Innovation? Check. Change? Not so much.

If President Obama was an ordinary orator, I’d be placing bets on the number of times “innovation,” “education” and just plain “technology” will come up in the State of the Union tonight…with side-bets on “future” and “tomorrow.” But as an eloquent stylist, he’ll likely avoid the sort of redundancy that makes for good speech-based gambling fun. (Or, in livelier social circles than mine, drinking games…or so I’ve heard). But I am worried that the generally uncritical invocation of those terms that has typified his rhetoric in the last year will continue this evening.

I’ll be back here tomorrow with some (I promise) constructive responses to the address. In the meantime, here’s my latest basis for fretting.

There’s just been announced a new initiative intended by the White House and Department of Labor to boost Americans’ readiness for higher-tech jobs, the  Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Grant Program.  It will provide $2 billion over the next 4 years to support the creation of educational and training programs in areas likely to offer jobs to those no longer finding work in, say, manufacturing or assembly. It is meant to coordinate very closely the activities of educational institutions with the current labor and skill needs of industry, to the benefit of employees and employers alike:

“The grant program will expand opportunities for workers by: accelerating progress and reducing time to completion; improving retention and achievement rates; building instructional programs that meet industry needs; and strengthening online and technology-enabled learning.”

Here’s the amazing part: The entire initiative is based on the idea that the curricular and training materials produced with the funding will be disseminated as OPEN source materials. Yes, that’s right:  free, online, to anyone who wishes to make use of them. This is a very promising step, aimed at leveraging the ingenuity and energy of  individual educators for the widest possible impact.  To repeat: That’s not trickle down we’re talking about, where the market success of a few is meant to bring benefits to many, but leveraging.

But (and you know what’s coming), let’s think about it…What jobs, exactly, will await those who receive training with these new materials? What technology-based jobs, today, will take shape on these shores, when industry feels so little reason to turn away from the lower-wage labor pools of other nations? When these announcements actually start to hold the names of firms committed to keeping manufacturing and assembly operations on U.S. shores, and of government programs that provide reasons for them to do so, I’ll get excited.

Innovation is not enough.  As we speak,  highly touted green-tech jobs, like those created in Massachusetts with state support at Evergreen Solar, are heading overseas. As Keith Bradsher reported in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago,  owners of that company built a new plant in 2008, employing 800 people, but a year later they were in talks with a Chinese manufacturer. In September 2010 the firm opened its factory in Wuhan, China, and 800 jobs-of-the-future  in Massachusetts were no more.

Yes, China could offer Evergreen cutting edge technologies that made its solar production plants more economically attractive for Evergreen.  Yes, that was partly due to China’s innovative engineers and manufacturers.  But Evergreen’s move was also due to the fact that creating and sustaining jobs in the U.S. had no obvious benefit for the firm’s owners; they had nothing to lose and everything to gain by saying good-bye to 800 American employees.

So: I welcome the new training and education grant program. I’m all for evidence of the “new era of hope” (as Hilda Solis and Arne Duncan labeled the initiative), since President Obama’s first era of hope hasn’t been too , um, hopeful.  Mostly, I’d like to hear such workforce policies tied to solid reforms in outsourcing and trade policies, so the hard work of educators and good faith of students who enroll in tech training programs have hope of being rewarded.  Unfortunately, I’m betting we won’t hear that tonight. But “Sputnik”? You bet!

Our Borders, Ourselves?: Rethinking China’s Test Scores

Be Afraid: China’s “stellar” performance on recent standardized tests, described in yesterday’s New York Times (“Top Test Scores from Shanghai Stun Educators,” by Sam Dillon), is apparently another sign that America is being “out-educated.”  We are at our very own “Sputnik” moment, President Obama tells us, our nation once again threatened by the academic attainments of another.  Only a vast increase in our educational efforts (and in our anxiety, apparently), can correct this dire situation, according to a host of  commentators who have lately weighed in on the matter. Disaster looms: The Test Scores Prove It.

It’s pretty much axiomatic that where standardized test results are invoked for political purposes, arguments will be reductive.  And if we already suspected that the prevailing Sinophobia was about as well thought out as a toddler’s tantrum, last week the writers of “The Office” confirmed it: Can anyone seriously hold onto a geopolitical perspective once  it’s come from the mouth of the supremely illogical, trend-riding, Newsweek-wielding, Michael Scott?

Unfortunately, in the real world of STEM education, sound bites about our national science and math deficiencies continue to inhibit creative reform. We are our own worst enemies.

