Friday, September 08, 2006

Education when you need it 

I think there's a good comparison to make here. The debate over income and poverty statistics this week turns on a simple question to me: Do you believe or not believe that the average worker is better off now or in the 1970s? Some would say no because of envy, others yes because there's higher compensation, and we had argument yesterday about how we calculate numbers.

Likewise with the data on whether or not our students are worse off because their global test scores are lower. Robert Samuelson distinguishes between the school system and the learning system.
The school system is what most people think of as "education." It consists of 125,000 elementary and high schools and 2,500 four-year colleges and universities. It has strengths (major research universities) and weaknesses�notably, lax standards. One reason that U.S. students rank low globally is that many don't work hard. In 2002, 56 percent of high school sophomores did less than an hour of homework a night.

The American learning system is more complex. It's mostly post-high school and, aside from traditional colleges and universities, includes the following: community colleges; for-profit institutes and colleges; adult extension courses; online and computer-based courses; formal and informal job training; self-help books. To take a well-known example: The for-profit University of Phoenix started in 1976 to offer workers a chance to finish their college degrees. Now it has about 300,000 students (half taking online courses and half attending classes in 163 U.S. locations). The average starting age: 34.
One advantage of the learning system, Samuelson argues, is that it has multiple entry points. My son was in college, didn't succeed. Went to technical college to learn to cook, to be a chef some day. I fully expect he'll go to learn something else in the next several years. I don't know when or what, I just expect he's going to decide he wants something different.

I have seen more students in their late 20s in my office who have come in and out of our school, a two-year school, and the workforce. Some just want the credential, any credential, to show for their efforts and to put on their resumes. Others have decided they now know what they want to do. I have a new graduate student who has worked locally for years and decided to take up her education again.

The complaint many faculty at traditional campuses have is that students just want degrees and jobs, and that education is supposed to be so much more. But this misses the very good point made by a community college president in Samuelson's piece:
The American learning system accommodates people's ambitions and energies�when they emerge�and helps compensate for some of the defects of the school system.

In Charlotte, about 70 percent of the recent high school graduates at Central Piedmont Community College need remedial work in English or math. Zeiss thinks his college often succeeds where high schools fail. Why? High school graduates "go out in the world and see they have no skills," he says. "They're more motivated." The mixing of older and younger students also helps; the older students are more serious and focused.
Thanks to reader jw for the link to this article.