.  On the national totem pole of events, I’m sure this day falls way short of let’s say Arbor Day, when we celebrate trees. Hmmm. And the fact that as a nation we no longer appreciate teachers or celebrate teaching as a professional is having — and will continue to have — grave consequences for the future of our young people and ultimately for our economic prosperity and democracy.

Excellent teachers are the bedrock for an excellent education.  We need to hire, train, support and reward excellent classroom teachers at all grade levels. Unfortunately, we’re not doing that today. In fact, it seems that we are doing just the opposite by diminishing teachers and teaching and pointing the finger of blame at them for what has become by most measures a collapse in education, certainly public education.

This, of course, is a rant that I embark on from time to time. So I’ll let someone else do the heavy lifting today.

Here’s from Charles Blow, writing in the NYT, “Teaching Me About Teaching“:

On Tuesday, the United States Department of Education is hoping that people will take to Facebook and Twitter to thank a teacher who has made a difference in their lives. I want to contribute to that effort. And I plan to thank a teacher who never taught me in a classroom but taught me what it meant to be an educator: my mother.

She worked in her local school system for 34 years before retiring. Then she volunteered at a school in her district until, at age 67, she won a seat on her local school board. Education is in her blood.

Through her I saw up close that teaching is one of those jobs you do with the whole of you — trying to break through to a young mind can break your heart. My mother cared about her students like they were her own children. I guess that’s why so many of them dispensed with “Mrs. Blow” and just called her Mama.

She wasn’t just teaching school lessons but life lessons. For her, it was about more than facts and figures. It was about the love of learning and the love of self. It was the great entangle, education in the grandest frame, what sticks with you when all else falls away. As Albert Einstein once said: “Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.”

She showed me what a great teacher looked like: proud, exhausted, underpaid and overjoyed. For great teachers, the job is less a career than a calling. You don’t become a teacher to make a world of money. You become a teacher to make a world of difference. But hard work deserves a fair wage.

That’s why I have a hard time tolerating people who disproportionately blame teachers for our poor educational outcomes. I understand that not every teacher is a great one. But neither is every plumber, or every banker or every soldier. Why then should teachers be demonized so much?

I won’t pretend to have all the policy prescriptions to address our country’s educational crisis, but beating up teachers isn’t the solution. We must be honest brokers in our efforts to fix a broken system.

Do we need teacher accountability? Yes.

Must unions be flexible? Yes.

Must new approaches be tried? Yes.

But is it just as important to address the poverty, stress and hopelessness that some children bring into the classroom, before the bell rings and the chalk screeches across a blackboard? Yes.

Do we need to take a closer look at pay and incentives for teachers? Yes.

Do we need to lift them up a bit more than we tear them down? A thousand times, yes!

A big part of the problem is that teachers have been so maligned in the national debate that it’s hard to attract our best and brightest to see it as a viable and rewarding career choice, even if they have a high aptitude and natural gift for it.

A 2010 McKinsey & Company report entitled “Closing the Talent Gap: Attracting and Retaining Top-Third Graduates to Careers in Teaching” found that top-performing nations like Singapore, Finland and South Korea recruit all of their teachers from the top third of graduates and then even screen from that group for “other important qualities.” By contrast, in the United States, “23 percent of new teachers come from the top third, and just 14 percent in high poverty schools, which find it especially difficult to attract and retain talented teachers. It is a remarkably large difference in approach, and in results.”

According to the report, starting teacher salaries in 2010 averaged $39,000 a year. Let’s assume that federal, state and local taxes eat up a third. That would leave a take-home pay as low as $26,000. However, according to the Project on Student Debt by the Institute for College Access and Success, a college senior graduating that year carried an average of $25,250 in student loans. The math just doesn’t work out.

Furthermore, jobs in education were slashed substantially from August 2008 to August 2011. According to an October White House report: “Nearly 300,000 educator jobs have been lost since 2008, 54 percent of all job losses in local government.”

If we want better educational outcomes, we need to attract better teachers — and work to retain them. A good place to start is with respect and paychecks. And a little social media appreciation once a year wouldn’t hurt either.

