Saturday, September 29, 2012

Harsh Reality Hits California's Community Colleges

I shared my thoughts earlier on the declining support for Governor Jerry Brown's multi-billion dollar tax initiative on the November ballot. If the measure fails, the state's public education establishment's going to face another round of cuts, and they're starting to get down to the bone now. Long-cherished programs will be slashed --- and the long-employed faculty members who run them will be laid off. There's a lot of reasons for this, but one big one is poor leadership, especially among the state's Democrats who're beholden to the teachers' unions, and who haven't worked to rationalize state budgets and adapt to changing fiscal times. It's an old story that I've written about frequently.

In any case, here's this report from the Los Angeles Times from last week, "FADING DREAMS: California's community colleges staggering during hard times":
Marianet Tirado returned to Los Angeles Trade Tech community college this fall, optimistic that she would get into the classes she needs to transfer to a four-year university.

Of the courses she wanted, only two had space left when she registered in May. She enrolled in those and "crashed" others. In one of those cases, she lucked out when the professor teaching a political science class admitted additional students. But she couldn't get into a biology class because she was too far down on the waiting list.

If the math and English courses she needs aren't offered next spring, she may have to push back her plans to apply to San Francisco State, UCLA or USC.

Photos:  Community college conundrum

Her mother is puzzled that Tirado may spend three or four years at what is supposed to be a two-year college.

"Because that's what we think community college is," said Tirado, 24, a journalism major who lives in Watts. "It's hard to explain to my mom that I'm trying to go to school but the courses are not there."

This is the new reality for Tirado and about 2.4 million other students in the nation's largest community college system. The system is the workhorse of California's 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education, which promised affordability, quality and access to all.

Graphic:  Tough times

In reality, the state's two-year colleges are buckling under the stress of funding cuts, increased demand and a weak record of student success.

The situation can be seen on all 112 campuses — students on long waiting lists, those who take years to graduate or transfer and others so frustrated that they drop out. Most of them enter ill-prepared for college-level work. Eighty-five percent need remedial English, 73% remedial math. Only about a third of remedial students transfer to a four-year school or graduate with a community college associate's degree.

"We're at the breaking point," said Jack Scott, who served as chancellor of the California Community College system for three years until retiring this month.

"It's like a nice-looking car you've been driving for several years: It looks shiny, but the engine is falling apart," said Eloy Ortiz Oakley, president of Long Beach City College. "The wheels fell off the Master Plan 20 or 30 years ago. We're finally feeling the results because we have enormous needs for our educational system to produce qualified workers, and we're playing catch-up now."

The consequences of not meeting those demands are huge: About 80% of firefighters and law enforcement officers and 70% of nurses embarked on their careers in community college. By some estimates, California will need 2.3 million more community college degree and certificate holders by 2025 to meet the demands of employers.
More at that top link.

And note that my college president, Eloy Oakley, is quoted at the article. He's a hatchet man, and his administration brought in another hatchet man, Dr. Gaither Loewenstein, to help cut loose faculty and staff to save enough money to keep up with paying the college's bloated administration costs and wasteful perks, like the rarely-attended athletic programs. That's not the image you'll hear from top college officials, but then again, they're the ones with decisive power over the narrative and policy outcomes. The Long Beach Post has an article on what's coming down the pipeline. See, "LBCC Says Program Cuts Necessary As State Resources Shift."

And back over at the Times, readers respond in the letters to the editor, "Letters: Community colleges -- in a fix, but fixable":
The community college situation gets tricky as the traditional enrollment increase during an economic downturn has gotten crushed by the state's budget woes. California's 2.4 million community college students are a state unto themselves.

The state's economic mismanagement, complete with upcoming pass-me-or-else propositions, is an albatross around the neck. Additionally, funding is intertwined with K-12 education, and community colleges get pushed to the bottom (see 2008's failed Proposition 92).

The biggest deficiency in the system is its inability to use the brainpower and helpfulness of the people at the individual schools in crafting solutions. Figure out a way to harness them and the system will thrive.

Mason Malugeon
Huntington Beach


According to the article, 85% of community college students need remedial work in English, and 73% need remedial math. This is a reflection of the failure of California's K-12 schools.

Standardized tests should indicate a student's progress in math and English over time and should be used to evaluate teachers and students. Any system that uses test scores to evaluate teachers should also include a way to asses student motivation (which is partly determined by a teacher) and improvement over prior years' results.

Overlooking the K-12 system is terribly shortsighted.

Frank E. Drsata
Huntington Beach
There's another letter-writer at the link, but her solution is privatization, which is Utopian, for one thing, and is simply not going to fly in blue-state California.

But I've highlighted the key passages from the second and third letter-writers. Faculty don't have input in ultimate decisions on fiscal policies and program termination. And even in other matters of the curriculum, outside forces push trends on the colleges that might not be beneficial to students in the end (student learning outcomes and assessment is a fad, for example, drawn from the standardized test movement, that's being implemented at the class level at my college this term, and they'll have absolutely no impact on how well my students do in classes or how well or quickly they'll be able to complete their coursework).

And while I agree with the last writer, Mr. Drsata, in addition to the issues at the K-12 level, the overriding concern is --- and should be --- the culture of learning at the family level. School districts like Irvine Unified --- where my kids attend --- send large numbers of students to the top universities, and the schools routinely rank among the best in the state, largely because the demographics include not just more affluent families, but many from groups that place high emphasis on academic achievement. It's not politically correct to say it, but those large numbers of students needing remedial classes at the community colleges are predominantly blacks and Hispanics. Other groups, whites and Asians, also have remedial issues, but their numbers are much smaller. The student population's frankly almost half Hispanic at my college at this point. And the greater Long Beach area has a large number of students coming from disadvantaged backgrounds. These trends will continue as long as socio-economic inequality remains a major dividing line in the larger American society. For folks to do well in this environment, it's going to be up to the individual families to pull themselves up, to pass on a culture of learning and achievement to their children, because public resources will be strained for years while the U.S. and state economies continue to pull out of the long Obama Depression. Families can't just blame the schools for poor outcomes.

I'll have more on these issues as we move forward. And I especially hope for good news to report, but again, if the tax initiative fails at the polls, it'll be more cuts up front. It could easily be a decade until the state gets back to a fiscal environment where massive public funding can be devoted to restoring the education system to the status and stature that it enjoyed in earlier decades. I think that's possible, but it will take rationalizing services, along with changing some of the entitlement elements that have driven public expectations in the past. The community colleges are the weakest institution in all of California's educational sectors, so some of the final changes will be greatest at this level. I don't know, but the state ultimately may not be able to guarantee everyone a place in community college classrooms. It's too bad, but it's not as if it's not happening already.