Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Fixing California education

USC puts in the fix

Saturday morning's edition of the Sacramento Bee treated us to an opinion piece by Dr. William G. Tierney, director of the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis at the University of Southern California. Naturally it caught my eye, especially when I noticed the title: Simple changes would make college degree easier and cheaper. My eyebrow quirked with skepticism and I steeled myself for disappointment.

I was not disappointed—about being disappointed, I mean. Tierney is not completely out to lunch, but he certainly overreaches and oversimplifies. Here are some pertinent excerpts from his article, along with my comments:
Viewpoints: Simple changes would make college degree easier and cheaper

By William G. Tierney

Special to The Bee
Published Saturday, Jun. 11, 2011

How can California produce the number of college graduates its future economy will need when its public higher education system is staggering because of the ongoing budget squeeze? Unfortunately, the state's public universities and colleges won't receive any of the unexpected surge in new tax revenue and will continue to scale back their enrollments. If the tax extensions sought by Gov. Jerry Brown are not approved, enrollments will likely shrink further.

California's private nonprofit and for-profit colleges and universities, by contrast, are in relatively good financial shape. Enrollments in most institutions are holding steady or are up. Endowments and philanthropic giving are on the upswing. Tuition is still higher than in the public schools but is rising at a slower pace.
We should be careful not to overstate the situation relative to public versus private college education in California. The Great Recession has caused a dramatic spike in tuition costs at the California State University and the University of California. The steep rates of increase cannot be sustained without the destruction of these institutions (so I predict it won't happen). It would be misleading to make too much of the “slower pace” of private-school tuition in the state.
If these two higher-education systems would put aside their long-running competition for students, faculty and resources, and cooperate to boost graduation rates, they could go a long way toward turning out the 1 million more credentialed individuals—according to one study—the economy will need in 2025. Heresy? Hardly.
Here I pause to climb onto one of my favorite hobbyhorses: I hate the expression “according to one study” and similar unhelpful non-references. What study? I realize that this is an opinion piece published in a newspaper and not a peer-reviewed research article in an education journal, but the Bee falls short in its mission to inform the public when it expects us to take unsourced statements at face value. I don't know whether to blame Tierney as well. Did he try to include a citation, only to have the Bee editors complain about the fusty academic prose?

In any case, I have done the leg-work for you, should you want to check whether the claims are well supported. Tierney is referring to the work of Hans Johnson, who published two papers in 2009 with the Public Policy Institute of California:

Johnson, H. (2009). Educating California: Choices for the future. San Francisco, CA: Public Policy Institute of California.
Johnson, H., & Sengupta, R. (2009). Closing the Gap: Meeting California's need for college graduates. San Francisco, CA: Public Policy Institute of California.

Johnson's more recent paper may also be of interest:

Johnson, H. (2011). California workforce: Planning for a better future. San Francisco, CA: Public Policy Institute of California.

While I'm at it, I'll point out that Tierney's article appears to be a public-consumption version of a more extensive report titled Making It Happen: Increasing college access and participation in California Higher Education: The role of private postsecondary providers. Tierney coauthored it with Guilbert Hentschke, a colleague at the USC school of education.

Now let's get back to Tierney's argument:
There are three important ways the public and private sectors can work together to produce more graduates.
  • Shifting the remedial burden to the private sector: California's public schools and universities are lousy at remedial education. Sixty percent of entering Cal State students have to complete at least one remedial course when they arrive at college. It's a task that consumes professorial and student time, and is ill-suited to the mission of graduating students.
For certain private nonprofit and for-profit schools, however, remedial education is a forte. They have experience in dealing with learning deficiencies and are adept in tutoring and some forms of special education. Unencumbered by competing missions, they can focus on the remedial task at hand. And monitoring their success rates would be as easy as grading exams.
Did a warning flag pop up when you read that? Here we have a professor at a private university recommending that more of California's education program be shifted to private institutions. Of course, he's not suggesting that the remediation work be allocated to the University of Southern California, which is presumably above all that. Instead, Tierney is arguing that certain profit-based schools excel at making up educational deficiencies and should be encouraged to do what they do best. I have my doubts.

For-profit schools tend to report high success rates, but these statistics can be misleading. Such schools have a vested interest in retaining their paying customers. Students and colleagues of mine who have taught at profit-driven schools are amazed at how difficult it can be to maintain standards or drop non-performing students. (“Hey, I paid for this class. Now give me my passing grade!”)

