Putting “The Public” Back into Public Education

by Howard Tinberghoward-tinberg

From the outset, let me say that I have no illusions as to the extent to which public support of education remains tenuous. Having taught for nearly three decades at a public community college in Massachusetts, I have seen first-hand the  effects of dwindling public support for higher education: exponential growth in the hiring of contingent faculty, escalating fees to make up for budget shortfalls, establishment of endowments and private moneys to pay for capital investment, creation of partnerships with the for-profit sector to build capacity, extension of dual-credit enrollment as enrollment outreach, and continued reliance on online courses to pad enrollments. All these developments are occurring against a backdrop of increasing calls for accountability—yet another reflection of strapped budgets, as every dollar needs to be carefully accounted for.

The recent confirmation of Betsy DeVos, a proponent of Charter schools and so-called “school choice,” spelled out clearly the challenge before us.  Indeed, DeVos is intent on extending her ideologically-driven critique to higher education:  witness her claim made that professors too often teach students “what to think.” In a trenchant reply,  Rosemary Feal, outgoing Executive Director has observed, faculty do not teach students “what to think” but rather “how to think.”  The distinction is critical.

Yet, amidst all this gloom, there is good news to report about public education. Take the confirmation of DeVos, for example. Yes: she was finally confirmed (bailed out by VP Mike Pence in a historic move to tip the balance) but I, for one, was heartened by Senators’ hard and thoughtful push back against her testimony. How often have we heard a discussion in the Senate or Congress that referenced the difference between the “growth” model of assessment and the “proficiency” model—the difference, that is between measuring how much a particular student has learned and the one-size-fits-all standard measuring student proficiency?  When Senator Al Franken (D Minnesota) pressed DeVos on her view of the matter, he brought into public discourse another critical distinction. Is it fair, he was asking, to measure all students, whose abilities and backgrounds vary, by a single, arbitrary standard alone? Or should we not see each student as an individual and tailor our assessments to that individual student? Should we not, he asserts, employ multiple measures of assessment? Shouldn’t assessment be used to improve student learning rather than provide, as Franken notes, an end-of-semester “autopsy”? How refreshing it was to hear a sitting Senator validate best classroom practice.

I’m heartened by other, recent events, too. In Massachusetts, voters rejected an initiative to lift the cap on charter schools, recognizing that charter schools siphon away funding from established public schools.  For those who claimed that charter schools are themselves “public” supporters of the “No on 2” question rightly pointed out that charter schools are under no obligation to accept all students. In what sense can they be considered “public” schools?

Despite competing against a growing number of charter schools, which drain community coffers and which are by no means obligated to accept all students,  Massachusetts schools continue to excel in the battle to provide equitable teaching opportunities across socio-economic lines,

I’m also cheered by a recent study conducted by Stanford University, Brown University, University of California and Berkeley, and the US Dept. of Treasure on the impact of higher education on students’ social mobility. Focusing on the earning power of students born in the 1980’s after their college experience, researchers were not surprised by this finding: that graduates of elite, private institutions earn more than three-quarters of American students—no surprise there, although students from lower-income households fare as well their more affluent counter-parts. But truly encouraging was the impact of institutions of public higher education on students’ social mobility.  James Kvaal, former White House Deputy Director of Domestic Policy, reports:

In fact, for every student who moves from the bottom to the top after attend an Ivy League or similar university more than 80 students achieve the same feat at community colleges or public universities.

I am not an advocate of judging colleges by a reductive and simplistic “Mobility Score Card,” a project which Kvaal supports, nor do I side with his call to reform developmental education without the funds to provide adequate academic support. I nonetheless support Kvaal’s call for continued public investment in Pell Grants and in maintaining college’s affordability for all students no matter the age or socio- economic bracket.

Other, positive developments would include the proposal by the governor of New York to make college “tuition free”  at state institutions for students whose family incomes are below $125,000 a year. I also note the recent call by the governor of Rhode Island to make two-years of college “free,” whether the community college or the state-sponsored four-year institutions.   Of course, college is never “free,” per se but requires public investment in institutions of higher learning so as to maintain access, fortify retention, and ensure that curricular offerings are academically sound.

Such gains will have little traction unless those of us who work in public education continue to be engaged in the project of producing good citizens.   I have written elsewhere of a trend among educators to disengage from the classroom—a decision driven by cynicism and a sense of powerlessness.   While those promoting privatization of public education have made significant inroads in the past decade, the “loss of the public” is by no means inevitable.   As a literacy educator, I will continue to promote in students a thoughtful and measured approach to the information afforded by old and new media. And I will continue to model for my students an earnest engagement with public issues.

Howard Tinberg is Professor of English at Bristol Community College, Fall River, Mass. He is former Chair of CCCC and the former editor of TETYC. He was the recipient of 2004 CASE/Carnegie US Community College Professor of the Year.

 

Author: darinljensen

I am a writer and a teacher who is interested in issues of class and social justice.

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