Opinion Columns & Blogs

Keith Law: Fix K-12 school system

Merced Community College is an important institution in terms of its impact on the economic and cultural life of Merced. Though this is our community's college, there are plans being devised by Sacramento bureaucrats to curtail our mission.

The changes are directed by the Community College Chancellor's Task Force on Student Success, which was influenced by the Community College League's Commission on the Future. Outgoing Merced College President Ben Duran was a member on both of these task forces.

The recommendations address California's failing education system. This is exemplified by high school graduates who lack basic skills in English and math, and the small number of community college students who complete a program.

The task forces were made up primarily of administrators, so it's no surprise that the league's task force advocates more administration. The chancellor's task force does the league one better and recommends more control in the chancellor's office.

Every community college faculty organization from the Statewide Academic Senate to our local Merced College Faculty Association has expressed objections to the recommendations.

The primary objection is that the recommendations are based on inadequate research, and they're being steamrolled into place too rapidly for proper feedback. Professor Jane Patton, chancellor's task force participant and past president of the Statewide Academic Senate, recently stated that there were "hidden agendas" and "predetermined outcomes," and that time pressures caused the task force to rush conclusions.

The recommendations downplay the role of our current budget crisis. Even before the recent cuts, the dismal results of our education system coincide with California's drop in per-student expenditure from among the top 10 states in the 1960s, when the state's performance was also in the top 10, to among the bottom states today. The task force also failed to investigate the negative impact of increased administration costs over the past decades that have been at the expense of classroom instruction. This certainly has been the case at Merced College.

The primary problem is that students are graduating from the K-12 system without basic skills. This results in higher costs and lower success rates at community colleges, as students must take remedial courses to catch up. If this is our fundamental problem, then common sense tells us where we need to direct our efforts.

In recent conversations, two local high school teachers shared similar versions of the problem: Their classes are too full, their students are not prepared and they're not allowed to hold underperforming students back.

For perspective, English professors at University of California teach 100 adult university level students a year. High school teachers attempt to teach more than twice that many unprepared adolescents in one semester. College professors tend to blame the high schools, which blame the junior high schools, and so on. The blame rolls downhill, while the students who fail get passed uphill.

Instead of funding more task forces and hiring more bureaucrats, we need to do the following:

First, hire more qualified K-12 teachers to reduce class size. We are going to have to pay decent salaries to do this. The first place we should look for resources is by cutting inflated administrations and administrative salaries.

Further, empower teachers to hold failing students back. Today's practice reinforces failure by passing underperforming students to the next level.

Instead of common sense solutions, the chancellor's recommendations advocate administrative gimmicks. One example is to raise community college completion rates by giving priority to students who have fewer challenges. Students who are poor or simply need to explore options before designating a major will be penalized.

Politicians are using our current budget crisis to radically alter the community college's role in the state's Master Plan for Higher Education. That role is to be the open enrollment institution for citizens who wish to transfer, seek career or vocational training, and for community and lifelong learning.

Several months ago, the Board of Trustees of Merced College voted not to approve the recommendations of the league's Commission on the Future. Now they should voice their disapproval of the equally ill-conceived recommendations by the chancellor's Task Force on Student Success.

The author is a professor at Merced College.