Tuesday, February 19, 2008

A college degree should be rigorous and a priority

By Jeffrey C. Turbitt

Against a backdrop of Northern Marianas College fighting to retain its accreditation, the distinction that determines a valuable college degree versus a worthless piece of paper, stories about classroom overcrowding and the high failure rate for NMC's admissions test appeared in the local media this week.

Let me preface my thoughts by saying that for all the educational problems on the islands, compared to all the systems in the area and most definitely Guam and rural Hawaii, we are the most successful system in the region. The problem with that line of thinking in that commonly made point is that we live in a globally competitive economy, so being better than the rest of Micronesia just isn't good enough, and we should not want our local college to lower its placement standards.

For all the noise about PSS, there are two issues that dominate all others that I see. The first is that several schools are falling apart from a simple construction and facilities standpoint. The second big issue is that many classes are wildly overcrowded. Kagman High School is listed as having an average of 29 students per teacher. For a core class like language arts those numbers are usually higher. An art, music or computer class is usually much smaller than 29, so when the average says 29, there are usually more than 29 students in math, science or language arts classes to make up for those smaller elective classes. At SSHS, the freshmen pre-honors language arts class has 35 students. Three of my four classes are above 29 students per class.

As for the entrance exams, the criticisms of NMC have been somewhat ridiculous. College is supposed to be rigorous. Every college has admission tests generally in math, language arts and a foreign language. I had to take two remedial math classes myself when I entered college for the simple reason that my math skills weren't at the college level, which made it harder to graduate in four years, but it was still done. The argument that NMC is using this as some kind of money raising tactic is hokum. It could simply raise its already very cheap tuition fees if money was the prime focus.

This comment from a letter to the editor from Ivan Propst defending the NMC admission tests was interesting: "And for those whom the placement system indicates a need to improve their English skill development prior to entry into English 101, a far greater percentage require writing skill development than require further work on their reading skills."

This isn't very surprising. The high schools have a four period block schedule. A real world average of about 33 students times four eighty minute classes means 132 students. A two page writing assignment turns into 264 pages for a teacher to review. A five page paper would be 660 pages. Perhaps that is why a Hopwood teacher recently wrote a letter to the editor requesting help on this from other language arts teachers in the same boat. The simple fact is no one can do those in depth writing reviews more than once or twice per quarter, especially considering the no preparation time and wildly disparate skill levels in the classroom that are a fact of life in the public schools. In each class there is probably a minimum of two students who should be in an ESL class because they have absolutely no understanding of basic English. PSS has no ability to implement these classes because they lack the classroom space and the staff. It also just doesn't seem to be a priority.

Beyond that, while the local government has not funded education properly, an even bigger problem is that many parents have not instilled enough focus, will and urgency on their children to get that bachelor's degree, which is the admissions ticket for any serious hope at a decent middle class lifestyle. During my four years teaching seniors, I was staggered by the frequency that some of my best students told me their parents flat out told them not to leave the island to go to college. As expensive as college is these days, and it's astronomical, not going or taking the slow route is far more expensive. Median U.S. weekly earnings for a college graduate age 25 and older are $962. For a high school graduate the number is $595. That means it costs $19,084 per year not to have finished college in median earnings differential. That number might be even more dramatic in the CNMI. Very few students here avail themselves of federal financial aid loans that are easy to get, have low interest rates and flexible repayment schedules and instead hold out hope for the scarce "free college money," try the slow way by working low wage jobs to finance the degree or worst of all, "take a year off." That year costs a lot, and the longer it takes the student to get that four year degree, the more it costs in foregone potential earnings. Many other parents encourage direct military enlistment instead of going immediately to a four year college, joining college ROTC, entering the military with a degree as an officer and having far greater career and earning possibilities in the military while still receiving the college financial benefits the military offers, not to mention all that is offered by the college experience.

The CNMI is in a well documented financial crisis. There seems to be little will among our leaders to make hard choices. The temptation is going to be to continue to give short shrift to education as educational benefits are far off and the need to keep voters employed is immediate. Going that route would be a mistake. To obtain a college degree and to achieve a high level of intellectual ability should be a paramount skill and value we instill in our children. We should not look to diminish college standards because we are too cheap to do what we should be doing for the schools.

Jeffrey C. Turbitt is the language arts department chairman at Saipan Southern High School, as well as an avid scuba diver and traveler. He offers more thoughts in his blog Hypercritical Thoughts at: www.turbittj.blogspot.com/ He welcomes feedback, tips and story ideas at turbittj@yahoo.com. His column appears regularly on Wednesdays.

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