Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Why I'm now totally disassociated from public education.

I taught mathematics at the local community college from September, 1997 to August, 2014, usually two 5-credit classes per term.  I never wished to become full-time at the CC, as my work with homeschoolers at ZLO was actually much more interesting.  The job at the CC funded my joy at ZLO.  Sometimes ZLO was lucrative.  Mostly it has been an education in itself.

I've enjoyed being part of the community college environment.  The CCs, probably throughout the country, are the institutions of second chances.  Folks who have never done well in school often come back to education later in life when their cognitive maturity is better, and they have a purpose and a plan.  Many find they can now excel.  For some, rocket science opens to the student who failed high school algebra more than once.

Pressures to change and conform to moving-target standards
Until recently the focus of the CCs has been to turn students into 4-year university material, or to provide two years of college at a lower cost.  We look down the road, and try to match student behaviors to expectations they will have at those 4-year universities.  But there has been increasing pressure on the CCs by the K-12 public school system to align standards so that there is a less abrupt transition to college by high school graduates.  One such program is called the Transition Mathematics Project (TMP).  K-12 standards are a moving target!  The CCs have placement testing so that we can put a student where s/he will be able to perform within our system, which looks forward to the math required of these students as their college career progresses.  About 2/3rds of the students enrolled in math at the CC are in classes under the college level.  But it's what we do!  We get students ready for college.  I find the 'standards' tug-of-war a distraction.  It's not about finding ways to do what we do, but better.

Change for the sake of change (but really for money)
Some years back the Curriculum Committee at our CC came to the math department to point out that barely 25% of students who begin math at Math 94 (1-2-3 math) or Math 97 (first half of high school algebra) ever make it to a college level (over Math 100) math course.  There was much discussion within the department about why that was happening.  The consensus was that students in those low-level math classes lacked good-student skills.  We had some discussion about incorporating study skills into those courses, but the end result was a proposal to up-end the order of curriculum delivery, the path through mathematics, as though that would somehow create the change we needed in students to cause them to succeed.

The department chooses a book the whole department will use for the courses with multiple sections offered.  This helps to smooth out differences between instructors and saves students text costs when they repeat a course with a different instructor or take the subsequent course from the next section of the same text.  But there was no book to match our new path.  There was some discussion about writing our own book, but that idea was quickly abandoned when there was no money in it.  In the end, a new book was chosen and some supplements written, rather on the fly.  But the point of all this is that a change was made without any research at all about whether the change would achieve our intended result of getting more students farther down the road.  No pilot program.  No data collection, except for noting how many more students got through or beyond.  I believe the college got money for simply showing we were trying to make a change!

As an instructor, I had to shelve materials I had spent nearly two decades developing, and begin as though I were a new instructor.  I threw out presentations, supplemental materials, chapter reviews, and tests, because nothing matched up.  I found I disliked the new texts chosen.  Some parts clearly had been re-worked from the first edition and somewhat refined.  Some parts were not.  We had previously used other texts that were of much better quality, so I knew those existed.  I found I simply didn't have the time to prepare the courses I loved to teach, to a standard I thought worthy of the people who were shelling out hard-earned money to try to make an improvement in their lives.

Institutions of higher learning or institutions of higher nonsense?
I had a student in a math class the last term I was at the CC who was concurrently enrolled in a humanities class.  She mentioned one day that the instructor assigned students to go to the older buildings in town and lay hands on them to hear their story and feel their age.  When they got back to class the instructor asked if anyone had thought to taste the buildings.  While this is certainly not universal, this is the kind of nonsense towards which higher education is leaning.

There are more and more requirements towards CC graduation that include 'diversity' and 'sustainability'.  I got a request in email that wanted to know how I was incorporating these ideas in my math classes.  I refused to take the survey, even though they acknowledged that math classes typically don't lean towards these ideas.  But there was some insistence on the part of the college that everyone take that survey.  I felt as though the results could easily be used against me for not conforming to these expectations.  I'm pretty sure the math placement tests don't have either of these concepts on them.

Diversity and inclusion are not the same thing.
Another curious email I received during my final quarters at the CC invited faculty and staff of color to join a group to discuss issues that affect people of color.  You can see my photo on this page.  I flatly had no idea how to respond to that email.  I decided I did not want to know if I could join.  But privately I decided that the 'diversity' issue and 'inclusion' were in separate categories at my CC.

Should I send my child to the CC while in high school?
One of the things that the CCs do is handle Running Start students.  In Washington State, the Running Start program is a way for well-prepared high schoolers to take courses at the CC that can apply both to high school graduation credit and college credit, saving the student a considerable amount of college expenses.  I have several horror stories about the demands placed on 16 year olds, to examine some very adult ideas, including pornography.  Again, among CC instructors, the disrespect for the age of these younger students is not universal.  But parents need to understand that the CC is a very adult environment.  Pick and choose the instructors who will be in front of your kids.  Compare notes with other parents.  Collect notes for yourself on instructors who will be appropriate with your child.  And remember, college is for ADULTS!  There are tough ideas that get rolled around there.  Your child's life experience may simply not be up to participating on that level.  Yet.

So, unhappy with the direction of the CC, unhappy with the forces moving curriculum within my department, and especially unhappy with not being able to deliver a class to my own high standards, I  decided to end my tenure with the CC.