Yesterday, while looking for a pair of walking shoes, I was helped by a saleswoman who chewed an apple the whole time I was there.  I know people often need to eat while working.  I did it for years.  But eating in front of a customer one is helping seems rude.  I wondered about her education.  It was a good day to wonder, for the Sunday paper had reported that Lane Community College received a “scathing report” during their accreditation.  They are accredited, but there is a lot of work that must be done in the near future; a repeat visit is planned.

There are issues that clearly relate to Lane, regarding course structure, how students are evaluated, and a need to establish clearer goals.  There are other issues, however, not mentioned in the article, which I think need to be discussed.  I wrote a letter to the paper, but after finishing realized I had already used my allotted one letter per calendar month.

I am not an educator, only the son of two.  I have, however, taught at a community college and at a for-profit university, leaving the latter, because I thought it intellectually dishonest to pass students in statistics when they had neither the necessary math skills nor adequate time to learn it.  Not understanding the slope of a line makes linear regression impossible to learn. 6 E-5 on a calculator is not 6 but 0.00006.

I volunteer at Lane twice weekly tutoring math.  Yes, I eat lunch while there, but I put food away if a student needs help. In Arizona, I volunteered in 3 high schools for 9 years, eventually becoming a substitute teacher, because I wasn’t utilized enough as a volunteer.  I ate on the job there, too, and I barely had time to use the bathroom.  We need volunteers in the schools, but they must be kept busy.  Establishing such a system should be a national priority.

At Pima CC in Tucson, 80% of the incoming students flunked the math placement exam.  In a high school in an affluent district, I spent two years helping students do “accelerated math.”  The euphemism was an attempt to help 10th graders, with elementary school math knowledge, reach standards allowing them to graduate from high school, standards that have since been removed, after first being watered down.  We want math fluency; we just don’t want to hold students back from graduating if they don’t have it.  One may argue the test wasn’t good, but at least there was a way to evaluate students.  Now there is none.

The students I taught needed multiplication tables beside them, which I think should be known by everybody reaching junior high school, let alone 10th grade. I think students should know 8 x 6 or how to divide 3 into 12 without using a calculator.  I’m not exaggerating.  Each had been passed up the line despite their not knowing basic arithmetic.  They got “participation points,” “trying hard” was important, and some of their parents demanded they be allowed to finish high school with their peers who did know these basics.  Watch Suze Orman sometime, and it becomes clear what happens when people don’t understand finance.

Community colleges have become de facto high school finishing institutions.  I don’t know whether community colleges pass students to the next level—the workplace or a 4 year college—with the skills they need, like making basic change at a cash register.

Or not chewing on an apple when one is helping a customer.

I have three fundamental questions:  1.  What are we trying to do?  2.  How will we know we did it?  3.  What changes can we make that will solve the problem?

Funding tied to number of degrees awarded increases pressure to award degrees.  How do we know if the degree is worthwhile?  One can pass students up the line, but eventually I want a doctor, a mechanic, a pilot, or a computer specialist who is competent.  The piper must be paid.  Competence must be definable and proven.

It includes not chewing apples in front of customers.

I don’t believe a four or even a two year stint in higher education is necessary for all.  Many important jobs in our service economy don’t require college.  Education’s primary role might begin by teaching early and often that complex 21st century problems are not addressed by catchy phrases.  We need to grant meaningful degrees, not just count them, teach the myriad skills required today, pay for them, and keep education affordable.  Climate change, ocean acidification, immigration, religious fundamentalism, North Korea, Cuba, Iran, competition, environmental degradation, defense, can’t be addressed by “America first,” “boots on the ground,” “I’m not a scientist,” “deport all of them,” “de-regulate,”  “let the market do it,” or “allow parents to decide.”  None of these and other issues have clear answers.

We need to determine what courses are needed for today’s workforce and for those jobs we believe we will have in the future.  In 2045, people will be doing work that today not only doesn’t exist, we can’t even imagine what it will be.  Streaming video online, wi-fi and smart phones weren’t things I thought about in 1985.  Indeed, the words “streaming” “wi-fi,” and “online” didn’t exist, smart belonged with people, and video was defined in millimeters and called “film”.

How we certify students needs to be changed.  We need a required, sensibly structured way to state that an individual is prepared for the next step. These changes will be painful to higher education.  We have to pay for this as students and as taxpayers.  The debt load is burdensome; people need to learn what is necessary for a skill, which may not require 4 years, or even 2.  Stampers don’t need to know Chaucer, not if it is part of their $50,000 student debt at graduation, but they need to know enough math to do finance, enough English to communicate, and enough science, history and geography to be able to vote intelligently.  Professional golf management as a major once sounded like a joke, but given the popularity of golf, I’ve reconsidered my position.  By the way, learning to reconsider one’s position on a matter should be taught, too.

What are we trying to do?  Have an educated populace in the 21st century.  What is an educated populace?  I don’t know.  I offer my thoughts, and if our country were a place where we could discuss complexity with civility, not with talking points and shouting, we might be able to answer this question better.

How will we know we have done it?  We need better measurements than we have, ones that will tell us the bitter truth, which we all know exists.  We have millions of poorly educated citizens.  Let’s neither allow gaming of the system nor get hung up upon punishing schools.  The solution will be expensive, requiring money, volunteers, good ideas, but most importantly evaluating students honestly. It will be painful.  The truth usually is. We need multiple career pathways to accommodate variability in learning and intelligence.

How do we move forward?  Ask the right questions. Then answer them.  Honestly.

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