First, how much of this political fretting about U.S. intellectual inadequacy relative to China, India and other economically rising nations has included plans to implement the steps that educators know would improve math and science education in America? For example,  vastly increasing teachers’ training opportunities and salaries, expanding public school budgets and facilities, and instituting rewards for post-secondary STEM faculty who make teaching their priority?  Hand waving and furrowed brows we have, meaningful interventions, not so much…I guess the tax hikes such reforms would require are even scarier than China’s growing mental might.

 Second, as I wrote here a few weeks ago, citing David Sirota’s  insightful commentary,  those who most anxiously demand a more highly skilled American workforce almost universally omit any mention of the powerful disincentives that global wage structures (the worldwide “race to the bottom”),  including American policies that support the outsourcing of industrial labor, offer to just this sort of educational expansion on our own shores.  President Obama’s way too smart to have missed the connection here but he apparently fears to tread on corporate toes by calling those policies into question; sadly, the more tidily packaged White House jobs and training  initiatives become (“Skills For America’s Future”? As opposed to what?),  the more I worry about that reluctance.

Finally, the idea that China’s educational growth is best framed as a problem for America (or at the very least, a “wake-up call,” according to Arne Duncan)  is downright depressing.  Not only are Cold War-worthy nationalistic sentiments fueled with these kinds of comparisons (“It’s our brains against theirs!”), with not a small racial element easily following on that fear (“It’s our brains against THEIRS!?”) …but any vision of collective innovation or shared scientific priorities among nations is also completely suppressed.  We have our brains, they have theirs.  Promoting trade linkages is one thing, but intellectual collectivities across countries, let alone hemispheres?  Too touchy-feely, too retro, too soft for a time when America’s military-industrial powers are “at risk.”

No coincidence, of course,  that science-based challenges like sustainable production, a halt to global warming, worldwide health improvements, and a reduction in world hunger (all of which would  realign flows of global capital and power) would best be met through concerted multi-nation address.   Sorry: There will be no team projects on this syllabus.

But even from a less radical ideological stance,  global scientific competition just seems like such a stale idea, no? So 20th century! Instead, I wonder: Why not throw a big, inclusive, pot-luck Invention Party for brains both Chinese and American? What about massive student and teacher exchanges?  Global summits for excited 8th graders, or innovative engineers, or creative public health experts, or start-uppers and garage tinkerers of all nations?  

Of course, we have vast differences in our national values and interests; China’s STEM attainments are achieved in a society less open than our own.  Industrial capitalism shakes out with a huge variety of undemocratic results; we can chart these in every nation where it has been tried and they are of course not all equivalent.  Very messy stuff, morally: As Scott Gabriel Knowles wrote recently after a visit to Shanghai’s World Expo, modernization today is, as it always has been, all things to all cultures as each strives to sustain its own cultural priorities, 2010’s globally shared ideals of material accumulation and flourishing financial networks notwithstanding.  

But can’t we imagine scientific and technological activity, approached carefully, critically, and equitably, transcending some of this nation-centered self-interest?  If math and science have any progressive social potential at all (and yes, that’s a big “if”),  surely earnest transnational exchanges could nurture that potential, no? Couldn’t our governments, universities and even corporate R&D labs try to pool global capacities for discovery and invention, rather than just insistently sorting and delineating which nation does what better? Perhaps using the heightened educational attainments of a given nation as a shared benchmark, for shared educational and knowledge-creating goals? 

 Probably not. Because as the many very worried voices in the Times piece show, that’s not really why such standardized testing regimes come to be. Because that’s not why we quantify and rank educational achievements. Because the whole idea of collaboration and the pursuit of mutual good is no more likely for nations comparing their standardized test scores than for high schoolers.  It’s every brain for itself.

Thanks, Mr. Begley, Jr.!

Just how cool is it when, as happened at the White House last week,  President Obama gives  a shout out to technical programs in community colleges?–after all, the guy  has actually met the Mythbusters! But for sheer celebrity glamor, I’ll take Ed Begley, Jr.’s blog over a White House Summit any day.

A staunch advocate and very public practitioner of green living, and community college alumnus, Begley draws our attention here to The SEED Center, an initiative of the American Association of Community Colleges that consolidates national efforts to promote green-tech training.  I’m guessing that most Huffington Post readers don’t normally see a lot of excited talk about technical education and Begley puts the topic, at least for a blog-minute, before us with palpable enthusiasm.