So, on Tuesday, I plan to send this message on Twitter: To the teacher who taught me what it means to be a teacher: My mama. Everybody’s mama.

What will you tweet?

Teachers really do make a difference. And they do it every day in conditions that are often less than idea.

So let’s recognize their accomplishments and commitment to helping students — young and old — succeed. And let’s spend some time celebrating Teacher Appreciation Day.

It matters.

#thankateacher

Is College Worth It?

It’s interesting to me how various story themes emerge and then make the rounds of blogs and other Internet sites and then find a home at the national mainstream media. Here’s one. Is a college degree worth the cost and effort? And does the answer to that question hinge on whether there is a job waiting at graduation?

Here are two interesting op-eds from the NYT.

First, by Frank Bruni, “The Imperiled Promise of College“:

FOR a long time and for a lot of us, “college” was more or less a synonym for success. We had only to go. We had only to graduate. And if we did, according to parents and high-school guidance counselors and everything we heard and everything we read, we could pretty much count on a career, just about depend on a decent income and more or less expect security. A diploma wasn’t a piece of paper. It was an amulet.

And it was broadly accessible, or at least it was spoken of that way. With the right mix of intelligence, moxie and various kinds of aid, a motivated person could supposedly get there. College was seen as a glittering centerpiece of the American dream, a reliable engine of social mobility.

I’m not sure things were ever that simple, but they’re definitely more complicated now. And that was an unacknowledged backdrop for the pitched debate last week about federal student loan rates and whether they would be kept at 3.4 percent or allowed to return to 6.8 percent. That was one reason, among many, that it stirred up so much anxiety and got so much attention.

Because of levitating costs, college these days is a luxury item. What’s more, it’s a luxury item with newly uncertain returns.

Yes, many of the sorts of service-industry jobs now available to people without higher education are less financially rewarding than manufacturing jobs of yore, and so college has in that sense become more imperative. And, yes, college graduates have an unemployment rate half that of people with only high school degrees.

But that figure factors in Americans who got their diplomas and first entered the job market decades ago, and it could reflect not just what was studied in college but the already established economic advantages, contacts and temperaments of the kind of people who pursue and stick with higher education.

It doesn’t capture the grim reality for recent college graduates, whose leg up on their less educated counterparts isn’t such a sturdy, comely leg at the moment. According to an Associated Press analysis of data from 2011, 53.6 percent of college graduates under the age of 25 were unemployed or, if they were lucky, merely underemployed, which means they were in jobs for which their degrees weren’t necessary. Philosophy majors mull questions no more existential than the proper billowiness of the foamed milk atop a customer’s cappuccino. Anthropology majors contemplate the tribal behavior of the youngsters who shop at the Zara where they peddle skinny jeans.

I single out philosophy and anthropology because those are two fields — along with zoology, art history and humanities — whose majors are least likely to find jobs reflective of their education level, according to government projections quoted by the Associated Press. But how many college students are fully aware of that? How many reroute themselves into, say, teaching, accounting, nursing or computer science, where degree-relevant jobs are easier to find? Not nearly enough, judging from the angry, dispossessed troops of Occupy Wall Street.

The thing is, today’s graduates aren’t just entering an especially brutal economy. They’re entering it in many cases with the wrong portfolios. To wit: as a country we routinely grant special visas to highly educated workers from countries like China and India. They possess scientific and technical skills that American companies need but that not enough American students are acquiring.

“That’s why there are all these kinds of initiatives to make math and science fun,” Stephen J. Rose, a senior economist at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, reminded me last week. He was referring to elementary and high school attempts to prime more American students for college majors in those areas and for sectors of the job market where positions are more plentiful and lucrative. The center issued a report last year that noted that “not all bachelor’s degrees are the same” and that “while going to college is undoubtedly a wise decision, what you take while you’re there matters a lot, too.”

And from Paul Krugman, “Wasting Our Minds“:

There is, however, a larger issue: even if students do manage, somehow, to “get the education,” which they do all too often by incurring a lot of debt, they’ll be graduating into an economy that doesn’t seem to want them.

