Saturday, April 22, 2006

Throwing Stones In A Glass House

Fortunately for me the Draft due to the Viet Nam War ended just as I turned 18 in January 1973 (and I lucked out with getting a very high lottery number as well). So, thankfully, I did not have to serve in the military. And as I reported earlier, I missed out on the Peace Corps and VISTA, opting instead to go directly to grad school at Northwestern after finishing up at Cornell. So while I’m going to talk the talk in this post, I haven’t walked the walk, and I know it. I’ve been an academic and spent most of my life on campus at the U of I. It’s been comfortable. It makes for an ideal environment to do serious reflection and in that sense it has been well suited for me. But it has not forced me to confront reality, particularly the issues of living in a large urban environment, since I lived in Chicago while attending grad school.

This above is my mea culpa. Now I’ll make the case as if that doesn’t matter.

In going through the track back on an earlier post, I came across Barack Obama’s Web site and in particular this speech on 21st century schools. Unlike me, Obama does have the personal history of activism and community service. His speech is moving and sensible on several levels. It shares several ideas with the Louis Gerstner led Teaching Commission report that I’ve referred to earlier. Yet Obama’s speech departs from the motivation of the Gerstner,, document by leading off with mention of Jonathan Kozol and his new book Shame of a Nation, rather than by focusing on potential future decline in GDP growth (because we will be out competed by India and China and others) that is at the heart of the Teaching Commission report. I have not yet read Kozol’s latest, but some years back I did read Savage Inequalities and based on recollection of that Kozol has no need to appeal to macroeconomic issues to make his points. For his arguments, he need only appeal to basic notions of fairness and justice and a sense of human decency. I think it is wise of Obama to cast the education issues in these terms.

But to me either Obama doesn’t have the argument quite right or he is playing his cards too close to the vest now and is still holding back on some critical aspects. He mentions efforts like Teach for America and the New Teacher Project and several others as well, though he does not try to pick winners from this list and while he tells us these efforts will have to scale up eventually he doesn’t tell us how that will happen.

To the extent that the argument depends critically on young people just out of college taking up the call to teach, basic economic reality is likely to get in the way of this vision. Many of these young adults will be carrying a debt burden with them and will need to find work to service that dept, if not to pay it off immediately. Those who are financially unencumbered might choose the path that Obama implicitly suggests for them, but for those carrying a lot of dept, isn’t this asking more than can be expected? And with the rising cost of a college education, one should expect this problem to become more acute.

So, behind the Obama argument there is another that has not yet been articulated --- taxes need to be raised to fund debt relief for those college grads who opt to spend some years teaching in the schools, before pursuing some other career. This is what will be needed to make the approach scale. Recognizing that, the question is whether one can make a compelling appeal to increase taxes for this purpose.

Here Obama’s rhetoric casting the issue in moral terms may serve him well – but the case still has to be made. Now, if a young adult serves in the military, a totally voluntary act, the individual receives funding for college in return. (And similarly, if one enrolls in ROTC the college education is funded by the promise of future military service.) So with respect to the military, the case has already been made that service justifies a subsidy for enlisted people to get their higher education and that quid pro quo is part of the deal and readily funded by taxpayers.

Hence it seems to me that Obama must make the case the teaching in the schools after college is an expression of patriotism worthy of general taxpayer support, the moral equivalent of serving in the military, with rhetoric to match the argument, such as better to fight the inward battle to what Kozol calls “Third World America” to support values we all believe in than to fight the outward battle in Iraq, to support we’re not sure what. But one doesn’t see ratcheting up of the rhetoric this way in Obama’s speech. Perhaps he feels we’re not ready to scale up these efforts. To me, however, it seems an appropriate time to push these points.

Let me leave that and turn to a related point. Economic incentives can only go so far in bringing new graduates to the call of teaching. Other motivations must also be in play and one has to wonder whether the college experience itself should be neutral on this point or if instead it should prepare the students for a period of service after they graduate. In other words, the ethical tone while in college might have as much or more to do with addressing the labor supply issue for new teachers than any debt relief program that might be instituted.

In some posts from last August (from 8/9 to 8/21) on “Inward Looking Service Learning” I argued that the needed reform at public research institutions such as mine, which attract relatively strong students but that seem to be breaking from the dual pressures of promoting student engagement and containing costs, is to have those students themselves provide service to the institution by teaching and mentoring other students and with the advice and counsel of the faculty develop online environments that aid in instruction. One of the key parts of the argument is to make this the regular business of the university, put it front and center, and make it a point of pride that students are part of the productive environment at the university, rather than an object of scorn and derision that instruction must be of low quality because much of it is done by undergraduates. In other words, this was meant as a self-help approach to addressing the needs that like institutions have and putting all the members of the community: faculty, staff, students, and administration into an ethical environment where self-help and support of the community become a habitual response to serious issues.

Whether this can work is, of course, an open question. But if it were implemented and did work, it would then stand to reason that it would impact the labor supply of teachers from newly minted graduate students who now saw service to the community as a part of their essence. Right now, we do see courses that bring undergraduate students in contact with K-12 students in the community, perhaps a step in the right direction, but this too is not done at scale and though there is some rhetoric to the contrary, there is no real impetus to have this occur at scale in the current environment. I don’t think that will change until the service-based approach is perceived as addressing our own internal issues rather than simply as filling some good citizen requirement for the University’s image.

But I think it is possible, by making this potential tie explicit, that leaders such as Obama might look to Higher Education and encourage reform there so as to make it more likely that the improvement in the schools has a real chance. Why start by making an appeal to young graduates to turn to public service when a fuller and more sustained recruitment can happen by having the students engage in serious service during their college years? It’s the logic behind this question that encourages me to be somewhat optimistic about the possibility.

This is a long haul issue. There is no quick fix. But that is not a reason to delay in getting started.

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