About Me

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After 35 years in public education as a high school English teacher and university administrator, I began my second life as a freelance writer, winning San Diego Society of Professional Journalist awards for my opinion columns in the former San Diego daily North County Times and the San Diego Free Press.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Research on colleges flawed

For San Diego's North County Times

At a time of year when high school seniors and their parents are stressed out over whether they'll get into their first-choice college and whether they can afford it if they do, a story by Associated Press writer Eric Gorski about how little students learn in college is extraordinarily ill-timed and irresponsible.

It's especially unfortunate the article landed on the front page of the North County Times ("Study finds that students learn little in college," Jan. 19) with a 2008 file photo of Cal State San Marcos students, as if the story were about them.

Full disclosure: I spent the last seven years of my 30-year career in higher education as an admissions and records administrator at CSUSM.

The article reported findings of a research study, "Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses" by Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia. It followed 2,300 undergraduates at 24 unnamed colleges and universities and found that 45 percent of them showed no significant improvement in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing by the end of their second year, 36 percent by the end of their fourth year.

That means half of undergraduates showed significant improvement after two years and nearly two-thirds after their senior year. Of course, the headline, "Most students learn a lot in college," wouldn't appear anywhere near the front page.

Among other findings the researchers found appalling were that half the students did not take a course requiring 20 pages of writing their prior semester and a third did not take a course requiring 40 pages of reading per week. Which means half took a course requiring at least 20 pages of writing and two-thirds a course requiring at least 40 pages of reading per week. At Cal State San Marcos every student must write at least 2,500 words in every course.

The researchers found that those attending more selective schools majoring in traditional arts and sciences majors posted the greatest learning gains. That finding should come as no surprise. The authors earned their undergraduate degrees at Tufts University and Mount Holyoke College.

They blame students who seek easy courses and don't study, as well as a college culture that values research over good teaching. Those were the same complaints I heard when I graduated from high school a half-century ago.

What high school graduates and their parents need to hear about is the research revealing college choice does not determine your success in life, and that the more education you have the more money you'll earn over a lifetime. College degrees are worth a million dollars more than a high school diploma.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Test scores don't tell the whole story

For San Diego's North County Times

Last August, we learned that California students scored a two-percentage-point increase in grade level proficiency in mathematics and English on the California Standards Tests (STARS). Now, 52 percent of our kids are proficient in English, 48 percent in math.

At the average rate of improvement over the last seven years, all students should be proficient by about 2025. The goal of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 was to raise all children to proficiency by the 2013-14 school year. The gap separating students by ethnicity has barely budged.

Stanford economist Eric Hanushek recently compared the test scores of students worldwide who are most likely to get the best jobs in the future. As reported by the Atlantic's Amanda Ripley ("Your Child Left Behind," Dec. 2010), U.S. 15-year-olds lag far behind their peers in about 30 other countries in advanced level proficiency in mathematics. California's 4.6 percent falls short of the 6 percent national average, as well that of 34 other states.

While State Superintendent Jack O'Connell boasts of annual two to three-point test score increases, the fact that more than half of California students are unable to reach grade level in math after seven years of No Child Left Behind is alarming in the world's increasingly competitive job market.

A closer look at the August 2010 STARS results raises even more concerns about the ability of our local students to compete for jobs requiring increasingly stronger technical skills.

Algebra is a gateway subject, not only for success in college, but for occupations that may not require a college degree but call for abstract reasoning skills beyond basic arithmetic for jobs that pay more than minimum wage.

A small sample of North County school district scores shows the usual: The haves do better than the have-nots. But even in Carlsbad, with a median household income of $101,000, only 48 percent of students are proficient in Algebra I. In Vista and Oceanside, with household incomes of $68,000 and $69,000, just 35 and 36 percent are at grade level or higher.

Hanushek points to Massachusetts, the state with the highest scores, as an example of how reform has led to improvement. Meaningful outcomes are demanded from everyone in the school building ---- students, teachers and administrators.

The Stanford economist acknowledges the common "diversity excuse" for poor academic performance. "All these immigrants are dragging us down," they say, "but our kids are doing fine." People will find it quite shocking, according to Hanushek, that "even our most-advantaged students are not all that competitive."

That should be a wake-up call for all of us, regardless of our ethnicity or family income.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Crossings on Life Support

For San Diego's North County Times and the online magazine carlsbadistan.com

This year’s $1.7 million bailout of Carlsbad’s three-year-old golf course will bring the total amount of annual subsidies since its opening to $5.1 million.  Four of the five council members who voted to tap city coffers again this time voted for each of the previous giveaways. Here’s a small sample of what three of them have said to explain their votes to save a failing enterprise.

The most creative justification came from newly re-elected councilman Mark Packard. “We’re not subsidizing," he claimed, "we’re ‘fronting’ the money. None of us on the council play golf, so we didn’t do this for our own benefit.” For him, keeping the course on life support amounts to a misnamed and selfless act.

In a variation of I’m-from-the-government- and-I’m-here-to-help, Mayor-elect Matt Hall assured his constituents, “The five of us manage the affairs of the city very well and I feel certain it will pay for itself.”

Holding environmentalists largely responsible for the ballooning cost of construction from its $11 million estimate 18 years ago, Retiring Mayor Lewis sadly predicted, “This will pay, maybe not in my lifetime.”

Each year since its August 2007 opening, the number of budgeted rounds of golf has fallen. The number for 2008 was 52,000. This year’s number of actual rounds is projected to be 42,000. That’s a 20 percent decline. Reaching next year’s budgeted goal of 44,000 seems unlikely, given the course’s track record.

Management blames the recession for the dwindling number of golfers, but the National Golf Foundation reports only a 2.4 percent decline in rounds played in the U.S. from 2007 through 2009.

Fourteen percent of Americans played golf in 2000, falling to 12 percent today, according to the NGF. Is golf a dying sport? Jack Nicklaus worries about its future. In a recent interview with foxsports.com, the golfing legend claimed young fathers are now so pre-occupied with other sports at the Little League level they have little time to hit the links or to teach their children the game. He also blamed the game's slow pace, suggesting kids don't want to got out and spend six or seven hours on a golf course.

At a September candidates’ forum, Hall was the only one of the four mayoral hopefuls indicating he’d oppose selling the course. At the council’s November 30 meeting he said The Crossings will be one of the strengths of the city, “or perhaps (my emphasis) a future swim complex and public subsidies for these will be necessary.”

On the campaign trail he sounded much more committed to “finding the money” for the swim complex. Now that he’s been elected? Not so much, it seems.

The prospects for completing the Alga Norte project seem brighter next year with the addition of Farrah Douglas to the council in January. As a candidate she consistently claimed the money was available, despite the vote last year by the council’s good-old-boy majority of Lewis, Hall and Packard, to delay construction. Ann Kulchin and Keith Blackburn were the minority voices in favor of going forward on it. With those two and Douglas now in the majority, a second community swimming pool may at last become a reality.

Dare we hope Douglas will create a new council majority that will also consider a Plan B for the gaping money pit amid the rolling hills above our Village By The Sea?