The Velvet Fist in the Iron Glove

There’s an initiative underway in the California State University right now called “Early Start.”  The idea is that every incoming student needing to catch up on either English or math to be ready for college must begin doing so before fall of the freshman year.

In the CSU this is a big deal for two reasons.  First, most of our students need to catch up on either English, math, or both to be ready for college.  This is true even for those who did fine in high school; such is the misalignment of our educational pipeline.  Second, while they always used to need remediation during the first year, moving that to the summer before college even begins is a big change.  It cuts into time for earning money, kicking back, and saying goodbye to your life before college.  We expect it to be hardest on those for whom college is already hardest:  first generation, and economically disadvantaged.

There’s a tough-love aspect to this.  Our message is “of course it’s hard, and so’s college.”  Getting everyone onto the same page sooner is likely to improve student success overall, and hopefully not just because we’re weeding people out.

There’s a disciplinary angle here:  generally our math faculty are less opposed to Early Start than our English faculty.  This has to do with real differences in the ways people best learn the two ways of thinking.

But something else is going on, something unexpected:  even the most opposed are resigned to making the best of it.  And on this front, the creativity and constructive flexibility are downright humbling.  We may come up with an Early Start program that succeeds despite all the flaws in its conception.

In this way it’s similar to recent legislation creating a transfer AA in California.  This could have been a disaster:  community colleges setting the first half of each bachelor’s degree in whatever way they want.  The CSUs, by law, must create a second half to each academic program that works with whatever we get.  And what we get could be quite dissimilar, from one JC to the next.

It’s a recipe for unintelligibility, with a real prospect for mangling the academic preparation of a whole swath of the state’s workforce.  It’s hard to believe this was supported by people who attended colleges, let alone work in them.

Yet, once again, faculty leaders and middle-tier administrators seem to be saving us from our own worst impulses.  Community colleges, for now, are taking the invitation to anarchy and saying no thank you.  Instead they’re working overtime to create consistent first-halves to the state’s degree programs, based in most cases on CSU curriculum.  If the self-discipline and restraint — and sheer creativity — actually hold, then the state’s students may be better off than they were.

Here’s the scary question:  did we need the iron glove?

Within the cracks of this blunt-edged, short-sighted policy, better and more supple thinking has found just enough wriggle room to make something good happen.  Would educators have made the same effort without the fiat?  Probably not.  Problems of transfer and academic preparation have been with us a long time, and weren’t addressed before with quite the same zeal.

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