I don’t know…Maybe it was Obama’s invocation during the Summit of  Home Depot and The Gap  as optimal sites of economic opportunity for community college graduates.  Sure: Corporate engagement with community college initiatives like the White House’s new  Skills for America’s Future might be better than nothing, an acknowledgment that whole communities in the nation are without significant training and employment opportunities.  But these are companies predicated on the perpetuation of many low-skilled jobs and highly stratified workplaces, not to mention on the utterly unsustainable premise of limitless consumption.  Somehow Begley’s excitement about community college training for jobs in clean energy enterprises came off as more thoughtful and even more earnest than the President’s.

We don’t want to lose track of the questions we have about such boosterism (see this blog’s past postings).  Other supposedly booming sectors, like biotech and nanotech, have not yet fulfilled their promises of considerably widened economic opportunity.  And care is needed when we think about “green work”: Not all green enterprise makes conservation as much of a priority as one might hope, as this commercial sector by definition pursues economic growth through new energy-related goods and services.

I also continue to wonder why community colleges and universities can’t together restructure technical occupations so more jobs involve more creativity. Why should community college grads “build and operate” wind turbines while engineers do the designing? Surely there are ways to integrate these stages of technical work to produce more effective technologies and more jobs with real creative depth and greater  promise of economic mobility.

But if we are going to stretch the 15 minutes of fame currently being experienced by America’s community colleges into lasting educational, economic and environmental reform,  supportive gestures like Ed Begley, Jr.’s will certainly help!

As Chickens Are to Eggs…:Rethinking STEM Labor Supplies

Run, do not walk (or at least link your way quickly),  to David Sirota’s recent Salon column on “The Neo-Liberal Bait-and-Switch: Why Corporate-Friendly Democrats Like to Blame our Schools for Not Producing Enough White-Color Specialists.” (Sirota was also a guest on NPR’s “Tell Me More” today).   His is one of the first discussions of STEM workforce issues I’ve heard that explicitly acknowledges outsourcing as a cause of the nation’s ostensible “under-supply” of high-tech workers. 

I know: the logic sounds backwards. Surely outsourcing comes after employers have tried and failed to find domestic labor pools.  And indeed, the story even among education and employment experts outside of industry usually goes that American firms really, really want to hire more Americans for their emerging manufacturing and research tasks, but just can’t find appropriately prepared workers.  That’s supposedly why we need to upgrade our technical education, or STEM, system.

Yes, those upgrades are needed (see below), but Sirota clarifies that corporate-sector invocations of national educational deficits are a red herring. He says that employers may claim they can’t find enough sufficiently or appropriately trained workers within American borders, yet what  those employers really mean is they can’t find enough trained workers willing to work  as cheaply as non-Americans.  That profit motive is what really drives the corporate turn to non-US workers and, he explains, will continue to do so until we ratchet down our neo-liberal legal and regulatory zeal for free-trade.  

Sirota helps us see that in the meantime, corporate self-interest (like politicians’ capitulations to those private interests) is disguised by more socially acceptable rhetoric  about the urgency surrounding national technical readiness and competitiveness, increasingly (and dramatically) linked to national security as well.

I’d only add this to Sirota’s incisive analysis of the “Great Education Myth,” as he calls it:  The pro-business agenda of minimizing labor costs by  encouraging employment of non-US workers also helps justify a lack of authentic diversity and inclusion activity among American businesses.  Frustrated advocates of improved gender and minority equity in STEM hiring are awfully familiar with the corporate excuse: “We just can’t find  qualified women and people of color.”  For policy makers, corporations’ good intentions are apparently enough. Enhanced training and recruitment efforts (which might reduce a company’s profit margins) are off the table as a reasonable next step; business-friendly lawmakers like those Sirota describes don’t do much to counter that shallow and shortsighted assessment of American technical pools. 

All such assessments in turn weaken public support for expanded educational opportunities. A conservative and inequitable social system tidily perpetuates itself. Thanks to David Sirota for enriching our understanding of these distressing, and often hidden,  ideologies permeating  STEM workforce thinking today.

What is College For? An NPR moment…

A major report came out of Georgetown University yesterday, stressing the necessity for a “closer fit” between industrial workforce needs and the design of higher ed curricula in the U.S.   I don’t quite see how this (not terribly new) recommendation promises much lasting good for either workers or employers: hasn’t industry been trying to minimize the proportion of its workers who are equipped with the maximum amounts of skill… for the last 150 years? Isn’t this why the globalized outsourcing of labor grows by the day? Why exactly would industry ideas of optimized workforce preparation lead to unlimited opportunities for American students? The report’s main author, Anthony Carnevale,  explicitly endorses, if with a shrug of regret, a tiered educational system.  Hmmm…  

For the author’s take, and my own reactions, listen to The Takeaway on NPR this morning.  More from both of us also appears in an Inside Higher Ed piece.

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.

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.