October 28, 2014: Education and the Community College Concept

With the increased emphasis on student success and performance-based funding in education, I think the following op-ed piece in the New York Times on Sunday, October, 26, 2014 bears reading: The American Dream is Leaving America, by Nicolas Kristof (http://nyti.ms/1z8uOlb). I think it a timely observation about the importance of educational access.

I agree with Kristof that we are losing our way. I offer that the community college mission is not about having students who are easier to teach, but about making access to learning easier. I offer that the community college mission is not about defining and funding student success, but about providing learning opportunities as an institution and about defining student learning outcomes (SLOs) by particular disciplines.

However, when we confuse a learner who has achieved a successful SLO and/or the institutional granting of certificates and degrees with overall student “success,” we have shifted from an institution and a society dedicated to providing learning opportunities to one dedicated to defining and funding who or what is successful.

When we decide what success looks like, we move from emphasizing the important contribution of diversity to an emphasis on Stepford-like outlooks and outcomes. The latter may be easier to define and fund, but it is the former that can create a diverse and sustainable ecology of success.

Kristof wrote that “Fixing the education system is the civil rights challenge of our era.” Many of us have learned it is easier to “go along to get along.” However, it is seldom easy or comfortable to protest peacefully and effectively.

In the movie Network, the actor Peter Finch asked folks to go to their window and shout “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore” (still entertaining to watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rGIY5Vyj4YM ). If enough of us feel this way, the pronoun changes to become “we’re mad as hell…” However, there is a difference between a mob mentality and a collective intent to find solutions. Few of us feel the educational system is on track. If we are going to take up the “civil rights challenge of our era,” we can be neither loose cannons nor passive in our pursuit. Like Finch’s character, I do not know the solutions, but I agree that sometimes getting mad can be motivating. Having gotten truly motivated, we’ll need a large dose of being sober to fix the educational system. And that sobriety is not grounded solely in accounting or narrow definitions of success.

If we think of the community college system, which teaches the most students in higher education and at a fraction of the cost, as the Gutenberg printing press of our time, and if we can refrain from dictating what the press should print and how to print it, we have done our job: We have provided to all of us the access to an abundance of information. And with our job, we can address the nuances of processing information—we can teach and learn how to navigate thinking and feeling without teaching and learning what to think or feel.

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