You’ve probably heard lots about how workers with college degrees are faring better in this slump than those with only a high school education, which is true. But the story is far less encouraging if you focus not on middle-aged Americans with degrees but on recent graduates. Unemployment among recent graduates has soared; so has part-time work, presumably reflecting the inability of graduates to find full-time jobs. Perhaps most telling, earnings have plunged even among those graduates working full time — a sign that many have been forced to take jobs that make no use of their education.

College graduates, then, are taking it on the chin thanks to the weak economy. And research tells us that the price isn’t temporary: students who graduate into a bad economy never recover the lost ground. Instead, their earnings are depressed for life.

[Spoiler alert: Dr. K then launches his familiar rant about the economic and job-creation policies of Romney and fellow conservatives.]

I still believe that the lack of quality jobs and the continuing weak economy will be the dominant issues in this year’s elections.

Is college worth it?

You bet.

But without the prospect of a job and a career that involves asking more than whether the customer wants fries with the sandwich, more and more young people and their parents may begin to question it.

College Grad But No Job

OK. I’ll admit to fretting about plenty of things these days, most being totally out of my ability to control. One involves the continuing lack of good-paying, sustainable jobs as the nation’s economy continues its slow climb out of the deep hole of recession. Recent — or soon to be recent — college grads are among the many who are caught in the squeeze of too many chasing too few jobs.

Another involves the trend to abandon liberal arts education in favor of preparing students for what in many cases are low-paying jobs in health care and retail.

Here’s from an AP story on The Huffington Post, “In Weak Job Market, One In Two College Graduates are Jobless or Underemployed“:

The college class of 2012 is in for a rude welcome to the world of work.

A weak labor market already has left half of young college graduates either jobless or underemployed in positions that don’t fully use their skills and knowledge.

Young adults with bachelor’s degrees are increasingly scraping by in lower-wage jobs – waiter or waitress, bartender, retail clerk or receptionist, for example – and that’s confounding their hopes a degree would pay off despite higher tuition and mounting student loans.

An analysis of government data conducted for The Associated Press lays bare the highly uneven prospects for holders of bachelor’s degrees.

Opportunities for college graduates vary widely.

While there’s strong demand in science, education and health fields, arts and humanities flounder. Median wages for those with bachelor’s degrees are down from 2000, hit by technological changes that are eliminating midlevel jobs such as bank tellers. Most future job openings are projected to be in lower-skilled positions such as home health aides, who can provide personalized attention as the U.S. population ages.

Oh boy. A nation of bedpan changers. Really?

I always be an advocate for education — and I still believe that a liberal arts education has value. But as tuition and fees continue to increase — and students take on substantial debt — I expect we are entering an era when a college education will be viewed primarily as a training program that offers some hope of employment.

And I believe that stories like this one also from The Huffington Post — “The 13 Most Useless Majors, From Philosophy to Journalism” — will begin to attract considerably more attention from students and parents.

Of course, what do I know? I have an undergraduate and graduate degree in journalism. But hey. In the long run, do we really want colleges and universities to be nothing more than trade schools? And if students are forced to abandon the study of liberal arts, what will our culture reflect without writers, artists, musicians and so on?

Something tells me that reflecting on the great accomplishments in accounting is not going to be all that satisfying.

 

Kentucky Basketball: A Model Job Training Program

I know there are thousands of student-athletes who make a significant commitment to attend classes, study, and work toward graduation and a college degree. And they are doing that while spending hours at practice and traveling to games and meets and so on. Good for them. I expect they value a college education for being more than just an extended job training program.

This post isn’t about these real student-athletes.

It’s about the quasi-professionals who show up at the basketball and football factories for a year or two on their way — with luck — to the pros.  They view the college experience for them for what it is: a job training program.

And I guess I don’t have anything against this as long as we don’t view these pros-in-waiting to be student athletes.

Here’s what got me started on this today during my hour chasing the treadmill belt at 5:30 a.m. Essentially the entire Kentucky basketball squad that just won the NCAA championship is heading to the pros, without waiting to cross the stage to grab their sheepskins.  From USA Today, “Davis, Jones among five Kentucky underclassmen headed to NBA“:

NBA executives, they’re all yours.

