Erring on the Side of…Exclusion

Thank you, John Tierney!  Through your efforts, essentialist thinking about gender and intelligence may keep its hold on Americans for a while longer.  

Tierney suggests in today’s NY Times “Findings” column that we look with skepticism on a new Congressional proposal  to require workshops on gender equity for all those receiving federal science research funding.  The results of standardized tests, Tierney reports, have shown that sex differences are real, gosh darn it;  researchers have proven that gender gaps among the best-performing math and science test-takers  persist from year to year, from generation to generation…why do we insist on resisting the obvious scientific conclusion? Think of the time, trouble,  and money we could save, in classrooms, labs, and HR departments,  if we just accepted the biological fact of women’s innate science and math inability!

The column’s title alone, “Daring to Discuss the Potential of Women in Science”  (my itals.), ensures that this sort of reductive understanding of learning and thinking (something in the brain, that mysterious quaking organ,  makes math easy or hard for people!) will continue to be cast as a brave, selfless, anti-PC act of resistance against…against….Against what? The dangers of inclusive educational programming? Of erring on the side of equity?  Of maximizing occupational opportunities for every American?

No wonder the column’s accompanying illustration is a kooky, retro collage of a pretty blond 1950s “sweater girl,” with gears on her mind and a scientific formula spilling from her lips….Gals in the lab?!  Zany! Let the high-jinks begin!

I know, I know: sarcasm is petty and unattractive.  So before I lose any remaining credibility, let me defer to Troy Duster’s brilliant historical discussion of biological understandings of intellectual capacity. For almost 20 years, editions of his book, Backdoor to Eugenics, have laid out the very worrisome political and cultural implications of our pursuit of biological bases for intellectual and behavioral differences. 

Duster makes it clear that the questions we ask about what counts as aptitude, and the ways in which we measure intelligence,  themselves hide the discriminatory social forces at work in our schools and workplaces.  Where we look for inherited, biomedical, or other biological determinations of human aptitude to explain differences among groups,  we will limit our scrutiny of social, economic  and political causes behind discrepant educational or occupational attainments.  In this way the perceived value of biological research on intelligence is self-reinforcing.

Sure, experimental research on the physiological or genetic endowments associated with cognitive traits seems more objective than study of vague, illusory “social forces” or “values” or “bias.”  But ideology underlies that preference.   As Pierre Bourdieu writes in his forward to the book’s 2003 edition,

Conservatism has always  been linked to forms of thought that tend to reduce the social to the natural–the historical to the biological.

Tierney and the researchers he cites are no doubt concerned about the nature of women’s experiences in science, as they claim; after all, they are probing the matter, not ignoring it. But they don’t really seem interested in the depth and breadth of inquiry that scholars like Duster suggest…that is, in asking questions about their own questions. Those would be the truly daring discussions.

Bad News/Good News/Bad News

I could be projecting here,  but it seems to me that 2-year colleges are getting a lot more media attention these days.  The coverage brings bad news or good news by the day, depending on how you see the role of higher ed in America.

On the worrying side of things for me is a growing conservative enthusiasm for sub-baccalaureate education.  These are voices that tell us that “too many” people are going to college these days…these students are apparently wasting their own time and money, and tax dollars that go to colleges and universities,  since they are destined to become blue-collar or service workers unlikely to “make use” of costly bachelor’s degrees.  

When I first heard  Charles Murray’s  claims along these lines a couple of years ago (particularly a talk called “Education Myths,” hosted by the Cato Institute), I blanched but figured he was just going about his usual essentialist and terribly elitist business (after all, in The Bell Curve he and Richard Herrnstein famously made this kind of deeply discriminatory argument many times over).

But other voices are now joining Murray’s.  The New York Times offered us “Plan B: Skip College”  by Jacques Steinberg yesterday, about educators and analysts who share Murray’s distaste for the expenditure of higher-ed resources on citizens they deem to be lesser lights.

