Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Optimist or Pessimist on Education? - What I'm Seeing

From Po:

Being an Optimist on this topic isn't easy. It requires the following:
  1. Being stubborn about forming an opinion based on the aggregate numbers, and not letting your opinion be broken by the absolutely tragic stories of educational injustice, which will always be there.
  2. Properly factoring in the consequences of the immigration boom.
  3. Recognizing that education today is a continuing process, far into adulthood.
  4. Understanding that optimism is the only way this problem gets fixed (in the places it's being fixed.) Only by believing it can be better will people invest in their schools and make it better.
When I look at the big picture, the factor I'm looking for is social mobility - an ability to rise up. I want to see children get to college from families where nobody has been to college. I want to see graduate students from families where nobody has been to graduate school.

I was in Kansas last year, speaking at a small liberal arts college in Topeka. I asked the room, by a show of hands, how many of them were the first generation in their family to attend college. About half the hands shot up.

I asked this same question at the University of Missouri Kansas City. And at Rutgers. And at Schenectady Community College, and at Pierce College in Tacoma. Every time, about half the hands shot up.

When you talk to the Deans of these campusses, they have a private fear. They are worried that too much has been promised to these kids. They worry that the institutions and the parents have told these kids that "if you go to college, that's the only way to get a good job." The Deans recognize that so many young adults are being steered to college today that there might be no way there will be enough good-paying jobs for them all. There's a worry that we'll flood the job market with college grads who have to end up managing a Pizza Hut for $9.50 an hour.

So this begets two questions. 1. Is it true, what I observe, that the young are flooding colleges? 2. Will the mix of jobs in the future be in sync with the mix of educated and uneducated potential workers?

I'm going to save #2 for another post, but to #1, the answer is "yes." 45% of the students who took the SAT last year had parents without college degrees - meaning, they are trying to be the first in their family to go. In 1955, just under 2 million students (under age 25) were in college. By 2003, over 10 million students (under age 25) were in college. That's a five-fold increase.

What about older students (over age 25)? The population of older students has tripled since 1973.

This trend is true in graduate programs as well. 41% of med-school students come from families where neither parent has a graduate degree of any sort. 57% of law-school students are from such families.

What this tells me is that our masses - the great big middle class - is managing to get more and more education. Ashley might be right, that we're creating a permanent underclass among the poor. And I feel terrible about it. I'm not pretending that our educational system is serving everyone. But I'm looking at the long trend. there's always been a permanent underclass - that's not new. The average child is far better off today.

Mind you, I'm not saying our educational system is good, and I'm not saying it's bad - I'm saying it's marginally better today, and will be marginally better in the future.

As I noted in my introductory post, being in school doesn't necessarily mean they're learning. But being in school is better than not being in school. I riffed in my last post on the failing academic preparation of students entering the California State University system - students who are supposed to be the "Top Third" of California seniors. On the other hand, look at the University of California system - which is supposed to accept the "Top Tenth" of high school seniors. (Shortcut: if you're a B student, you can go to the CSU system. If you're an A student, you can go to the UC system.) When I was going to college, 25 years ago, it was fairly easy to get into UC Santa Barbara. It had a reputation of being a party school. Today, students with 4.0 GPAs aren't getting in. There are so many bright students entering the system that students with perfect GPAs are being turned away.

In the last 50 years, the educational system has had huge ambitions. It decided to educate the masses, rather than just the few - and it has. It decided to eradicate the disparity between girls and boys - and it's done such a good job that now boys are lagging. It decided to eradicate the disparity between races - and that's working. The disparity is still present, but the gap between whites and blacks is around its lowest, and the gap between whites and hispanics is at its lowest.

Those were huge ambitions. The kids are in the system now, and the system can be bettered. I believe the next 20 years will be a period of very slow improvement at all levels.