Anthony Davis, fellow freshmen Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague, and sophomores Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb have all declared for the NBA draft.

“This is a players-first program,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said to open Tuesday’s news conference. “During the season, it’s about the team. … When the season is over, it’s about moments like this.”

Wait, I have a tear in my eye.

OK. I’m back. Sorry about that.

Anyway, if the Kentucky basketball team is moving on to the pros, good. In this day of outrageously high tuition, increasing student loan debt, and declining job prospects, the University of Kentucky  and coach John Calipari offer a model for a job training program that works. Most students enrolled at colleges and universities throughout the country should be so fortunate.

William C. Rhoden opines in the NYT:

Later this month, college underclassmen who wish to enter the N.B.A. draft must declare their intention to do so. Five of those undergraduates are expected to come from the Kentucky team that helped Coach John Calipari win his first national championship. All of Kentucky’s starters — two freshmen and three sophomores — could be selected in the first round when the N.B.A. holds its draft in June, their next crucial step toward the realization of a cherished dream.

Yet Kentucky’s success has prompted critics to predict the demise of college basketball and the end of higher education as we know it.

In an ideal world, everyone would stay four years and graduate. But Kentucky’s basketball program is in fact a tribute to a real-world system that works, preparing young people for a viable profession — in this case, professional athletics.

Not only in basketball and football but also across the spectrum of intercollegiate sports, top-tier athletes are honing their skills for the pros. Tennis players and golfers often leave college after one or two years to turn pro. Baseball players are drafted out of high school; many of those who accept college scholarships play for two or three years before leaving for the pro ranks. In hockey, talented underclassmen leave college after the season and join the pro team that holds their rights.

Intercollegiate athletics feed and nourish the professional leagues. But they also doing what colleges are supposed to: preparing their students for a productive future.

One of the problems, of course, is that university presidents and others don’t want to admit that they are running a multimillion dollar sideshow to what should be the mission of the university: helping students get an education.

Here’s Joe Nocera in the NYT, “Football and Swahili“:

I was at the University of North Carolina when I heard the Swahili anecdote.

It was at a luncheon organized by some faculty members who have become, like me, critics of the N.C.A.A. and the hypocrisy of college sports. Among those attending was a former Carolina football player named Deunta Williams.

About halfway through lunch, the talk turned to education. The University of North Carolina, mind you, is a place that professes to care a great deal about whether its athletes go to class — and earn a degree. And, of course, the N.C.A.A. claims — preposterously — that athletes are students above all else.

Yet several of the professors complained that whenever an athlete enrolled in their classes, they got a letter from the athletic department asking them, in effect, to go easy on the player. After all, he was holding down a full-time job: playing football for the university.

Williams, however, had his own set of complaints. Athletes, he said, could only take the classes the athletic department wanted them to take. Coursework couldn’t interfere with practice, of course. It was always better that the classes not be too difficult — otherwise, there might be eligibility problems. And one other thing:

“All the freshman football players take Swahili as their language requirement,” Williams said. Why? Because the athletic department tutors are strong in Swahili. (In fact, 7 of 25 freshmen football players took Swahili in 2006, Williams’s freshman year.)

I’ve been thinking about that Swahili story a lot these days. Over the past few months, as I’ve tackled the problems with college sports — and called for players to be paid, instead of serving as free labor in a multibillion-dollar industry — many readers and bloggers have responded by pointing to the presumed value of the free education they’re getting. Some have argued that the right answer is for universities to de-emphasize athletics. Others have said that schools should stop accepting athletes, no matter how talented, who lack the skills to do college-level work. Just last week, Bob Costas, the estimable NBC sportscaster, devoted two hours of airtime to the state of college sports. (I was one of the panelists.) A half-dozen times, he asked whether it was right for schools to enroll athletes who couldn’t handle the academic requirements of college.

I have come to believe that that is the wrong question. Yes, the world would be a better place if universities were not trying to manage a huge entertainment complex “on the side.” But schools with big-time football and basketball programs are not acting irrationally. In addition to the millions of dollars such programs reap, they can put a school on the map, making it more attractive to potential applicants. A good college team can bind together a campus like nothing else.