Apparently, we can predict that certain folks won’t get much out of a university education, even before they enroll, and we should stop them in their tracks. Plus, America ostensibly needs workers with the less sophisticated, pared down skill sets that efficiently designed, short, vocational training courses of study might provide…Now that’s a nation aiming high!

Steinberg’s piece did acknowledge that those making such arguments are “touching a third rail of the education system” (a choice of words that unfortunately makes anyone who disagrees with the conservatives sound dangerous and shocking, but still…).   The real good news is that innovative educators are today creating  community colleges programs motivated precisely by inclusion.  InsideHigherEd.com offers us “Taking the Long View,”  by David Moltz, describing transfer-oriented technical programs at 2-year colleges. 

I am quoted in that piece, but the valuable lessons it holds are provided by faculty and administrators from Greenfield Community College, in Massachusetts. That school aims to maximize, not minimize, students’ prospects in technical occupations, by gearing them almost exclusively towards preparation for transfer to 4-year engineering programs. 

Requiring more courses, instructors and facilities,  this is a more costly route, indeed, than limiting opportunities of certain demographic groups to trades training or terminal sub-baccalaureate curricula.  But only in a very short-term fiscal sense.  Simply put, transfer-focused agendas at community colleges promise America a workforce of greater productive potential, not to mention diversity,  than we have ever achieved in this country.

Alas, now back to the bad news: Inside Higher Ed reports this morning that community colleges are facing severe cuts in state and local funding, perhaps an unsurprising  byproduct of federal reductions in support for education and other public services  in recent years.  Many of the functions for community colleges that Obama himself has endorsed,  for drawing larger numbers of Americans into higher ed and improving workforce preparedness,  it is clear, are going to have a harder time than ever sustaining themselves.

Opportunity Knocks

 Today’s edition of NPR’s Radio Times spent an hour on proprietary colleges: the for-profit world of DeVry, ITT, the University of Phoenix, and other schools familiar to anyone who takes public transportation or watches local TV, where their ads offer training and quick advancement in nursing, computing, office management, and a host of technical occupations. It was a great show, moving among the highly critical reporting of journalist Sharona Coutts; the cautious, qualified support of University of Virginia education professor Brian Pusser; and the insistent boosterism of Harris Miller, president and CEO of the Career College Association.

More and more Americans are pursuing certificates and associate’s degrees at the for-profit institutions, accounting for some 10% of all post-secondary enrollments in the nation, according to PusserThis is almost by definition a group of people who are underemployed, and not surprisingly many turn to federal loans to pay for this training.  In return for that financial risk, the for-profit colleges offer their students higher job placement rates, more flexible class schedules, and quicker credentialling than traditional higher-ed. There is no doubt that the schools provide what looks to many Americans like their only practical route to enhanced employment.

But Coutts and Pusser alert us to holes in that happy picture. Coutts, working for public interest media outlet ProPublica, draws our attention to disturbing government findings about the conduct of some proprietary schools, including aggressive recruiting and problematic admissions practices. Pusser makes the crucial point while they might show higher job placement rates than many community colleges, the for-profits set their students up for limited occupational achievement. That is, unlike our better community colleges, the for-profits are not preparing students to move on to baccalaureate coursework, let alone into the higher level, more highly paid occupational niches that come with graduate or professional training. That kind of mobility for graduates, let alone significant contributions to the nation’s creative talent pool, are outside their business plans. Since federal loans support students attending the for-profits, Pusser asks insightfully if this is really the best way to spend our public education dollars. Couldn’t we put that money into enhanced counselling and expanded course schedules in the public community, city, and junior colleges, to far greater effect?

These are questions I’m glad to see asked, as proprietary and trade schools have historically upheld patterns of economic discrimination against working class and minority Americans who cannot afford traditional higher-ed options. But even if you are not debating your own educational options, or interested in higher-ed policy, there are good reasons to listen to this hour of radio. Miller embodies a set of free market enthusiams that we hear in many other public policy arenas today, most recently regarding health care.  These seem to me to work against economic equity in ways both subtle and powerful.

