Given the recent statements of the presidential candidates and their respective candidates, it’s obvious that none of them have a clear understanding of the problems and needs of American education from K to 12 and in postsecondary education. Charter schools vs. vouchers, more student loans and tax credits, early childhood education and performance-based teacher pay, and more parental involvement. That’s it? That’s all we’re going to hear from Obama and McCain during the election cycle? Even Ralph Nader has more to say about education issues, not much more, but more.
As much as I like Obama and have been inspired to vote for him (and I will on November 4), I’m also troubled as an educator by his limited knowledge of education reform issues. Especially given the fact that he did serve as the board chair of Chicago’s Annenberg Challenge in the late-1990s — you know, the one in which Bill Ayres also served. I don’t expect McCain to know much about American public education in any form, and Gov. Palin’s suggestions for more “vo-tech options” puts her at least forty years behind our troubled times. But I would’ve expected more from Obama. Not much more, but more than he’s offered in the general election cycle or in the debates.
As part of his rising crescendo of a victory speech in St. Paul, Minnesota on June 3, Obama said, “in this global economy, the chance to get a college education should not be a privilege for the few, but a birthright of every American.” Strong progressive words indeed. With Obama’s affirmation, it appeared that much has happened in recent years in raising this education reform issue around increasing college access and degree completion to the national level. So much so that it would lead many—including Sen. Obama—to believe that the education revolution that folks have been waiting four decades for has finally arrived. But given his other statements, the reality may well be that a President Obama (most likely) or McCain will need to bone up on the critical issues of education reform and the distance between our current sorting system and the universal postsecondary education ideals that Obama so eloquently spoke to in June.
The nexus between secondary and postsecondary education has been a critical issue in which nonprofit organizations and private foundations have invested and engaged for the past decade or so. Educational Testing Service (ETS), the Goldman Sachs Foundation (yes, the same folks who helped bring us the financial meltdown this fall), and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are among many such organizations that have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to create pathways so that students who otherwise are unlikely to attend college can do just that. Unfortunately, much of what they fund are small projects that help all too few underrepresented students transition to college successfully, and each has their own methods for weeding out tough cases from diamonds in the rough.
There is an inherent tension in this. The tension is between the fight for universal postsecondary education and training (including two-year degrees and technical certificate programs) and a talent search for underrepresented students who may be successful at earning a four-year degree at elite institutions. It is in understanding this tension that we can understand the truth. That all signs point to postsecondary education as the crucial element in America’s economic and cultural future. That talent search programs do little to get us there, and are more a product of post-Civil Rights era attempts to identify academically gifted students of color than they are in line with other, more universal efforts to address the race and income achievement gap.
Among numerous others, Washington Metropolitan Scholars, Quest Scholars Program’s QuestLeadership and QuestBridge, Princeton University’s Preparatory Program, the University of Chicago’s Collegiate Scholars Program, and The Crimson Summer Academy at Harvard University all have extensive selection processes for identifying low-income students and students of color who have the leadership and academic potential for succeeding in college. But the twenty-year-old Posse Foundation is the creme de la creme of them all. At least as evidenced by the media’s attention, numerous grant awards and the number of colleges willing to pay fees to Posse for the opportunity to provide students a free and full ride toward a four-year degree. Posse’s claim as one of the longest running and most effective programs for finding students of color who are diamonds in the rough helped earn its founder Dr. Deborah Bial a MacArthur “genius” award in 2007.
Yet there are some ironies even in Posse’s work. Only one out of every ten high school students who apply to be a Posse Scholar end up as such at the end of the selection process each year. That may not sound all that bad. But in New York City alone, this means that about 1,000 students are unsuccessful in earning one of the 110 or so slots. This is much more than a process of filling out an application, writing an essay or obtaining letters of recommendation from a teacher or principal. Posse has several points of contact with the applicants prior to the final selection. Group interviews and projects, along with conversations, tasks and tests designed to explore each student’s leadership potential, interpersonal skills and motivation for attending college, are all part of the selection process. A final meeting occurs with representatives from member colleges in attendance before the final groups of Posse Scholars are selected. Each group of 10 to 12 students is sent to a college or university as a cohort or “posse.”
It is an intense process for all of the students, yet only a handful make it to the end of the process successfully. Granted, those 110 students are guaranteed free tuition, room, board and books at elite selective colleges and universities for four years. On the other hand, 1,000 others— many of whom had never seriously thought about attending college until they had heard about Posse — are left with few options as ideal as Posse after the American Idol-like selection process.
To be fair, programs like Posse’s recognize their necessary limitations, as these are expensive programs to run and even more expensive for colleges and universities to support. Yet there are other and better alternatives to bringing opportunities for postsecondary education to underrepresented students. The idea of a single-track, college-prep curriculum from pre-kindergarten through high school, such as the one that exists in Chattanooga-Hamilton County public schools, is one promising option. Early college high schools—high schools connected to postsecondary institutions, many with funding from the Gates Foundation—provide students dual enrollment options that enable them to earn a diploma and a two-year degree at the same time.
As someone who graduated Mount Vernon High School (and it’s defunct gifted-track academic Humanities Program) in ’87 (only a couple of years before programs like Posse came along), I understand how necessary programs like these are in making the dream of better lives real for thousands of underrepresented students. But I also know how exclusionary such programs can be. As these programs highlight the reality that talent and other intangible qualities exist in young folk across socioeconomic and racial lines, they also demonstrate that this path is one that only a few disadvantaged youth can possibly take advantage of. It makes me wonder whether I would have made the cut in these competitions. And if I had been rejected, what it would have meant for my motivation to go to college?
There’s no way that anything that any of the candidates have proposed would move us significantly closer to universal postsecondary education or even significantly higher high school graduation rates. Obama can say what he wants about parents who need to “turn off the TV.” This is as much about creating systems so that community involvement and just parental involvement is high, and that can happen only when we decide that a good American education shouldn’t be up to individual decision-making alone. That’s the problem with academic competitions like Posse’s, and that’s the problem with many of the prescriptions proposed by the major candidates. As educators, politicians and social justice folks alike, we must work to make college—or some form of postsecondary education, at least—a right and the responsibility of communities, not a privilege and certainly not a zero-sum individual competition.