Are public schools any better? Tierney says we “are lousy at remedial education.” In my long experience as a college teacher who often teaches elementary algebra (a course that used to be standard high school freshman fare), I can report that my success rate hovers between sixty and seventy percent. In general, my colleagues and I find that one-half to two-thirds of our students pass algebra.

It's shocking, I know. I think our success rates would be higher if we had fewer students in each class and more time to give them individual attention. Perhaps that's what private schools could do (for a price). However, I also want to point out that open-admission institutions like community colleges have to take on all comers, ready or not. We strive mightily with the twin tools of assessment and placement to figure out what students already know and what courses they should take to maximize their probability of success. Still, even the best instructors lose a quarter of their students.

It's my opinion that we can't do much about it. That might be a defeatist attitude, but I'm not one to casually acquiesce in failure. The reality is that every semester brings us students who are placed as best we can manage but who lack any real interest in education. These are the students who are marking time till they find something better or more interesting to do. They may be living rent-free under a parent's roof as long as they're enrolled in school, so sitting in class is like the price they pay for shelter. It would be rude to also expect them to work at the subject material.

Other students have life problems or emergencies that predictably or unpredictably sabotage their academic progress. Many of these people will regroup and try again (and succeed) under better circumstances. Still, they go into the “failure” column when we tote up the statistics. In general, you can assume that ten to twenty percent of your students are doomed to fail because of attitudes or circumstances. As instructors—at least if you are serious about doing the greatest good for the greatest number—you have to guard against snap judgments. Try to foster success for every student, even if you know you are fated to fall short in a unknown number of instances.

Good schools in the private and for-profit sector might also be serious about helping students. I expect that most are. However, it's often apples and oranges when we make these comparisons and I can't quite get on board with Tierney's assertion that public schools are inherently worse at remediation than private schools. Community colleges, in particular, do a lot of remediation. Furthermore, to stand things on their heads, consider that we get over half of our algebra students to succeed. In algebra! The math class from hell!
  • Making it easier to complete required courses: Currently, a student seeking to transfer credit to another school faces too many institutional and faculty hurdles. An “A” in English 101 at Los Angeles City College isn't automatically credited at UCLA.
The state took a baby step this year toward clearing up the uncertainty with the Student Transfer Reform Act, which guarantees junior status at Cal State schools to community college students who earn an associate degree. There is no reason why such a relationship should only exist between community colleges and Cal State.

To facilitate transfers, all accredited institutions would adopt a common course-numbering system that ensures that students learn similar things regardless of where they took the class. For example, credit for completing English 101 at a community college would automatically transfer to a UC or a private college or university. Not only would general education requirements be part of this system but preparation courses for students' majors as well. Arizona has set up such a credit-transfer system, and initial reports are that it is producing more graduates faster.
I agree unreservedly with Tierney's recommendation concerning the transferability of college courses. It should have happened yesterday.

I know, however, why it didn't. And Tierney plows right into the problem without apparently realizing it: “all accredited institutions would adopt a common course-numbering system that ensures that students learn similar things.” How much experience does Tierney have in higher education? Has he been paying any attention at all? California's colleges and faculty will fight tooth and nail against a uniform statewide curriculum. Hardly anything is so precious to a college as its own curriculum. Losing control of course definitions to some centralized authority is tantamount to becoming merely one small cog in a monolithic educational machine.

No thanks!

