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Oct 14, 2006

Justice is good bureaucracy

Here is the essence of demographic projections by the Colorado Commission on Higher Education (Brian Prescott’s presentation at the Faculty to faculty Conference, 10/13/06). Migration of educated people to Colorado has slowed down significantly; we will have to find ways of training our own professionals. At the same time, Colorado high school will produce many more graduates from much more diverse backgrounds then before. Between 2002 and 20018, there will be 40% increase in high school graduates. For the West as a whole, high school graduates from the 2010 class will become majority minority. About half of high school graduates will be from families earning under $50,000. Another interesting trend is increase of the so-called “swirling” students; those who not just transfer, but attend more than two institutions. The traditional transfer pattern from a community college to a four-year institution will also become more and more common.

What are practical implications for us? First, I don't believe we can seriously consider making our programs more selective. We should really think about sustainable growth without loss of quality. Second, we will have to accept large numbers of transfer students to be a part of life, and talk to community colleges about making transfers work. And third, we need to examine the institutional barriers to minority students’ success; at least those we have direct control over.

Let’s put pragmatics over philosophies. We can argue till the end of days what exact configuration of courses and field experiences is superior or inferior to another, slightly different configuration. This just does not lead anywhere, because no actual data can show dramatic differences in quality of teacher training due to slight changes in course delivery formats. There are thousands of teacher education programs around the country, and the difference among them is not in how much time passes between their methods and their student teaching. Good courses, significant field experience, amount of work and quality advising – this is what makes a difference. However, the practical side of things, such as simplicity of procedures, availability of reliable information, clarity of expectations; these practical things make a lot of difference to students, and deserve the same or more respect than philosophical disagreements. I would argue that the pragmatics make even more difference for minority students.

Some may dismiss the priority of pragmatics as simple yielding to convenience or even worse, as lowering our expectations of students. I disagree. For example, the “inconvenience” of looking for a place to stay for five weeks of the student teaching semester – is very important, as important as anything about our programs. The more poor and minority students we have, the more insurmountable barriers like these become. This is just one example, but we have whole sets of procedures designed, essentially, for programs half the size we have, and with a traditional, white and middle-class student in mind. This abstract student can attend numerous required meetings, he does not have a job or childcare issues, she has financial support from parents, etc., etc.

Justice in education is access; access is primarily good bureaucracy, and only then content. This is how I understand our challenge. We all need to think about the procedures in and around our programs, and think how they can be changed to accommodate more students and more diverse students. We need to make our programs much more flexible, much more open, and more accessible. This is something I cannot even begin to address alone; it will require constant collective effort.

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