Tim Talks With David Kirp

In these Tim Talks, Carnegie President Tim Knowles engages “friends, allies, and conspirators” in micro-conversations about education, equity, and the future of learning.

Walking-through-the-door access doesn’t solve higher education’s biggest challenge: boosting the number of students who graduate from community colleges and/or transfer to a four-year program.

David Kirp is a professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, a member of the National Academy of Education, a contributing writer to The New York Times, and a senior scholar at the Learning Policy Institute. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Education. A prolific writer, in his seventeen books and hundreds of articles, he has concentrated on pivotal education and youth issues from cradle to college and career.

In this micro-conversation with Tim Knowles, David uses what he calls the “six most irresistible words in the English language: ‘Let me tell you a story'” to give examples of programs that are getting it right when it comes to addressing educational inequities. He tells the story of City University of New York’s ASAP program that is increasing the graduation rate of underrepresented students in community college from 25% to nearly 70% and doubled the rate in four-year universities; Georgia State that merged with a community college to increase the numbers of students transitioning smoothly to a four-year university; and Escuela Nueva’s deeper learning model—which began in Columbia, but has expanded to Brazil, Tanzania, and Vietnam, among others—that has successfully educated millions of students.

“It’s a remarkable model, and I think it transfers very well because it is a deeper learning model in a very real and powerful sense. … It’s doable, it’s interesting. When I’ve talked to educators in this country about it, they get excited.”


Tim Knowles (TK): Welcome everyone to a micro-conversation with David Kirp. David, for those of you who don’t know, is a scholar at Berkeley. He is a member of the National Academy. He’s also a member of the American Academy for Arts and Sciences. He is the author… David, I was disappointed to learn you’ve only written 17 books. I’m looking forward to the 18th. He is a New York Times columnist, and maybe most important of all, he is one of the nation’s sense-makers on matters education. So, welcome, David.

David Kirp (DK): It’s great to be here.

(TK): I’m going to plunge right in, and my first question does reference one of your books, “The College Dropout Scandal” and in it, Robert Reich says that you have, “revealed higher education’s dirty little secret.” Forty percent of college freshmen don’t graduate, with many winding up worse off because of the debt they incur.

At Carnegie, this is at the heart of one of our new strategic priorities, to upturn or overturn post-secondary systems in higher education that reify inequities. So, what should we be thinking about as we undertake this endeavor? Are there cracks that we can leverage to split the system open?

(DK): The six most irresistible words in the English language are, “Let me tell you a story.” So, the best way I know how to answer that question, is with a story.

So, City University of New York, CUNY, is one of my favorite institutions because they do amazing things, especially at the community college level. And there’s a program called CUNY Start. The students in CUNY Start have failed every one of their entrance exams. They failed the writing exam, the math exam, the reading, all of them. Most of them are in their early-mid 20s.

One woman … They’re living very complicated lives. One woman was expressing breast milk during breaks in the cafeteria. Another woman, when she’s writing about what a tough time she’s had, she talks about gunfire in the family, getting raped by a stepfather. She was up to 12 years old at that point.

And another woman just absolutely blew my mind, in ninth grade the guidance counselor calls this woman in and says, “You realize you should just drop out because you’re just going to get pregnant and you have to drop out anyway. So why don’t you do it now?”

And here they are, right, here are these students, and at the end of a semester, 90% of those students are fully prepared to begin regular community college. They will join another, better-known program called ASAP, and those students are going to, 70% of their students graduate. It’s community college, they graduate in three years. That is substantially … the six-year rate of graduation for public universities is 50%, four-year universities.

So what happens? Well, I sat in for a few days and I watched the teaching, and the teaching is astonishing. I just think about an English class in which these kids are reading… they’re not kids. These young adults are reading V.S. Naipaul, and they’re just being barraged with questions. There’s no lecturing.

The math class, the day I was there, mostly they’re doing more interesting things, but I was there for session on simplifying square roots. And the teacher puts a number up on the board, puts a formula on the board, can you simplify this? And then there’s a discussion. And there were 16 students in the class, and 15 of them say no, and one of them says, “Yes,” and that’s Maria. And then the class talks more about why, she talks about why, and then the class discusses what’s going on, and they decide that she’s right. She, by the way, turns out to be a very shy girl who never talks. She’s a Filipina immigrant.

So what do they do? It’s a very intense program. It’s 25 hours a week. They have a huge amount of personal stuff. Other students would talk about, “I have your back.” There is somebody for these young adults all the time, and they need this kind of help because they are, as I said, juggling lots of different lives.

So I tell you that story, which I found a norm when I was there. It’s a really moving moment to say one thing, you’re going to believe in these students and you’re willing to invest in them intelligently, so you’ve got a curriculum that looks a lot like the Statway curriculum in math, the Carnegie curriculum. I don’t know where the English course comes from.

They spent a long time developing materials for this course. The teachers get mentored, they get hired, they spend a semester shadowing a teacher in the program before they’re teaching on their own. It’s an expensive program, it’s a big investment.

