Monday, February 27, 2012

More on Technical Education

Here's a full text version of my most recent piece published in the Denver Post. It's on my standard theme of career and technical education.

Skilled Labor and The Future of Education

Work-study. Work or study.

These words offer contrasting visions of how to elevate struggling schools. In recent weeks Newt Gingrich proposed putting poor kids to work cleaning their schools, and President Obama argued for compulsory education to eighteen. While each idea has merit, both were criticized for good reason.

Newt wasn’t wrong in arguing young people need marketable skills, and interning kids in maintenance jobs is reasonable. His problem was emphasizing vocational education only for poor and minority kids who need a “work ethic.” And janitorial work is not really “skilled labor,” so the prospects for a middle class career are limited. Does Newt really think the country lacks millions of janitors? As a historian, Newt should know better.

Obama’s idea of extending education wasn’t wrong either, though mandating attendance is an oversimplification and counterproductive. It neither solves the drop-out problem nor answers important questions. Why are kids dropping out, and for what purpose should they stay? Schools must promote a culture and mission that makes students want to stay, rather than force them against their will. As a community organizer, the President should know better.

In Colorado, that’s where an honest discussion of demographics and opportunities needs to become the focus. Skilled labor has long been the hallmark of the middle class. And, work-study is a time-honored but underused component of education. The problem of course with the American economy isn’t simply a lack of jobs – it’s also a lack of skilled workers. According to the Wall Street Journal, one reason employment numbers are stagnant is a drought of welders, electricians, miners, technicians, and engineers. And Colorado is the perfect place to reconstruct an education system based on skilled labor.

With Denver’s technology, military, energy, and mining industries, local opportunities abound for interning and business-education partnerships. Every industrialized nation in the world – except the United States – allows an opportunity for transition to careers by age sixteen. That’s a significant reason they outpace us in international assessments, especially at the senior high school level. However, with a commitment to higher education and skilled labor, Colorado could be the model for education reform in the United States.

Colorado could become the epicenter for producing highly skilled labor – an international source of miners, drillers, welders, engineers, and technicians. And, students may be interested in knowing they can earn six figures as a driller or miner. Years ago, I knew a young man who was an industrial grade painter. By age twenty, his professional certification put him in demand nationwide, and at twenty-two he was making twice my bachelor’s degree salary.

Granted, promoting technical education over bachelor degrees isn’t without controversy. Education blogger Clarice McCants criticizes arguments that too many kids go to college. McCants believes it implies poor kids should become plumbers – as Newt Gingrich quipped – while middle and upper class kids should be engineers, doctors, and businessmen. Such a view is, truly, the soft bigotry of low expectations.

Assuming “skilled labor” applies only to poor urban students is wrong. In fact, such thinking killed vocational education in the 80s. Poor minority kids were funneled into shop class while white kids took literature and physics. Yet, instead of fixing that disparity, we simply cut technical education and re-engineered society promoting college-for-all. However, even among the middle class population, plenty of kids shouldn’t be going for bachelor’s degrees because the economy neither needs nor supports them.

Granted, more middle-class suburban – and yes white – kids have advantages based on neighborhood, family situations, and early childhood education. That’s the key we’re not acknowledging – the incredible burden of catching up if a child enters kindergarten not knowing his letters or lagging other kids in vocabulary. Statistically, it’s difficult to catch up – and it can take generations. Once a family has one college educated parent, then it moves to two, then to a stay at home parent or one with flexibility and the funds to support effective pre-school, not just daycare/babysitting.

Clearly, it comes down to equal opportunities. And it comes from decreasing the stigma of associate degrees and skilled labor. Mike Rowe of Discovery’s “Dirty Jobs” is a strong proponent of technical education. However, he reminds us that these jobs need to be the kind people want. As long as we have Gingrich linking skilled labor only to “poor kids” who need a work ethic, and the President mindlessly mandating attendance, education reform will go nowhere.

Now that Colorado has been freed from the mandates of NCLB, state education leaders should begin crafting a sound education policy that promotes skilled labor and matches the needs of students and the marketplace.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Inequality and a Level Playing Field

There's a lot of talk these days about inequality and whether we have a level playing field in this country. Democrats and liberals are most likely to argue that it's not, while Republicans and conservatives are pretty certain that everyone has the same opportunities in America, and success comes from hard work or a lack of it.

