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By Paul Bradley  /  
2008 March 24 - 12:00 am

At Innovations Conference, A Song of Hope And a Stormy Forecast

DENVER – Forgive those 2,000 or so people attending the annual Innovations conference here for feeling a little conflicted. They were merely trying to sort out some mixed messages.

First came the opening session of the conference, sponsored by the League for Innovation in the Community College and held in a cavernous hotel ballroom. There, Sanford C. Shugart, president of Valencia Community College in Orlando, Fla., used his singular mixture of song and lecture to deliver an uplifting message even Mickey Mouse could love.

Strumming an acoustic guitar, he implored community college instructors to redouble their commitments to the students flooding the nation’s two-year colleges.

“They will never care just how much you know until they know just how much you care,” he sang. “Until you touch their hearts their minds are out of reach.”

Putting his guitar aside, Shugart said “I have hope like I have never had before that the goal of (educational) equity can be achieved in community colleges.”

 He recounted how his college is achieving some encouraging results by adopting the philosophy that anyone can learn anything, given the right set of circumstances, and becoming an institution focusing squarely on its student population and their needs.

The college, for example, is having some success moving students through remedial math, Shugart said. In 2007, the fall-to-spring retention rate was 86 percent for remedial math, far above both national averages and Valencia’s previous experience, he said.

The doubts that even Shugart harbored about the ability of all students to learn had been erased, in part by the results-oriented approaches adopted by the college.

If Shugart’s presentation left listeners feeling warm and fuzzy, what they heard the next day made them cold and clammy.

Irwin Kirsch, director of the Center for Global Assessment for the Educational Testing Service, said the country is threatened by a “perfect storm” which threatens its economic and political well-being. He did not strum a guitar or sing a ballad, opting instead for hard data to make his sobering point.

“We are leaving key segments of our adult population behind,” he said.

Kirsch is the co-author of an ETS policy report that enumerates wide and growing disparities in American education.

The “perfect storm” is the confluence of three powerful factors, he said, including lagging literacy rates, profound changes in the American workplace and demographic shifts which are making the overall population at once both older and more diverse.

Using a PowerPoint presentation, Kirsch gave some examples:

  The nationwide high school graduation rate is just 70 percent, while that rate for disadvantaged students is closer to 50 percent. The United States ranks 16th in high school graduation rates among 21 countries surveyed by the Organization for Economic Co-operation.

 According to the National Assessment of Education Progress, reading and math scores among 13 and 17 years have remained flat for 20 years. Large gaps between white and black students and white and Hispanic students persist.

 National surveys show that large numbers of adults can’t demonstrate sufficient literacy to either compete in the international economy or navigate America’s complex legal, health care and retirement systems.

 Most troubling, literacy skills are unevenly distributed across groups defined by race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status.

The bottom line? Those lacking sufficient skills and education can expect to earn much less money over their lifetimes. In 2004, the expected lifetime earnings of males with a bachelor’s degree were projected to be 91 percent higher than those with only a high school diploma, he said.

“If we maintain the current course, increasing numbers of our adult population are going to have a difficult time managing their lives,” Kirsch said.

The trends have been growing for years, almost unnoticed, he said.

“There is a subtle danger of slowly losing ground while we are becoming more divided,” he added.

Kirsch insisted there is reason for optimism, however. Community colleges already are experiencing the trends he outlined and can play a critical role in reversing them, he said.

“I look at this data and see it as an opportunity,” he said. “We need to get more people to understand the challenges that we face.”

But that will take a commitment of resources that many policymakers so far have been unwilling to make.

As the mood in the room darkened, Kirsch insisted there is light at the end of the tunnel. He said the instruments of change were in the hands of the somber educators listening to his presentation.

 He closed with a quotation from egalitarian education reformer Horace Mann to underscore that notion:

“Let us not be content to wait and see what will happen, but give us the determination to make the right things happen.”  

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