But another thing that’s important is that here’s a university and a state that has made these students a priority. And one big issue, one big explanation for this scandal, the scandal is the low graduation rates, we know what to do to raise them, and most universities don’t really care because there’s nothing, there are no disincentives for doing badly. Or differently put, there are no real incentives to doing well.

If you invest money in improving your graduation rate, in working with students, in giving them a sense of belonging, in looking at all the barriers from the time they are admitted to the time that they get their diploma, and there are a lot of barriers, and then you start taking them down as, for example, Georgia State famously has done. If you don’t do that, then you’re going to be in the same place, you’re going to be and what you’re going to do by way of your institution, by way of reforms, is you are going to do little experiments, little programs on the side, they go on for a year or two. They don’t get leveled up. They disappear, nobody evaluates them.

One of the great things about CUNY is that all their programs are evaluated by mathematic… They use matched samples of students, so they know what they’re doing. But they care, and I think that’s, to create an incentive system for universities in which they are rewarded for using the tools that we know are going to make a difference for these students and are particularly rewarded for increasing the graduation rate among first-generation, minority, and low-incomes. You can do a lot, and that’s the lesson of CUNY.

I mean, the CUNY ASAP program, the program for the regular community college students, not a very, these are not complicated things to do. This is not brain surgery. They took… their graduation rate went from 25% to 60%, close to 70%. They took the same program to the four-year school and I said to them, there’s a category mistake here. This is not a community college program. This is a student success program. It will work just as well at the four-year college level. They did this at John Jay, a Manhattan college. Lo and behold, they doubled the graduation rate. Same program, same kind of resolute focus on what students work, planning schedules in a way that allows students to really balance their life, and making sure that there is a trained professional who understands the academic stuff and understands the person.

But another thing that's important is that here's a university and a state that has made these students a priority. And one big issue, one big explanation for this scandal, the scandal is the low graduation rates, we know what to do to raise them, and most universities don't really care because there's nothing, there are no disincentives for doing badly.

(TK): So David this feels, this issue of making sure the incentives are right or there aren’t, conversely, there aren’t perverse incentives to keep people not paying attention to this seems absolutely salient for today, given Biden’s plan to make community colleges across the board free. And I have joked that if one thing comes out of the infrastructure bill, it’ll be Joe Biden’s dedication to community college. But in a recent piece you pointed out this quote, “Walking through the door access doesn’t solve higher education’s biggest challenge, boosting the number of students who graduate from community colleges and/or transfer to a four-year program.”

I remember in Chicago when Rahm Emanuel, mayor, basically declared success because the community colleges in Chicago had finally got to 10% graduation rates. And it was success relatively. It really was, it had been 6.3. And nationwide the numbers are 17% of students from low-income families who are graduating from community colleges. So how can in this moment, in this milieu, community colleges become, using your term, engines of mobility. If making them free is clearly an inadequate treatment.

(DK): No, actually I would go beyond that. I think it’s a perverse treatment. For better or worse, Jill Biden has spent her career as a community college teacher. And most community college teachers that I know are passionate about their students. I’m sure she is no exception. I’m sure like other community college teachers she’ll have stories of students who’ve made it, students who would come back after umpteen years. They’re now doing X, Y, and Z, if it weren’t for you, et cetera, et cetera. Here’s why it’s perverse. You mentioned the graduation rates.

I will talk about how you can improve those graduation rates substantially, but if all you do is make community college free, then students who otherwise could be admitted to essentially open admission four-year regional universities are going to go to community college.

So I looked at Tennessee, which was the state that was Obama’s sort of star state in this territory. And they make community colleges free, and everybody loved this, and they wind up in about the same place that Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago is. I think they got up to 16% overall, not urban numbers, the urban rates looked very much like Chicago. And those same students could be admitted to Middle Tennessee State, which is a random regional school there. The graduation rate is 50%, six years.

So 50% of those, you could get a bachelor’s degree, 50% chance of getting a bachelor’s degree. You’ve got one third of the chance of getting an associate’s degree. So, unless you think about, in terms of finances, unless you connect community colleges to four-years, your heart is in the right place. The inadvertent, the unintended consequences are disastrous.

So for starters, you need to really connect the community college with a four-year university and really connect means there needs to be a clear pathway, which says, if/when you graduate from community college, you will automatically be admitted to the university. And beyond that, that’s a start, but it’s not enough. University professors tend to be quite snobby about community college courses, and they say that’s great that you took physics I, but that’s not our physics I. Bye, do it over again.

At places like University of Central Florida, Valencia, those faculty work on each other’s campuses, they jointly develop courses. So they’re going to be taught differently because, again, the students who show up at community college… At the University of Central Florida, the average GPA of an entering student is 3.85. So they’re a very different cast of characters from the students who wind up at community college.

But what that royal road to access has done there is that it substantially increased the graduation rate, and those students graduate at about the same rate as the true freshmen. They stumble early on in the tech stuff and the sciences, but they get caught up eventually and that’s remarkable.