Community colleges, especially, tailor curriculum to their communities and colleges in general cherish the right to tweak their own courses and experiment with their own curriculum. Ceding that ability to a central authority is a non-starter. Of course, you can never tell what the California legislature will do—or try to do. Years ago the legislature passed and the governor signed a measure mandating that all California community colleges use a uniform course-numbering system. The requirement is still on the books:
66725. (a) It is the intent of the Legislature to facilitate articulation and seamless integration of California's postsecondary institutions by facilitating the adoption and integration of a common course numbering system among the public and private postsecondary institutions. The purpose of building and implementing a common course numbering system is to provide for the effective and efficient progression of students within and among the higher education segments and to minimize duplication of coursework.
It never happened, probably because the legislature failed to allocate funds to pay for it and to establish the mechanism by which it would occur. We do, however, at least have the California Articulation Numbering system, which provides an intermediary for the comparison of courses at different institutions in the community college system. Something along these lines might be a way to advance the positive aspects of Tierney's recommendation without falling into the trap of statewide course uniformity.
  • Encouraging private colleges to admit more students, especially through online learning: To get private colleges to admit more students, the state might pick up a portion of the tuition difference between private and public schools. That, no doubt, would bring howls of protest—taxpayers giving money to well-heeled privates. But consider UC's newest campus in Merced, currently with 4,000 students. The state could surely find cheaper seats for those 4,000 students in California's 79 private institutions than pay $500 million and counting to complete the campus.
While shilling again for his own segment of California's postsecondary education system, Tierney takes an ill-considered slap at the University of California. The Central Valley is a major growth center for the state. The establishment of the tenth UC campus in that region was long overdue. Tierney is recommending a penny-wise and pound-foolish approach of shutting down a growing institution that will be sorely needed by the burgeoning San Joaquin population. Does he want higher education in that region ceded to private institutions? Perhaps so.
But more private admissions can't begin to close the graduate gap. A significant state-led effort to increase online education would have far more impact—and the private nonprofit and for-profit sectors are best qualified to lead it because they are doing it now and want to grow. Given their checkered history, participation by the for-profits would have to be tightly regulated.
I support the expansion of on-line education, although I have reservations about quality control and identity verification (who is taking those on-line exams?). It's interesting that Tierney felt obligated to cite in passing the “checkered history” of profit-driven schools in the on-line sector. Here's an area where we are best advised to hurry slowly.
California's persistent budget squeeze and anti-tax mood erect a high hurdle to increased graduation rates. Only a coordinated effort of its five higher-education systems—three public and the nonprofit and for-profit privates—can produce the number of graduates the economy will need. There's still plenty of room for spirited competition, but California's economy needs all five on the same team to remain competitive globally.
I can't argue with Tierney's team metaphor for addressing the problems in Caifornia's postsecondary education. I'm not sure, though, that I want him to be the captain.


AnyEdge said...

Higher education is in a huge bubble, just like the rest of the economy. It's totally dependant on borrowed money to survive. It's just not as obvious because it isn't the institutions themselves borrowing the money. Student loans and government grants are all based on borrowed money, and it's going to dry up when people see that it isn't worth financing an education. We can talk all we want about the value of education for its own sake, but $200K of student debt and a $35K salary don't make sense together.

Universities used to sposer research, through tenure. Now, they demand that research professors get they salaries from the government. They build ever more elaborate grounds while refusing to invest their own money in developing students and professors.

Frankly, it's all going to collapse, and good riddance as it is. If a university doesn't pay its professors to teach and do research, if they demand the government do it and they only provide office space, then we don't have a university system. We have a government that also educates.

And it does so by borrowing money. It's all going to break down. And I say that from within the system.

Anonymous said...

So, he is telling me that if I take a class at one school in California, I won't know if it transfers to another? I find that really hard to believe. I could find that information readily over twenty years ago in Washington State (and others). And standardization of course numbering certainly didn't stop the existence of unique courses or different content.

I find it fascinating about the failure rates in college Algebra. If that many students have problems in courses they "want" to be in, what chance do K-12 teachers have? And why (and how) do we expect perfection? Very interesting information for a future secondary science teacher.


Karen the Grumpy said...

Dammit, it should be possible to do reasonably well in a California high school, attend a Cal State University or a community college without taking remedial classes, and get a degree. The fault lies back with K-12 education, and what students don't know and should know nowadays really pisses me off.

Miki Z. said...

When I was in California, most of the students struggling through elementary algebra courses had conceptual trouble with basic arithmetic, even if they could reliably identify equivalent fractions and such. This seems to be because elementary school teachers have been improperly trained to teach this (see, for a development of this argument, Wu in the AMS notices at www.ams.org/notices/201103/rtx110300372p.pdf).

My guess is that we are seeing the longer-term effects of teaching students to score well on multiple-choice tests, rather than to understand the materials. As such, I fail to see how saying "And monitoring their success rates would be as easy as grading exams," does anything but perpetuate a system of compounding failure.

Tierney may be right that private nonprofit and for-profit colleges and universities would better suit these students. I don't think he is right, but maybe.

Doesn't this just say, essentially, "Listen, we failed you in elementary school, junior high, and high school. That's why we suggest you take on debt to try and finish college -- these private colleges have your best interests at heart, and it is only coincidence that they are benefiting from the slashed educational budget. But hey, work hard, do well, and we can justify cutting more from pre-college education budgets!"?

I transferred from a community college under an articulation agreement between my two schools. That was nearly painless and effective. Sometimes, how to match quarter-based classes with semester-based classes is unclear.

Community colleges absolutely should work out articulation agreements with four-year schools. If it can be done on a system-wide basis, wonderful. But why should that necessitate giving more state money to private schools without even reducing the cost to students?