by Richard B. Simon

As a faculty member at City College of San Francisco — and an expatriate New Yorker who holds the Times to be the epitome of journalism and integrity — I was dismayed at Kevin Carey’s July 14 “The Upshot” piece.

Mr. Carey paints City College as the epitome of what’s wrong with America’s entire system of higher education (schools and accreditors accountable to no one). But as my English 1A — university level composition and critical thinking — class read the piece aloud together as projected on the board, we found a portrait of a City College we did not recognize.

Mr. Carey asserts that City College of San Francisco is grievously failing its students. Or, in his words, “institutions like City College have achieved terrible results for students.” My students did not agree with this assertion.

As evidence, Mr. Carey cites a DOE report that “almost 70 percent of City College students fail to graduate on time, and only 14 percent transfer elsewhere.”

When I asked my 17 students what “graduate on time” means, they told me that means that students attain an Associates’ Degree — or transfer to a four-year school — within two years of entering City College. That amounts to 60 units in two years — five classes per semester, or four classes per semester plus a grueling two-course summer term (in six weeks).

When I asked my students how many people had that as their goal, only five raised their hands. That was, one said, because “we are working stiffs.”

In fact, most of my students were not planning to transfer either. A few were, indeed, working toward AA degrees. One student was enrolled at another college and taking units at CCSF in addition. They felt that Mr. Carey’s contention that the low transfer rate was evidence of the school’s supposed “terrible results for students” was not valid.

My students found that Mr. Carey had failed to understand the reality of City College students — they are largely working adults, taking classes in addition to working and caring for their families.

This should come as no surprise to anyone following the ACCJC vs. City College saga closely. At the heart of it is a political battle waged in the state capital between “reformers” backed by some heavy-hitting philanthrocapitalists who want to change the mission of the California Community Colleges so that the prime focus is awarding degrees and preparing students for transfer, and institutions such as CCSF, which find value in the community college model, in which the institution serves all community members, not just those seeking degrees.

This battle in Sacramento found the ACCJC on one side and CCSF on the other. Shortly thereafter, the ACCJC placed CCSF on “show cause”, threatening its accreditation, unless it change its mission statement, shrink its enrollment, replace full-time faculty with part-time contingent or adjunct faculty with fewer or no health or retirement benefits, and add a new layer of administrators. Which happens to be the model ACCJC was pushing in Sacramento. Hence the San Francisco City Attorney’s lawsuit, which alleges that the accrediting process was tainted by the ACCJC’s political agenda. (A crucial hearing in which both sides have requested a summary judgement of the case is on July 16 — the day after Mr. Carey’s piece ran in the Times. One imagines that this is no coincidence. Certainly, Mr. Carey and his think tank intend to affect perception of City College in the national discourse over education reform.)

Mr. Carey doesn’t include any of that in his piece tarring both CCSF and the accreditor. Instead, he presents the ACCJC’s charges against City College hook, line, and sinker, and concludes that CCSF is “too big to fail”, attaching to City College the negative connotations associated with the banks whose malfeasance caused the Great Recession.

My students found this to be a false analogy. Carey is comparing a public institution that is part of the government to private business corporations — multinational banks — being bailed out with taxpayer dollars for having crashed the economy.

They also found that Mr. Carey was presenting a false dilemma. The accreditor has only two choices, he asserts: either “allow a low-performing college to continue serving students badly, or face a political firestorm in shuttering a major public institution while throwing tens of thousands of students on to the street with no guarantee of another affordable college in which to enroll.”

There’s a third option, they said: work with the school to repair its deficiencies.

In fact, that’s what’s been happening over the past two years. While the faculty and students have fought in the legal and political arenas to ensure that the school is not shut down, the school’s interim administration, trustee with special powers, and a new Chancellor — and the faculty — have worked to meet all of the demands and requirements set by the accreditor to meet the standards for accreditation.

The accreditor, however, appears to be intent on shutting down the school, regardless of what all independent eyes — as well as the accreditor’s own site visit groups and its appeals board — appear to agree is remarkable progress toward repairing the school’s deficiencies.

Mr. Carey doesn’t report any of this. Instead, he asserts, falsely, that “most of City College’s problems … remain unsolved.”

Perhaps that’s because Mr. Carey’s not a journalist. He’s the education policy chief at an “education reform” think tank. And if you look at that think tank’s home page, Mr. Carey’s name and his talking point “too big to fail” is splashed across the front.

But this means that the “Upshot” blog’s stated mission, to provide unbiased analysis of raw data, has been breached by including Mr. Carey’s deeply flawed piece.

My students engaged in some rewarding discussion with Mr. Carey in real time, during class this morning. Graciously, he engaged. But he chided my students for arguing against him. “You’re locating me on one side of a larger argument about which you have strong pre-determined views,” he tweeted, “Which is a weakness of critical thinking.”

What Mr. Carey doesn’t know is that he has, in fact, located himself on one side — that of the rogue ACCJC — by passing along their misleading and decontextualized charges against City College uncritically.

My students held no “pre-determined views” until they read Mr. Carey’s portrait of their college as the epitome of failure, and found that it not only did not square with their experience, but also revealed that he had very little knowledge about City College or its students.

Ultimately, they found him to be not a reliable source of information on the topic.

As for his contention, citing another report, that “City College’s academic practices are below par on every available measure, including levels of student-faculty interaction and teaching methods that foster active and collaborative learning” … well.

They laughed.

Richard Simon

Professor of English, political blogger, music journalist, and writer of fictions and truths, Richard B. Simon is a Professor of English at City College of San Francisco and an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Dominican University of California. He blogs at Salon, and is a contributing editor at Relix Magazine. Teaching Big History, which Rich co-edited with Mojgan Behmand and Thomas Burke, will be coming out in November 2014.

This article became cross posted on AAUP’s Academe Blog by Hank Reichman:

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5 Replies to “CCSF Critic’s Biased, Deeply Flawed Argument”

  1. Hank Reichman

    Terrific critique! It is horrifying that the Times felt free to publish such an ill-informed and misleading piece. Thank you, Prof. Simon, for this necessary rebuttal.

  2. Geoffery Johnson

    Mr. Simon, your students’ examination of Mr. Carey’s arguments, and their subsequent interaction with them, reveal the arrogance and elitism of the education reform crowd who act as apologists for the ACCJC’s actions. By their mindset, of course, the teachers are not to be trusted because they have this self-serving Anti-change agenda, and the students cannot truly understand how they’re being poorly served because they either lack or are unwilling to use critical skills. By contrast, they with the business acumen to “capitalize education”, the ” credentials” of an elite advanced degree, the money of their corporate cohorts, and their self-realized power, are better judges of how the people they have underpaid, underemployed, exploited, and ironically have denied educational access, should be educated. What could possibly be wrong with that? What indeed…

  3. margaret hanzimanolis

    Carey is a bought journalist. Lumina generously funded Washington Monthly (500,000, 500,000 885,000), where Carey began writing these outlandish analyses, to the tune of over 2 million dollars in the last few years.

    He was a managing or senior editor there–up until recently. He was also involved in Edwards Sweetlands outrageous 10 worst community colleges, and Carey wrote, for the WM, the “ten best”–which are largely religious schools or schools where adjuncts are paid rock bottom.

    Carey is bought and paid for by Lumina.

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