For example, to Miller, the for-profits answer public demand for rapid, flexible, jobs-oriented training. They accommodate students’ individual lifestyle and financial preferences. …Options! : What’s not to like? Yet, when we say that market demand should shape education, we lose sight of how this particular sort of education cuts off opportunities, offering, as Pusser emphasizes,  a narrow range of subjects, little stress on critical thinking, and minimal possibility of transfer to traditional colleges.  Debts are incurred in many kinds of higher ed, but the for-profits exploit students’ willingness to take that financial risk without maximizing the students’ earning potential.  Miller may celebrate his schools’ focus on consumer desires, but Pusser wants us to aim higher. He returns our attention to collective goals: good uses of public money, an appropriately and thoroughly trained workforce, and I would add, responsible and equitable higher education. His concerns, to my mind, justify the probing critique that Coutts provides and many more questions about this growing educational/business sector.

Atop the Turbine: A Fine View of Community College

 

Students stand at the foot of the Iowa Lakes CC Wind Turbine, in Duracell's adAs we start to see more daily reminders of the critical importance of  junior and community colleges in American job creation and equity –as the recession slogs on without promised new jobs, as the White House actively supports 2-year education–it will be interesting to see how explicitly (or not)  industries associate themselves with this type of education…long treated by many sectors of American culture as marginal to “real” higher ed, and certainly as remote from tech-sector R&D.  Take a look at an interesting artifact of the 2010 American economy: An ad produced by Duracell that celebrates, in as slick a marketing effort as you’ll see anywhere,  a community college program for training wind-turbine technicians.

This has to be one of the only times a community college has appeared in a mass-media marketing campaign, let alone hit our screens in such an unremittingly positive light.  (Surely we don’t count the NBC sit-com “Community”as boosterism, as funny and sympathetic as its misfit characters might be?  With every ethnicity, gender and age group given its own embarassing under-achiever? Its own diagnosable-if-warm-hearted representative in the world of 2-year education?)  The Wind Energy and Turbine Technology program of  Iowa Lakes Community College , in Duracell’s hands, comes across as exciting and cutting edge. The turbine is magnificent, standing tall against the sun-drenched countryside, as uniformed student/workers in hardhats and coveralls high atop the structure test its voltage.

From Duracell's video of Iowa Lakes CC Wind Turbine

 Not surprisingly, we are told that the students do this by using Duracell-battery powered voltage meters. And the ad is hardly breaking new visual ground: it looks and sounds a bit like recent fast-cut, emotionally uplifting military recruiting ads. But using those images and techniques, the ad makes it clear that this technical work is both physically challenging and intellectually rewarding, not to mention of vital national interest, as a child driving by stares up in wonder at the spinning turbine. If this ad draws more students to training in sustainable technologies, that alone would count as a contribution by Duracell.  If it draws away some of the stigma of community colleges among university-educated Americans, even better.

I have a couple of concerns about the ad:  I think I spotted one or two female students standing in a group shot (see above); hard to tell, though, and why were none visible among the confering meter-wielders, or  intrepid turbine-climbing technicians, that make up most of the video?  Finally, Duracell fudges more than a few environmental issues to associate itself here with the values of sustainability.  Do we really want to promote wind energy as a way to expand our already excessive use of energy? The child in the ad cools herself with a battery-powered miniature fan, as she sits inside a moving car!  Why not just open a window to the turbine-powering breezes obviously blowing outside?  But for the moment, confining ourselves to the image of community colleges, let’s think about what Duracell’s addition of a culturally marginalized institution to the glossy, green television landscape might well do to help chip away at  that marginality.