That said, there's some fascinating brain research going on these days about the formative years and their impact on education and success. For example, a child who doesn't form close personal attachments in his first twenty months will suffer this inability to develop bonds and relationships throughout life. Thus, he will glean far less from opportunities to learn. And a child from low socioeconomic backgrounds might enter kindergarten trailing middle class students by as many as 1,500 words. In all tests, he will statistically never catch up, as literacy builds on itself. So, not equal. Not even close.

Thus, noting what has been acknowledged by most about about deficits in family background and stability, there is not a level playing field in society. The difference between my experience going to Catholic school in a nice suburb and that of a child growing up in public housing is vastly different. And, the benefit I received being in classes with the kids in my neighborhood - all of whom had two college educated parents and many stay-at-home moms - is monumentally different from growing up around kids whose parents represent all the social ills. Thus, it's not simply about a lack of desire to succeed or a failure to work hard. All the brain research points out that you can't just pin failure on a poor kid's lack of will power to "rise above his adversity." Arguing otherwise is what it was like in Dickensian England when the Victorians just concluded the poor were poor because they were a bunch of lazy, drunk, horny morons.

Granted, there is much abuse and perpetuation of these ills. The problem is that liberals and Democrats grossly over-complicate things, and conservatives and Republicans grossly oversimplify them. And David Brooks has artfully explained this acknowledging that it still makes no sense to just drop out of school even if everyone in your neighborhood is. But there is much society can and should do to correct some of the ills. Universal preschool is an example. Since, currently middle class kids can afford it - and don't even really need it - and poor kids can't and desperately do need it. The reformers in Dickens' time were the first to say maybe we could do something to help. Then the progressives picked it up in the American twentieth century.

But it's not a level playing field, and there is no way to argue that all kids and people have equal opportunities. Any time spent with a spectrum of young people clarifies this. It's not a level field - it's a minefield and a battlefield for many, and others just a really lonely desert. And it's really, really sad.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Principals Oppose Judging Teachers by Test Scores

An interesting movement is afoot with the news around "The Letter," a formal letter written to the New York Legislature which opposes the use of standardized test scores to evaluate teachers. It's been signed by nearly 1,400 principals and thousands of educators, and it is an argument against perhaps the most dubious of reforms to grow out of No Child Left Behind.

Apparently, in New York, legislation will now require that between 20-40% of a teacher's evaluation must be based on standardized, state test scores. This is, of course, part of the accountability movement. And it's really a simple argument to make. If students aren't performing well on these tests, then the teacher is clearly not effective. However, such conclusion really aren't, and shouldn't be, so "clear."

The predominant problem for such evaluations is the idea of a "snapshot" being able to accurately judge a years worth of content, curriculum, technique, and educational experience. Additionally, the issue of student motivation is key when these are state tests - ones for which students have absolutely no skin in the game. If the tests are not for a grade and they are not used by colleges, many students have no incentive to do well. Occasionally, even state mandated ACTs have no incentive because students may not have college plans.

Teachers in Colorado should be even more interested in this, as Senate Bill 191 has now designated standardized test scores comprise 50% of a teacher's evaluation by 2014. This will be particularly problematic, as currently the state does not have a testing system for the subject areas of 70% of teachers. How do you standardized test the art, music, gym, language, and elective teachers? And if you can't, how can you fairly evaluate all teachers.

It's certainly a problem.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Be Thoughtful of College Choice

Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn and a tech billionaire, offers some very sound advice on the "college-or-not" debate. Despite my regular assertions that most people should not go to college, Reid reminds us that anyone can and should go to college if he or she is thoughtful and purposeful about it.

I particularly enjoyed Reid's response to a question of whether an eighteen-year-old knows what he wants to do for the rest of his life. Students should simply not think that way and try to develop a thirty year plan. For, even if the student is the same person - and in terms of personality, initiative, and interests he probably will be - the world will have changed. Thus, students would simply want to secure knowledge and skills in a general area of which they have interest which would make them always marketable and adaptable in any age.

Thus, skills in writing, critical thinking, computation, and technology offer a pretty solid foundation. Beyond that, the market will decide who succeeds and who fails.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Spanking Children and Lower IQs?

According to reports of an extensive study, there are significant residual effects of spanking on children, and chief among them is that children who are spanked have lower IQs. These kinds of reports give me pause.

