What’s in a Name

What is the real reason for California’s relentless attack on its beleaguered adult schools? Could it be our name? Adult schools have to ask themselves questions like this, because there doesn’t seem to be a rational explanation for the way state government has continually attacked its adult schools and put them at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the community colleges at every turn. It has nothing to do with facts or data. For facts and data we go to the Legislative Analysts’ Office, which issued an extensive report on both community colleges and adult schools in 2012 entitled “Restructuring California’s Adult Education System”. On page 15 of that report, the LAO noted that outcomes for adult schools and community college non-credit programs are comparable.

So if our performance is comparable to the community colleges, why are we continually treated as the unwanted stepchild? Sometimes it feels as if we are being blamed for the recession of 2008. Don’t look at those Wall Street traders and bankers! Just look at that grandma taking a computer class! How about that immigrant mom learning English! What a bunch of freeloaders! It must be their fault.

Just look at the record:

2008  

The state removed protections on adult school funding, allowing school districts to repurpose adult school monies for any use (“categorical flexibility”). At the same time, the state stopped paying adult schools for ADA (money based on attendance), removing the ability of adult schools to generate income. Instead, school districts with adult schools (not all had them) began to receive a yearly block grant in the amount their adult school earned during the last year they were able to collect ADA. Until 2013, they could decide to use some of this money to fund their adult schools, or not.

2008 was a bad year for education in general. All branches of education were severely cut, including school districts and community colleges. But the very existence of adult schools was put at risk, and some of them became extinct.

 

2011  

The California Strategic Plan for Adult Education was issued, with no input from students or teachers. The announcement of the general public comment period in late 2011 was accompanied by a notice that no significant revisions would be made to the plan; in other words, the public comment period was a sham. The strategic plan noted that there is a significant return on investment in adult education in the form of improvements in civic participation, public health and improved educational outcomes for children of adult education students. (Again, note that FACTS show that adult schools are actually doing a good job). The plan then went on to propose eliminating many of the programs that produce these desirable results (such as Older Adult and Parent Education programs).

 

2012  

The Legislative Analyst’s Report “Restructuring California’s Adult Education System” was issued. This report was about both adult schools and community colleges, and, as noted above, it found that adult schools do as good a job as community colleges do. However, the report subtly framed the issue  and threw around some incendiary language that suggested that adult schools were the problem, even though there were no facts in the report to support this insinuation.

 

January 2013  

Governor Brown proposed to abolish adult schools and have community colleges take over all of their functions.

 

May 2013  

Rather than destroying adult schools outright, the state directed community colleges and adult schools to come together in regional consortia. The consortia are defined by community college districts; adult schools can only enter into consortia with community colleges outside their districts if their own CC district does not want to consort. In other words, adult schools have no autonomy to pick their own partners.   The community colleges can opt out of the consortia if they want, and the community colleges have their own funding whether they join consortia or not. Adult schools still have no independent funding; there is a vague promise of some kind of funding through the consortia beginning in 2015.

 

The legislature does require school districts that haven’t managed to completely close down their adult schools yet to keep funding their adult schools at the same level that they funded them in 2013 for two years. That’s it. No guarantees after 2015, nothing to restore the adult schools that have been devastated. Be grateful we didn’t abolish you.

So, short version:

2008   We’re cancelling your funding and throwing you on the mercy of your school districts. Fend for yourselves. Good luck!

2013   OK, we’ve decided to destroy you now. You don’t deserve to exist.

Later 2013 OK, we’ve decided not to destroy you right away. But still no funding! Get into a consortium with the community colleges. Maybe you’d better do everything they say. After all, they have funding and you don’t.

So why the unwanted child treatment, really? There are no facts to support it anywhere in the two extensive reports that were done, the strategic plan and the LAO report. Both reports put us down with generalities, but the actual facts in the reports show that we’re doing a good job.

Maybe it’s our name. Seriously. Juliet famously sighed that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” She meant that it doesn’t matter what you call something. However, names are powerful. When there is no rational reason for something, sometimes we have to look at words and the power of their subliminal associations. So “community colleges” vs. “adult schools”. What are the associations of for those words?

Everyone knows the educational system in the U.S. is defined by a strict hierarchy. At the tippy top of our alleged meritocracy: the Ivy League colleges, of course! They are schools for the elite. No one will ever question their efficacy. There won’t be a lot of reports about them and how they need restructuring. They are assumed effective. The fact that they admit mediocrities like our former president George W. Bush because they are the sons and daughters of the wealthy and powerful doesn’t hurt them; it actually adds to their cachet. The name Harvard sounds impressive and mildly intimidating even with the word “Lampoon” after it.

After the Ivy League schools come the great public universities, like the U.C. system in California, then the state colleges (in California, at least), then the community colleges. Everyone knows where these institutions fall in the hierarchy. Community colleges are certainly the low man on the higher education totem pole, but they are still part of the higher education system. They still have the word “college” in their name. And then “community”! Community is a warm and fuzzy word that everyone likes. They just sound more prestigious and important than “adult school”.

And where do adult schools stand in this hierarchy? Right at the bottom, below elementary schools. On the educational ladder, adult schools are one rung above the School of Hard Knocks.

And that name! Take “school”. School is a simple word, a humble word. It isn’t grand like “university” or even “college”. And it is a word with rich and complex associations both good and bad. In the minds of most societies with a formal educational system, the world “school” is so closely associated with childhood that it is difficult to separate the two.

And, for most of us, school is an intense experience which we go through when we are young and vulnerable. The word cannot help but elicit, somewhere deep down, strong emotions. The loneliness of a first long separation from a parent, the teacher who made you cry, the bully in the hall, the playground humiliation – echoes of all of these resound when you hear the word “school”, as do the memories of friends you made, the things you learned, the fun you had, and your gratitude at being an educated person. The negative associations we all have with our school days are probably one of the reasons it is so easy for “reformers” to beat up on schools and teachers these days.

So a name like “adult school” probably elicits, deep down, a certain cognitive dissonance for most people. School is for children. So what’s wrong with those adults that are still in school? Why didn’t they get it the first time? Even very sophisticated people, like our legislators and governor, may have this reaction at a subconscious level. People are much more comfortable with the idea of adults, preferably young adults, in college than they are with the idea of adults in school.

These are gut reactions, subliminal reactions, but such reactions are powerful. The facts in the LAO report and the State Strategic Plan report showing that adult schools are effective and a good investment don’t make a dent in such visceral responses.

So you may think I am about to suggest that we find another name for this rose, something euphemistic and pretentious like “Citizens’ Success Academy”.   But I think it would be better to take the course of movements that took words that had been slurs and turned them into words to be proud of. I propose that we turn the stigma on its head and proclaim everywhere that we are adult school teachers, students and supporters, and that we are proud of it. Or we could just call ourselves the Harvard of Second Chances,  orthe Princeton of those who never even got a first chance.

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