Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Spellings' Report and Beyond, III

This is the third in our series on the NCTE Annual Convention Featured Session on the Spellings' Commission report, "A Test of Leadership." In this piece, John Webster talks about his conflicted feelings when he attended the summit, and the continual conflict as he thinks about how we talk and act about access for all our students.

Speaker Three
John Webster
University of Washington
Access and the Seattle DOE Summit

When people have asked me what I was to talk about at this session I have kept having to begin by describing a certain precariousness in my own position. On the one hand I—like many, I think—am suspicious of any Department of Education initiative that would use No-Child-Left-Behind-linked rhetoric to force change in postsecondary education. On the other hand, I’ve also watched as big research universities like my own have more or less effortlessly ignored much of the last two decades’ worth of pressure towards promoting more fully learning-based teaching. To the extent the threat of government action can bring better support for teaching and learning, I’m all for it.

So I arrived at the Seattle Summit with mixed feelings of reserve and enthusiasm. I left with what was probably a little less reserve, and the biggest reason was the hour our summit spent on Access. For to my surprise, these 60 minutes produced something of a love-in, as the whole room, DOE and postsecondary people alike, expressed enthusiastic agreement on the need to expand our efforts to bring non-traditional and underrepresented students into higher ed. Many people spoke in this hour. Some described extraordinary recruitment efforts to bring potential students and even their parents to campus; others described specially designed transition courses and elaborate scholarship and tutorial programs to boost retention.

But lurking at the edges of this conversation were two issues that kept my suspicious self from too-full an embrace of this magic moment. First was the DOE notion that much of the problem with Access was of someone else’s making—specifically, the public high schools; second was an underlying contradiction between the embracing of all the programs people described in this hour on one hand and the implications of the rhetoric of “remediation” on the other.

For the first, the report is quite clear. The public schools are failing in their proper job. That job? “Establish[ing] rigorous graduation requirements and course work” based on “college and work-ready standards.” To be sure, the report also contains language about both states’ and higher education’s responsibility to work with high schools to clarify what “college-ready” standards might be, and they make recommendations for better need-based financial aid as well.

But it’s disturbing that the negative frame of NCLB dominates the report’s analysis. Like a lot of No Child Left Behind talk, the report’s language is top down and over-simple—and finally deeply unrealistic. One of conservatism’s voices is relentlessly and rationally pragmatic: define the problem, analyze solutions, create an action plan. This report uses just that voice, and from a certain distance, it all seems ironclad. But when you actually get nearer the problem you see how many contextual factors have been ignored, and here, I felt, was an example of just exactly that. One hopes that one effect of NCTE’s attention to the commission’s work will be a better understanding of this issue’s complexity.

For the second issue, I felt our conversation too easily passed over the way the access programs people described here represented a remarkable conceptual change over our practice of 20 or more years ago. For once upon a time all of these efforts could have been labeled “remediation”—programs undertaken to address holes in students’ preparations, and therefore not worthy of college credit, often, even, offered only at extra expense to the students involved. (Indeed, at my university this is still our model for English as a Second Language students.)

Yet little of the conversation at our meeting credited the way our new programs tend to replace, not just complement, remediation’s deficit model. For most higher ed people no longer look at these students as liabilities to our institutions; rather we believe that it is very much in our interest to engage them in order that our entire student body can benefit from the extraordinary diversity they bring.

But while our Summit conversation included talk about this conceptual shift, the Spellings Commission’s base-line rhetoric very clearly does not. For they like to cite the statistic (repeated by DOE personnel at our meeting) that 40% of all first-year students need some form of remediation at a cost to taxpayers of one billion dollars a year—a scarily expensive thought, and all, one is left to infer, avoidable if high schools just did a better job of preparation. But rightly understood much of this expense might better be seen as a wise investment in precisely the goals DOE would urge us to embrace (better acceptance and graduation rates for underrepresented student groups) than as a wasteful diversion of scarce resources.

Because I think neither of these two issues trivial, I left the summit only slightly less conflicted than when I arrived. As positive as our Access hour was, even in its enthusiasm there was evidence of much more clarification to be sought and much more work to be done.

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