To begin, I do not believe in spanking children, I have never and would never hit my child, and I feel the act of spanking reflects more on the anger, frustration, and lack of impulse control in parents than it does a parenting tool. However, I challenge any research that it "leads to" or "results in" lower IQs among children.

Perhaps, children who are spanked - or hit - regularly as a disciplinary tool are more likely to come from parents of lower education - and lower IQs. I haven't read the study, but it does not seem to correct for all ranges of socioeconomic and educational - as well as cultural/historical - background of the parents.

My experience has been that spanking is a gut reaction and emotional response of parents. It's not instructional, but punitive. And it more often comes from parents who are less likely to speak to their children in general. Thus, if they don't regularly engage and nurture the behavior of a child, but instead, smack him or her when frustrated, then the child's IQ is going to be negatively affected by the entire parenting experience - or lack thereof.

Spanking is not, in my opinion, parenting. And children who are not parented are going to have lower IQs.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Are College Students Brainwashed Liberals?

In the clip below, a college professor offers his accounts of what is wrong with America.

Well, I'd say this.

Young people and college students are always more liberal. It'll soften as they become employees and taxpayers.

Ultimately, it's not necessarily wrong for them to believe in publicly funded education, tuition, retirement insurance, and health care. In fact, public education, social security, and medicare are not only incredibly popular, but an integral component of first world society. No industrialized nation lacks these ... and America has the least extravagant of all.

If young people believe in these causes, that's fine. It's a free country and they have a right to vote for what they want. They just have to be willing to support them in taxes. That's been America's problem for a hundred years. We want the programs and strong govt - we just refuse to fund it. It's basic math. Social security, medicare, and higher ed are the key examples. People need to understand. Remember "Keep your govt hands off my Medicare"?

Of course, this prof is a bit jaded and equally biased. He puts the blame on public schools and claims the kids have never heard of Thomas Malthus, Adam Smith, and Frederick Hayak. Well, those are only one economic theory. Did he ask the kids about John Keynes or Robert Samuelson or Joseph Stiglitz? No. And guess what? The kids haven't heard of Keynes or Marx or Hobbes or Locke or Mao either. It's not that they only get biased liberal economic theory. They get no economic theory. It's not in most state standards. And who knows if it should be.

Do you recall knowing about Hayak and Malthus in high school? Did you discuss Hobbesian theory or utilitarianism? Guess what. My kids are learning about Malthus and Smith right now. But it's satirical criticism of their theories as seen in Dickens' Hard Times. At the same time I asked my kids about Marx and Hegel the other day, and they hadn't heard of them. They had no knowledge of socialist or classical liberal thinkers.

And, of course, I don't necessarily blame kids for their views on tuition and health care ... or even down payments. Think about what they've been experiencing as they come of age. Many probably have real life experience struggling with private health care. And tuition. Geez. The average college grad now begins life with $26000 in debt. $26K! Can you imagine coming out at 22 with that on your shoulders. And then needing 20% for down payments. And skyrocketing health care? Or no health care?

It's a different world out there. And it's pretty scary times for young people. I don't blame them for a lot of this. And it's not unusual for young people to have more faith in the government. They still have that sincere belief that the govt is supposed to be the guy in the white hat when they are struggling.

Just another point of view.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

CU College Administrators in the 1%

In a move sure to baffle education critics - and the average taxpayer - the University of Colorado apparently used new revenues to provide substantial pay increases to top administrators at the campus. This comes on top of news that CU will again be hiking tuition a whopping 16% - a move which was defended by CU President Bruce Benson in a recent op-ed in the Denver Post. Most egregious of the increases appears to be a $49,000 increase to Chancellor Phil DiStefano, who will now be earning $390,000 a year.

The CU Board of Regents expressed outrage at the moves - and it's tough to blame theme. Even if the criticism from the Regents can be a bit political at times, college administrators pulling in nearly $400K is almost too much. Granted, Benson reasonably argues that CU's pay is not out of line with the nationwide average. And he needs these offers to remain competitive. And the state wants CU to be a top, competitive state university.

But seriously?

The chancellor of a university is a tough sell to be making more money than a surgeon. Obviously, he has a serious job that requires high quality leadership. There is much we don't know about the intricacies of that job. But perhaps that is the problem. How can leading a university be more "valuable" than leading a state government or Congress or the United States of America ... or an open heart surgery. Education funding is clearly a bubble right now, and there must be excellent leaders who will take CU to the Promised land for half the money. Right?