Trade Secrets

Last week, the San Jose Mercury News offered two articles by Mike Swift that are must-reads for anyone concerned with diversity in technical occupations. The title of the first, “Blacks, Latinos and women lose ground at Silicon Valley tech companies,” makes the importance of that piece clear. The newspaper analyzed combined work forces of ten regional companies, including Intel, Hewlett-Packard and eBay, and found that already small numbers of black and Hispanic workers in those firms declined from 1999 to 2005. Swift analyzes this data, provided through the U.S. Department of Labor, in a rare and commendable inquiry into the social dimensions of high-tech industries–usually so venerated as a source of the nation’s economic health and international competitiveness that we dare not “quibble” about their involvement with diversity. 

But it is the second article, posted the next day, that I want to hone in on.

That piece, “Five Silicon Valley companies fought release of employment data, and won,”  tells us something new and worrisome about why minority involvement in high tech enterprise may have dropped. Swift recounts how five other firms, including Apple, Google, and Yahoo, declined to have the Labor Department provide the Mercury News with information about their workforces’ race and gender representation. The newspaper’s 18-month pursuit of the data through the Freedom of Information Act resulted in federal regulators confirming the companies’ claim that such revelations would cause them “commercial harm.” Let’s think about the implications of both the claim and official support for it.

Maybe these companies, which together employ tens of thousands of people,  are trying to hide poor performance in this area, a failure to engage or retain a diverse workforce.  Maybe not; We don’t know. But we do know that their argument against releasing the data itself bodes ill. For one thing, the idea that public disclosure of the number of female managers or Hispanic engineers working in a company could provide competitors with  information about a firm’s operations or productivity is positively creepy. Is the presumption that employees’ genders or ethnicities enhance their performances, or diminish their contributions? Or does that depend on the gender or ethnicity in question?  Either way, highly problematic…After all, how can information about workers’ race, ethnic heritage, gender, age, or sexuality be linked to productivity or business strategy in any way that is not discriminatory? It is hard to see how those characteristics could have anything to do with employees’  work or the conduct of business, high-tech or otherwise.

Second, what exactly is the Labor Department, which accepted the arguments of lawyers from the five firms against releasing their workforce data, up to? They seem to be placing corporate privacy above the goal of diversity.  Haven’t we long accepted that  proportionate representation of women and minorities across the labor pool is a collective national good that transcends the profit schemes and business priorities of free enterprise? Apparently not.

Swift is clear that the five companies are not easily critiqued: He reports that Google recently donated millions to groups like the National Society of Black Engineers. But the secrecy here and the rationale offered for it are deeply disturbing. If this is what inclusive management ideologies look like in 21st century high-tech enterprise,  we need to worry. And keep Mike Swift on the case.

Confronting Convention, Achieving Inclusion

An article by Tamar Lewin this week in the New York Times (front page, no less),  “For Students at Risk, Early College Proves a Draw”,  deserves a close read.  The title alone signals the unusually progressive outlook of the program described in the piece; “At risk” kids and “early college” opportunities? A rare combination. 

Normally, as the article notes, small classes, long-term curricular planning, and accelerated and intensive programming in America are reserved for high school students with proven academic abilities.  I would add that this is the classic m.o. of many honors colleges, as well as of initiatives that seek out and support the talented, underreresented minority high school students said to be “missing” from undergraduate STEM programs.  And that may work for those students who have already found a way to succeed in school and display their energy and talents.  But the Early College High School Initiative, sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other prominant funders, breaks with convention: It gives more resources,  more opportunities to students with fewer conventional attainments…the ones we perhaps never even thought of as missing.  The intervention seems to work: Drop out rates plunge, the number of college degrees grows, among students in the Early College High Schools.

In the Early College High Schools, 20,000 students in 24 states undertake college-focussed classes to complete both high school and a large number of college courses in five years, at no cost.  The initiative’s website tells us that 2/3 of those students are African American and Latino.  I’m not sure how I feel about the organization’s catchy emphasis on “challenge not remediation,” since remediation can also offer a politically progressive educational approach.  But the initiative is,  at least on the surface, a welcome confrontation to the ways in which ideas  of merit usually function in our educational system…and I’ll be looking for that aim in other initiatives supported by these patrons.

