The Chance to be Human

Chair, Educational Policies Committee

I began my career as a community college instructor with a sense of social justice – I wanted to work in the most diverse educational environment to help students regardless of background to succeed and to become the future leaders of their communities, their cities, their state, and this nation. The promise of the original Master Plan was a very radical vision, assuring that every student desiring higher education would have access to it. At its core, this vision rested on the concepts of equity and access: No matter what a student’s background was, each student had the opportunity to further his or her educational journey.

During the past twenty years, community college instructors have witnessed the rising tide of students arriving at our colleges without the requisite basic skills necessary to do college-level work. Moreover, budgets, politics, and the increased desire to “fix” the community college system have slowly chipped away at the initial Master Plan promise. In the wake of the SB 1143 (Liu, 2010) Student Success Task Force Recommendations and calls to “ration education,” I want to bring two cautionary examples of who would be locked out of the system if some of these recommendations move forward.

I learned of this first educational journey in May 2011. “Rich” began his higher education journey 16 years earlier when he graduated from high school and went to Skyline College because it was near his home. He drifted up to American River College, and because he thought he was ready to transfer to UC Santa Barbara, he had to take one class at the City College of San Francisco, where, in his words, “I lasted about a minute.” He had an education plan, but it did not work out for him.

Rich eventually moved to Santa Cruz, where he took classes at Cabrillo College and where local agreements also allowed him to take classes at UC Santa Cruz. He eventually got a job working at a restaurant started by friends. His future dream was to teach math to middle or high school students. However, he ended up learning how to be a cook, even becoming a sous chef at several restaurants and having a cooking career at some of San Francisco’s finest restaurants—all without having to go to culinary school and accruing a huge debt.

However, about a year ago, Rich decided to go back to college – Cal State East Bay, where he graduated with a bachelor’s in math in June, 2011. He is now in their credentialing program and student teaching at an East Bay high school, where he is also coaching a basketball team. Despite having an education plan, two parents who are retired teachers, and a sister who is a full-time instructor at a California community college, Rich needed the opportunity to find and make his own way.

The second educational journey began back in the 1960s when I was in high school. One of my best friends was female then. “Kelly” was instrumental in forming a folk singing group that I joined. We were partners on the debate team. We then went to and graduated from UC Berkeley.

Over the years, Kelly underwent several transformations: working for an internet company and then losing her job, acquiring a brain injury, coming out as a lesbian, and then identifying as transgendered. In this journey, “Kelly” became “Kelvin” and began to take classes at the local community college—clearly something he couldn’t do if unit restrictions were imposed. He started a club for gay, lesbian, and transgendered students, formed another club for students with acquired brain injury, and ultimately became a student officer. He was also one of a small group of students who formed what would become the Student Senate for California Community Colleges. Kelvin died unexpectedly in October, 2011. His death prompted a major outpouring of grief on Facebook, an obituary in the local newspaper, and a memorial service at his community college.

In the wake of the Student Success Task Force recommendations, I cannot help thinking what our society would have lost if these two individuals had not been given access to the community college system. Yes, their presence may have “locked out” other students in these days of budget cuts and reduced course offerings. And yes, it is best for students to know what their goals are. However, a couple of recent articles on the school system in Finland are a reminder that the premise and promise of the original Master Plan for access and equity must continue to be a part of the community college mission. Sergey Ivanov in The Atlantic observed that, “Decades ago, when the Finnish school system was badly in need of reform, the goal of the program that Finland instituted, resulting in so much success today, was never excellence. It was equity. Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location. Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.” Ivanov concluded that, “The problem facing education in America isn’t the ethnic diversity of the population but the economic inequality of society, and this is precisely the problem that Finnish education reform addressed. More equity at home might just be what America needs to be more competitive abroad.”

Diane Ravitch made similar observations about the Finnish system: “We claim to be preparing students for global competitiveness, and we reward mastery of basic skills. Our guiding principles: Competition, accountability, and choice. Finland has this singular goal: to develop the humanity of each child. Isn’t that a shocking goal? Their guiding principles: equity, creativity, and prosperity.”

A recent editorial in The Los Angeles Times commented on the Student Success Task Force recommendations: “The recommendations also put too much emphasis on students taking only the courses within their defined plans, and on the colleges offering only those courses. A computer student who wants to take a literature course to deepen her education should be encouraged to do so, as long as she doesn't go beyond her allotted 100 credits. A philosophy student should feel welcome to delve into a biology course. Colleges don't just churn out degrees and certificates; they're supposed to encourage students to think big and try new things. The community colleges can more efficiently educate California students through the 100-point rule and by giving top priority to students who need the education most, without reaching the point of becoming mechanistic.”,0,3398797.story

The conclusions of Ivanov, Ravitch, and The Los Angeles Times remind me of a button Kelly used to wear when we were at Berkeley. The button said, “I am a human being – do not fold, spindle, or mutilate.” But these conclusions are also a reminder that the core values of the Master Plan are still worth fighting for: access, equity, and ultimately humanity— in short, social justice.