- The Immigration Factor

One of the reasons we can't see our own improvement has been the flow of immigrants into our schools. For instance, I live in San Francisco. My son, who is five years old, has been assigned to attend an elementary school about a mile from our house. I'm not sure what I feel about this. The school's test scores have a lot of room for improvement. Compared to all California public elementary schools, on a scale of 1 to 10, my son's future school rates a 7. But it's a school where 76% of the incoming students are classified as "English Language Learners." When you compare this school to the California elementary schools with a similar student body (similar proportion of ELL students), our little school rates a 10. It's not a great school. But it's doing a great job considering the students it has to teach. Will I send my son there? Like any parent, I will do everything I can to get him into a school that rates an 8 or a 9 or 10, or to a school that has only 30% of students learning english. But I'm not going to criticize the district, when they have so many students speaking so many languages.

11 million U.S. adults are "nonliterate" in English, meaning they can't read and write. But of these, about 8 million aren't native speakers of English. They read and write in another language.

In my last post, I mentioned the paradox in a 20-nation study. How can we be at the top or near the top in sending children to college, but near the bottom in English literacy? Answer: English isn't the only language spoken here.

- Education Doesn't Stop at 22

Since I wrote "What Should I Do With My Life?," I have heard from thousands upon thousands of readers who have gone back to school to retrain in another field. The community colleges and adult education programs have exploded. This kind of career-change might be self-driven, or it might be an economic necessity after being laid off. Usually it's a bit of both. But in a shifting economy, people will always need to be going back to school. And here's the bonus: I have found that grown adults can master subjects that gave them fits in high school or college. Usually, when they go back to school, they're motivated - and that makes all the difference.

So, as the academic performance indexes say, some of those students at Rutgers or UMKC aren't learning a whole lot at college. I believe many of those will be back in school, ten or twenty years from now. In fact, I believe most of the straight-A students will also be back in school.

You might be shocked at how common it is to take some form of adult education training that is outside of a formal school. I'm about to throw out a BIG number. In 2003, a third of all Americans over age 16 took some form of training that is outside of a certified school program. That's 68 million people. They did it to brush up on knowledge for their job, and to learn something completely new, and to help change jobs.

So when we argue that our kids aren't prepared, I think we're missing something. Maybe a big chunk of the kids will get their preparation later.

- The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

When you look at schools that have been turned around, how does it happen? It starts with a few teachers and a few parents and a few administrators convincing the rest that improvement is possible. Parents of bright children stop pulling their kids from the schools and sending them to private schools - they give it a shot. Teachers revamp their curriculum and try harder. Administrators change some of the rules to allow these schools to try it their way.

This is one of those social problems where scolding and criticizing make it worse, not better. Only be being optimistic and showing leadership do we make it better.

Money is absolutely necessary. Money works. By and large, the states wth highest expenditure per student have the highest graduation rates and/or the highest number of students who go to college.

But voters hate throwing money at problems if they think the money is washed down the drain. Money will only be allocated to our schools if we collectively have a more favorable opinion that our schools are good institutions and the money will be well spent. I believe that the relentless pessimism and criticism of our schools has created a downward spiral. People start thinking our school system has failed, and so they stop caring when politicians cut education budgets.

This is a situation that calls for optimism and encouragement.


Blogger Joe Miller said...

I think we have to be careful about creating the perception that educational disparities between whites and nonwhites is shrinking. It may appear that it is on the surface, which in many cases it is, but not in all. The number of black partners at law firms, for example, is disproportionate vis a vis the increased enrollment of African-Americans at law schools. The percentage of professional blacks still does not mirror the percentage of blacks in the overall population--and we have a LONG way to go. Rather than optimism vs. pessimism, it seems to be that the inquiry should be about optimism vs. skepticism, at least on the issue of race.

2:05 PM  
Blogger Ashley Merryman said...

I'm the pessimistic one -- but I usually say that I'm just being realistic, so I take your point.

You're correct that minorities with not just professional degrees, but graduate degrees, doesn't even approach parity. (We've got a lot of research on that, which if we don't blog about, will at least be in the next update of the Factbook.) And I agree with you that it's extremely troubling.

But that just means we have a long long way still to go. It doesn't negate the increases in African-American educational attainment that have occurred.

And don't forget that until a few decades ago, really no one but the most privileged (and here we are talking white, but more than that, wealthy whites) had any real education at all.

8:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am one of the few with a bachelor’s degree in my family. I believe only my aunt has one but everyone else is union blue collar. I graduated in 2001 and I must admit I believe college was the worst mistake of my life. It would have been better for me to enter the work force out of high school, as I have been constantly either unemployed or in minimum wage jobs. Even when I am working I am still totally dependent upon my family finances. The degree at this point is a carrot on a stick of which recently I have to choose to give up totally or cause myself more emotional suffering.

And worst of it all it is in my best interest not to mention the degree when applying for low end jobs because I spend the entire time trying to rationalize why they should even hire me. After all the impression is a degree means a good paying job doing something basically enjoyable with ones life. Not grunting in the trenches pulling wrenches, cleaning tables or answering phones.

Personally I had wanted to do an artistic or English degree instead of the more difficult computer science. All I have is regrets and life lessens that don’t help me now. I should have enjoyed myself and kissed rich kid butt. I worked and struggled way too much for absolutely nothing and have a nice debt to show for it. And that emotional struggle has only become worse after college. Suicide seems more reasonable than living like this.

College is a lie without direct employment guaranteed after graduation. Or at least be honest and tell the students that if they are unable to be “A” students they won’t be hired by anyone after graduation. Which in my opinion basically amounts to the fact that corporate America is only interested in the Michael Jordans of academics. The rest of us are “unqualified applicants”. And with globalization this is only going to get worse.

Expect these kids to be washing plates and serving you dinner at the local restaurant unless they know the right people.

1:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As I am a bit calmer today I will try and assist with a bit more info on where to look as people fall through the cracks. In time it will probably widen though my situation of graduating in 2001 makes me ground zero.

Places to dig for information would be the fallout from 2001 on how the graduating class of 2001 and 2002 fare today. Are these students employed well or do they have a disproportionate amount in low income no future jobs. Did they struggle and was the education enough or did they know someone who merely gave them a decent job?

Another place to watch is globalization and what I call the “Undermining of America”. I’m not an economist but it seems like the political money system we have in place is foolishness. From my perspective it appears that an American potato is worth ten or even one hundred foreign potatoes. This is out right foolishness and this idiocy also applies to labor since the rich consider people commodities. The only thing I can think of that might balance this is a gold system and gold exchange system yet everything can be manipulated. Or maybe one world currency based on gold, not political money.

As for globalization news on the American side you can look at these articles.

Job Destruction Newsletter Archive

Immigration is also another way to push globalization. Even so it directly relates to the future of American youth if they are pushed out of the educated mainstream middle class into the blue-collar working class. It is a total meat grinder from my point of view and the rich in this country love it. And understand the blue-collar jobs are going to be next on the hit list as that is the nature of our current form of globalization, which is undermining American citizens.

Also doing some research on World Bank and the IMF would be wise. I believe they were founded by the group that started the Fabian society, which supports world socialism. So we have the capitalists, the communists and the socialists all pushing for their agenda of globalization, which undermines the entire middle class through out the world. This is something to be concerned about especially in the manner in which it is being done and who is benefiting. After all someone in India can do the exact same computer programming job but at a fraction of the cost compared to Western currency values.

One book I read through that might be a launch point for the historic information would be “The Creature from Jekyll Island”, by Edward Griffin. He has a libertarian slant that I am not sure I agree with but the historic information is a good launch pad for research.

Here is another link from google news on Globalization, which in my opinion is the main factor of why young people in America will struggle or are struggling like myself.

Personally I seriously doubt any amount of education will allow me to climb this avalanche that my generation has to tread. When I look around and see the world around me I become absolutely furious and other times totally depressed. I see this mess and I realize by myself that I have no way to defend myself. It is like watching a tidal wave while standing on the beach. Where is my high ground?

I believe in democracy but I hate the corporate oligarchy in America. I do feel a real free trade system maybe built around a global gold standard and exchange might work or ease the transition. In the end we need to make a job in America worth the same as a job in India but not through the undermining of the middle class and plunging the rest of society into poverty. If we continue on this path it seems inevitable that those in power are only going to burry us and continue to use poverty as political and monetary candy jar to set people against each other for their gain as they cycle poverty across the globe.

7:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Someone should reply to the post above. I kind of want to know that he is exaggerating somewhere in his story.

1:17 PM  

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