The same thing is now happening at Georgia State, where Georgia State was merged with a community college system called Perimeter. Perimeter’s graduation rate when they started out was 6%, and basically what they’ve done at Perimeter is essentially what they did with Georgia State, including the fact that students at Perimeter could take courses at Georgia State. And they are all automatically admitted to the university, and their support staff for them, and they use all the analytic tools to begin to identify who’s having trouble and intervening early, all the things that we know how to do. And they’re now up to 20%, three years, 6% to 20%.

They’re on their way. And I’ve got no doubt that they will do better. So unless you build in that connection both structurally, again, in terms of institution centers, financially, you’re going to wind up with the Rahm Emanuel story, or the Tennessee story.

(TK): You introduced formerly to a group, Escuela Nueva, which is from Columbia, recently. I thought it would be wonderful if you would say something about Escuela Nueva and why America should pay attention to it.

(DK): So I’m not… I’ve been around long enough to be very skeptical of fads and fancies. You come upon Escuela Nueva, it’s been around for about 50 years and it’s over time, in Columbia primarily but elsewhere as well. Every place from Brazil, to Vietnam, to Tanzania. It’s educated millions of kids, that in itself is a staunch.

The data is impressive. And what they do is amazing because starts as a program for one-room school houses, but it really is a program for education generally. Students are asked or given a problem to deal with and an introduction by a teacher in a small group, and then they work through it individually, and then collect that amongst themselves. The teacher comes back, sees how well they’re doing, gives them the next problem, and off they go.

It’s a learning method in which the teacher is playing a very different role from what she often does. The other important prong of this program is that it’s a democracy program. These kids are making decisions about school issues. I don’t know any high school student council that’s given the authority to make, starting with they take their own attendance, they keep the school in order, they decide what materials that are from the local community will be in the school and used in the school.

They run a day program for parents, it is for their parents. It’s not a very complicated program to implement. This is something that Escuela Nueva has learned how to do. They’ve been able to build networks of teachers who sustain the program. They start as a rural program, but they’ve done all sorts of other things. All these displaced kids in Columbia, for example, displaced by violence. They developed a whole program for them. They developed a program for not just elementary schools, but middle schools, et cetera.

It’s a remarkable model, and I think it transfers very well because it is at one hand, it’s a deeper learning model in a very real and powerful sense, because a lot of the work is in fact the kind of project-based work that deeper learning traffics in. It’s a model in which people learn about the importance of teaching one another, about the community and not just the individual. And it’s a model that teaches, that really does give these students the skills that they need to be effective citizens and leaders in a democratic society. And Lord knows Columbia needs that, and Lord knows at this moment in time the United States needs it at least as much.

It's a model in which people learn about the importance of teaching one another, about the community and not just the individual. And it's a model that teaches, that really does give these students the skills that they need to be effective citizens and leaders in a democratic society.

(TK): And as you say, unlike many other shiny objects in the educational ecosystem, it is tested and scalable. And I think that’s one thing that many of the shiny objects that we encounter in the U.S. are not. You made an observation, I said that was the last question, but this Escuela Nueva raises it. You made an observation to me a few months ago that you think that some of the most interesting innovations, overwrought word, but are emerging from places like the African continent, Latin America, and not the West. Not Europe, not the U.S. Can you say a little bit about that?

(DK): Yeah, that’s something that I really am learning about, and I think these are countries in which the problems of the education system are well-known. They’re not by and large countries that have huge pride in what they’re doing, and somebody comes along with a simple, doable, established idea. They’re willing to adopt it wholesale.

I mean, this is what happened in Vietnam. The Vietnamese come to Columbia, look at the program, take the materials away, and now countrywide in Vietnam there is this program. And if you’ve got a strong central government they can say, “This is what we want to do, and this is what we’re going to fund,” and it happens.

It’s enormously impressive to observe. I mean, we live in a country that’s plagued by the “not made here” syndrome. So the idea that there are many other things that stand in the way of bringing reforms to scale, which we know well. And a lot of those things, elected school boards with political agendas, leaders that come in, superintendent school chiefs who come and go, fads and fancies, all the rest of it, the lack of teachers that come from the communities in which their students come from, all of those factors stand in the way.

So I would hope that a program like Escuela Nueva, I would hope that Escuela Nueva could demonstrate that it’s not a fad and fancy, and that there would be places, no illusion that America is going to adopt anything like a single model, but I can imagine that being a sustainable model in the way Bob Slavin’s “Success for All” program has been a sustainable model. It’s doable, it’s interesting. When I’ve talked to educators in this country about it, they get excited. And you got excited, which–

(TK): I did, and when we put out this micro-conversation, we’ll put out links so that people can learn about it. And my hope is that we can find ways to land it in a few places, because it does have also at its heart a learning model that is deeply constructivist, engaging, and not boring, which is one of the pandemics that–

(DK): Well, this is what happens when you have a founder who got her PhD at that university down the block from you, Stanford. And whose mother was the first woman to get a PhD in the Education School at Stanford. So, certain Bay Area history there that goes along with the story.

(TK): Well David, thank you so much, I appreciate it. I promised this would be quick, and I look forward to seeing you soon, and good luck in Finland.

(DK): Thank you, it’s been a lot of fun. See you soon. Bye-bye.

(TK): Thanks, David.