Philadelphia Inquirer Op-Ed

For a quick take on my focus in matters of STEM education, take a look at an op-ed I wrote that appears in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer.  I hope the piece will call attention to a couple of issues that don’t often make it into discussions of STEM equity. First,   I want to stress that we could spend much more money on programs for many more students, to vastly enlarge the number of young people who have a chance to move from weaker highschools into full-fledged STEM degree programs.
But I also want to ask why STEM interventions for disadvantaged communities of students  have remained relatively small, so I want to think long and hard about the sheer stubbornness of our familiar ideas about talent.  Why is it so hard for us to shake the feeling that there is such a thing in certain individuals as “true” math or science ability,  that will surface even in the most disadvantaged educational circumstances?  That kind of intuitive but deeply mistaken idea can undermine reform in powerful ways. It makes the small scale of STEM programs in poorer communities seem reasonable. Do our presumptions of racial, gender, and other innate differences keep giving that idea its life? Seems so…

MIT’s Report on Race and Diversity: A Template for Change?

MIT has just issued a lengthy report on its hiring and promotion of underrepresented minority faculty, a document several years in the making.  I will be writing more about this report in the next few days, trying to put it in historical perspective.  MIT may be one-of-a-kind, sitting well above almost every other technical institution in the country, but my first glances suggest that as I read it I’ll be thinking about how this report might shift thinking on diversity in other STEM higher ed settings.  Here’s why:

Like most other documents on diversity in STEM fields, this report works from the premise that because valuable science is produced by a pool of talented personnel, racial equity is desirable because it will enlarge that pool.  But at the same time, unusually, the report bluntly acknowledges that notions of scientific talent are themselves sometimes subject to biases. Even more promising, the report grants that something about science makes its institutions uniquely resistant to social reform:

Findings suggest, further, that in the MIT culture which embraces the scientific ethos — and claims that science is itself beyond identity and race — race, racialization and racism, or the perception of them, are very difficult for many to recognize, address and discuss honestly.

These kinds of acknowledgments are vital if a STEM diversity effort is to have an authentic social justice agenda.  And they are rare in educational policy and university self-studies, not least because they hint that exclusive venues gain their status in part from…exclusion. If MIT’s new report really does dig deeply into the ways that self-proclaimed meritocracies perpetuate social exclusion, it can have important ripple effects.  More soon on the report’s overall handling of these provocative ideas…

Moving Jobs Up the Skill Ladder

In a piece on NPR the other day on Where the Jobs Will be This Decade, Harvard labor economist Lawrence Katz made a vital point about  the “polarization” of American labor markets.  That term might sound dry or technical, but Katz guides us towards some transformative thinking about the current job situation.

Katz explained that without a new approach to employment, we  will see new jobs created at the very top and very bottom of the “skill ladder,” but few in between. Most boldly, he suggested that traditionally low-skill, low-wage jobs like home healthcare work  be redefined in their essence, to include more education and skills.  We should take up this challenge to our familiar thinking about jobs in America: Why have we accepted, for so long, that so many jobs in our economy must be so low in intellectual and monetary reward?  Who in the economy does this presumption benefit, and harm?  (And why do those questions seem today to arise mostly in labor history classes, not in our now daily conversations about un- and underemployment?)

Katz didn’t go as far as he might have; he didn’t suggest that those home health workers be taught some of the skills now associated with nursing or psychological counseling; only that they perhaps be taught about “problem solving, interpersonal relations and teamwork.”  But his idea that the content of education at this level could be altered seems truly practical, and  holds the seeds of some genuinely reformist thinking about our customary, and deeply inequitable, ways of dividing up work and workers.