In playing for the team, the athletes are giving their schools more immediate value than anyone else in the student body. They are also doing something that requires at least as much skill as playing in a university orchestra. Even putting aside the question of pay, surely the university ought to feel a moral obligation to return the favor by giving the players the tools to succeed in life.

Instead, universities do the opposite. With their phony majors and low expectations, they send the unmistakable message to the athletes that they don’t care what happens after their eligibility expires. It’s a disgrace.

Instead, why not allow football players to major in, well, football? This is a solution put forth by John Kilbourne, a professor of movement science at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. Kilbourne, a former dance major, points out that college dancers can focus almost exclusively on the thing they are passionate about — even though the vast majority will not ultimately be professional dancers. Why is it so terrible to think of a football player doing likewise? Surely they could get more from a course in, say, “racism and football” than in most of what they are now forced to take.

There is another way to come at this. It requires tossing the “student-athlete” pretense overboard and being honest about the revenue-generating role athletes play — and the fact that many are ill equipped to do college work. Ellen Staurowsky, a professor of sports management at Drexel University in Philadelphia, has proposed “reimagining” the college system to acknowledge that football and basketball players are employees first and students a distant second. In her model, players would get paid something — and if they chose to pursue a college education, that would be an extra benefit. If they needed remedial reading and math instead of Shakespeare, the university would provide that, even if it didn’t ultimately lead to a college degree.

“All of the problems in college sports stem from one root cause,” she told me recently. “It is all built on a lie.”

Until we acknowledge that lie, the freshmen football players will be studying Swahili.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: April 13, 2012: An earlier version of this column incorrectly reported the number of freshmen football players at the University of North Carolina who took Swahili in 2006. It was seven, not “all of them,” as Mr. Williams was quoted as saying.

If the “student-athletes” at the basketball and football factories are preparing for a career in the pros, then let them major in football or basketball. Hey, it’s a job training program — and one that at Kentucky, at least, works.

 

The Link Between Poverty and Education

I know I often fail to see the big picture. And I also know that the economic and social issues facing our nation defy quick, easy fixes. But I do know that over the past two decades or so we’ve made a mess of public education in the country — and that has undercut our ability to compete in a global economy while leaving many unprepared to enter and succeed in the workplace.

One reason for this is that policy makers, business leaders and educators have adopted one short-term reform after another while often failing to consider a key issue: the link between poverty and success or failure in school.

I also know that it is fashionable these days to point the finger of blame at classroom teachers and teachers unions. The argument: If only we could staff every classroom with an excellent teacher and then hold him or her accountable for results, then the problem would be solved.

Not that simple.

Here’s an informative op-ed in the NYT this morning, “Class Matters. Why Won’t We Admit It?”:

No one seriously disputes the fact that students from disadvantaged households perform less well in school, on average, than their peers from more advantaged backgrounds. But rather than confront this fact of life head-on, our policy makers mistakenly continue to reason that, since they cannot change the backgrounds of students, they should focus on things they can control.

No Child Left Behind, President George W. Bush’s signature education law, did this by setting unrealistically high — and ultimately self-defeating — expectations for all schools. President Obama’s policies have concentrated on trying to make schools more “efficient” through means like judging teachers by their students’ test scores or encouraging competition by promoting the creation of charter schools. The proverbial story of the drunk looking for his keys under the lamppost comes to mind.

The Occupy movement has catalyzed rising anxiety over income inequality; we desperately need a similar reminder of the relationship between economic advantage and student performance.

The correlation has been abundantly documented, notably by the famous Coleman Report in 1966. New research by Sean F. Reardon of Stanford University traces the achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families over the last 50 years and finds that it now far exceeds the gap between white and black students.

Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that more than 40 percent of the variation in average reading scores and 46 percent of the variation in average math scores across states is associated with variation in child poverty rates.

International research tells the same story. Results of the 2009 reading tests conducted by the Program for International Student Assessment show that, among 15-year-olds in the United States and the 13 countries whose students outperformed ours, students with lower economic and social status had far lower test scores than their more advantaged counterparts within every country. Can anyone credibly believe that the mediocre overall performance of American students on international tests is unrelated to the fact that one-fifth of American children live in poverty?

