I was pleased to read David Brooks this week take up the Community College System in the wake of President Obama's recent remarks on the value of such institutions and the increased support for them. To be honest, we need it.
Community Colleges provide a fairly high-touch academic experience—small classes, access to faculty, and the availability of support resources—that may (and I stress may) help improve success rates in college. Brooks makes the important point, one with which I heartily agree, that there are many reasons students drop out of college. Why agree? I've seen them all happen including financial hardship. Mostly, however, it is the lack of direction and will that Brooks refers to.
However, Brooks also takes CC's for task for not being very good at assessing what they do. Here I have to disagree. CC's do. In fact, solid student, curricular, and program assessment plans have become a part (an odious one IMHO) of the accreditation process. Money has been thrown at the problem and so has the latest and greatest learning theory dreck coming out of Education Programs. Frankly, there is very little instructors can do for those students who simply do not want to do the work, cannot find the time to do the work, or who are so over confident of their capabilities that they cannot see when they ought give up that third or fourth class.
I don't mean to say that CC's ought not be accountable (a former Dean once attempted to take me to task on this point once) but that the terms of accountability are not easily quantifiable (those that are so measured are so general as to be completely unhelpful). Higher order learning, Critical Thinking for example, is not so easily measured nor is the impact of classes upon individual students. Education is more art than it is a science, despite the attempts to make it the latter.
So, how about using that money to make sure that CC's can create faculties and programs that sit on solid financial foundations rather than constantly living and dying on enrollment economics? And while we're at it, what about focusing on the fundamental disciplines that will provide a solid base for students as they go forward rather than creating fadish programs that will loose their relevance once the needs of the economy inevitably change? In this period of increasing globalization wouldn't it be better to get folks solidly grounded in the Liberal Arts, Science, and Math? Brooks and Dionne make the point that CC's educate a large percentage of the police. Personally, I would like such folks to have a solid grounding in the Constitution.
Focus on the Fundamentals Mr. President.