Friday, July 17, 2009

Running Diary of Me Reading a David Brooks Column

David Brooks and I have a special relationship. We both went to the same university, we're both of Jewish heritage, and we like to think of ourselves as intellectuals. Unfortunately, I think David Brooks is the worst kind of public intellectual: given to sweeping generalizations not backed up by any empiricial evidence, and a generally muddy philosophical approach to understanding society. It's a wonder to me that anyone pays any attention to anything he says. That's also true about me, but I don't get paid six figures to write a column twice a week that probably reaches millions of people.

Anyway, I occasionally feel the need to vent while reading David Brooks's columns, because they are usually insipid. Usually I just complain to friends, but in the future, when I read a particularly vapid Brooks column, I'm going to provide a running diary of my thoughts as I read it, much like Bill Simmons does for various sporting events. My comment will be in italics. So here's my first attempt.

Op-Ed Columnist

No Size Fits All

If you visit a four-year college, you can predict what sort of student you are going to bump into. If you visit a community college, you have no idea. You might see an immigrant kid hoping eventually to get a Ph.D., or another kid who messed up in high school and is looking for a second chance. You might meet a 35-year-old former meth addict trying to get some job training or a 50-year-old taking classes for fun.

Because Brooks knows so much about community colleges, University of Chicago grad that he is.

These students may not realize it, but they’re tackling some of the country’s biggest problems. Over the past 35 years, college completion rates have been flat. Income growth has stagnated. America has squandered its human capital advantage. Students at these places are on self-directed missions to reverse that, one person at a time.

So noble, these community college students! Seriously, I think getting a college degree is great and all that, but lets not get carried away. Sheesh. Also, Brooks seems to want to tie the stragnation of income growth to the stagnation of growth in those who complete college. This is a favorite idea of conservative economists, that its largely a matter of training that is responsible for income inequality. This idea has been thoroughly refuted by Krugman in his book, The Return of Depression Economics.

Community college enrollment has been increasing at more than three times the rate of four-year colleges. This year, in the middle of the recession, many schools are seeing enrollment surges of 10 percent to 15 percent. And the investment seems to pay off. According to one study, students who earn a certificate experience a 15 percent increase in earnings. Students earning an associate degree registered an 11 percent gain.

Compared to what? Ugh, this is the kind of shit that drives me mad. Also, how does it compare to those who earn college degrees?

And yet funding lags. Most people in government, think tanks and the news media didn’t go to community college, and they don’t send their children to them. It’s a blind spot in their consciousness. As a result, four-year colleges receive three times as much federal money per student as community colleges. According to a Brookings Institution report, federal spending for community colleges fell six percent between 2002 and 2005, while spending on four-year colleges increased.

Erm...pointing to the totals spent at the various institutions seems like the wrong way to approach this. We should be looking at the percentage of the total costs per student that the federal dollars are paying for. Community college is much, much cheaper than going to a four year university. I'm not saying I know for sure there isn't a problem here, but I am saying that David Brooks's evidence is misleading.

Which is why what President Obama announced this week is so important. He announced a $12 billion plan to produce 5 million more community college grads by 2020.

If the plan were just $12 billion for buildings and student aid, it wouldn’t be worth getting excited about. The money devoted to new construction amounts to about $2 million per campus. With new facilities costing in the tens of millions, that’s not a big deal.

Nor is increased student aid fundamentally important. I’ve had this discussion with my liberal friends a thousand times, and I have come to accept that they will never wrap their minds around the truth: lack of student aid is not the major reason students drop out of college. They drop out because they are academically unprepared or emotionally disengaged or because they lack self-discipline or because bad things are happening at home.

Evidence please? He said, she said, it's my column, so I am right. And if students are unprepared, isn't that a problem for high schools, not community colleges?

Affordability is way down the list. You can increase student aid a ton and you still won’t have a huge effect on college completion.

What’s important about the Obama initiative is that it doesn’t throw money at the problem. It ties money to reform and has the potential — the potential — to spur a wave of innovation.

People who work at community colleges deserve all the love we can give them, since they get so little prestige day to day. But the fact is many community colleges do a poor job of getting students through. About half drop out before getting a degree.

Most schools have poor accountability systems and inadequately track student outcomes. They have little information about what works. They have trouble engaging students on campus. Many remedial classes (60 percent of students need them) are a joke, often because expectations are too low.

Again, should it be the community college's job to deal with remedial students? Isn't this a problem that has earlier roots? I mean, 60% need remedial work? That's a systemic problem, but it's origin is not in the community college.

The Obama initiative is designed to go right at these deeper problems. It sets up a significant innovation fund, which, if administered properly, could set in motion a spiral of change. It has specific provisions for remedial education, outcome tracking and online education. It links public sector training with specific private sector employers.

YES! If you pay for innovation, you will get innovation! It's a can't fail!

Real reform takes advantage of community colleges’ most elemental feature. These colleges educate students with wildly divergent interests, goals and abilities. They host students with radically different learning styles, many of whom have floundered in traditional classrooms.

Therefore, successful reform has to blow up the standard model. You can’t measure progress by how many hours a student spends with her butt in a classroom chair. You have to incorporate online tutoring, as the military does. You have to experiment with programs like Digital Bridge Academy that are tailored to individual learning styles. You have to track student outcomes, as the Lumina Foundation is doing. You have to build in accountability measures for teachers and administrators.

Maybe this proposal, too, will be captured by the interest groups. But its key architects, Rahm Emanuel in the White House and Representative George Miller, have created a program that is intelligently designed and boldly presented.

Maybe it will be captured by interest groups? How is this not a throw away line? What the fuck interest groups is he talking about? This is just red meat. "Interest groups always ruin everything!" Reader nods in agreement. What the fuck?

It’s a reminder that the Obama administration can produce hope and change — when the White House is the engine of policy creation and not the caboose.

I guess this is a shot or something at the Obama administration, but it's not clear what for. Health care? Who the hell knows. Whatever the deal is, I'm all for more focus on community colleges and higher education (seeing as I plan on working in higher education at some point), but I'm not sure the benefits of such an increased focus are those that Brooks points to.

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