Yet federal education policy seems blind to all this. No Child Left Behind required all schools to bring all students to high levels of achievement but took no note of the challenges that disadvantaged students face. The legislation did, to be sure, specify that subgroups — defined by income, minority status and proficiency in English — must meet the same achievement standard. But it did so only to make sure that schools did not ignore their disadvantaged students — not to help them address the challenges they carry with them into the classroom.

So why do presumably well-intentioned policy makers ignore, or deny, the correlations of family background and student achievement?

Some honestly believe that schools are capable of offsetting the effects of poverty. Others want to avoid the impression that they set lower expectations for some groups of students for fear that those expectations will be self-fulfilling. In both cases, simply wanting something to be true does not make it so.

Another rationale for denial is to note that some schools, like the Knowledge Is Power Program charter schools, have managed to “beat the odds.” If some schools can succeed, the argument goes, then it is reasonable to expect all schools to. But close scrutiny of charter school performance has shown that many of the success stories have been limited to particular grades or subjects and may be attributable to substantial outside financing or extraordinarily long working hours on the part of teachers. The evidence does not support the view that the few success stories can be scaled up to address the needs of large populations of disadvantaged students.

A final rationale for denying the correlation is more nefarious. As we are now seeing, requiring all schools to meet the same high standards for all students, regardless of family background, will inevitably lead either to large numbers of failing schools or to a dramatic lowering of state standards. Both serve to discredit the public education system and lend support to arguments that the system is failing and needs fundamental change, like privatization.

Given the budget crises at the national and state levels, and the strong political power of conservative groups, a significant effort to reduce poverty or deal with the closely related issue of racial segregation is not in the political cards, at least for now.

So what can be done?

Large bodies of research have shown how poor health and nutrition inhibit child development and learning and, conversely, how high-quality early childhood and preschool education programs can enhance them. We understand the importance of early exposure to rich language on future cognitive development. We know that low-income students experience greater learning loss during the summer when their more privileged peers are enjoying travel and other enriching activities.

Since they can’t take on poverty itself, education policy makers should try to provide poor students with the social support and experiences that middle-class students enjoy as a matter of course.

It can be done. In North Carolina, the two-year-old East Durham Children’s Initiative is one of many efforts around the country to replicate Geoffrey Canada’s well-known successes with the Harlem Children’s Zone.

Say Yes to Education in Syracuse, N.Y., supports access to afterschool programs and summer camps and places social workers in schools. In Omaha, Building Bright Futures sponsors school-based health centers and offers mentoring and enrichment services. Citizen Schools, based in Boston, recruits volunteers in seven states to share their interests and skills with middle-school students.

Promise Neighborhoods, an Obama administration effort that gives grants to programs like these, is a welcome first step, but it has been under-financed.

Other countries already pursue such strategies. In Finland, with its famously high-performing schools, schools provide food and free health care for students. Developmental needs are addressed early. Counseling services are abundant.

But in the United States over the past decade, it became fashionable among supporters of the “no excuses” approach to school improvement to accuse anyone raising the poverty issue of letting schools off the hook — or what Mr. Bush famously called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

Such accusations may afford the illusion of a moral high ground, but they stand in the way of serious efforts to improve education and, for that matter, go a long way toward explaining why No Child Left Behind has not worked.

Yes, we need to make sure that all children, and particularly disadvantaged children, have access to good schools, as defined by the quality of teachers and principals and of internal policies and practices.

But let’s not pretend that family background does not matter and can be overlooked. Let’s agree that we know a lot about how to address the ways in which poverty undermines student learning. Whether we choose to face up to that reality is ultimately a moral question.

[Writers: Helen F. Ladd is a professor of public policy and economics at Duke. Edward B. Fiske, a former education editor of The New York Times, is the author of the “Fiske Guide to Colleges.” ]

As I said, no quick, easy fixes here.

But for those blaming teachers and teachers unions for all the problems facing our educational system these days, you’re missing the big picture.