A Must-Read Book for Anyone Wanting to Reform Our Education System

Mike Rose. | Photo: Courtesy Mike Rose
Mike Rose | Photo: Courtesy Mike Rose

Not to brag, but I had dinner last week with educator and author Mike Rose. He's one of those deservedly famous L.A. people whose name and work I've known about forever -- his books include "Lives on the Boundary" and "Possible Lives" -- but had never met until about three months ago. We've had dinner a few times since then.

Rose is a true education activist. He's a distinguished scholar and researcher, a longtime professor at UCLA's graduate School of Education and Information Studies, but he seems to wear that title least comfortably. He doesn't seem to have much use for titles at all. That's because his philosophy of democratizing society through education is rooted not in theory or academic training, but in life experience. Rose is white but grew up in serious working-class South Central, near Century and Vermont, in the '50s; his mother was a waitress and his father died while he was a teen.

In high school Rose was put on a vocational education track, not because he was an unpromising student but because of a name mixup. It was only because an observant teacher saw his potential, investigated his voc-ed status, and rectified the mistake that he was spared a life of low expectations and anonymity that is so often the fate of people who underperform in high school or who don't finish at all. Many of those people are poor, of color, misidentified as slow or troublesome, or some combination of the three. It's these people society most ignores, educationally and otherwise, and the people in whom Rose has always shown great interest.

It makes sense. Underperforming high school students becoming underperforming adults who wind up not just behind the employment/salary curve, but unfulfilled in many other ways that impact their quality of life. A huge number of people are in this situation, especially as the Great Recession wears on, a number Rose says is simply too big to continue ignoring.

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Hence his latest book. "Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Chance at Education" argues that community college and other adult-focused education programs are the most important but most overlooked vehicles of education reform out there. We focus obsessively on K-12, but if students fail at that -- and they do in record numbers -- then the second chances at learning and skill-building offered by adult ed become critical. "Back to School" makes its argument with Rose's usual intellectual thoroughness, low-key eloquence and keen journalistic eye; the portraits and interviews with students trying to better their lives at community colleges with everything from welding classes to basic math provide the most compelling moments of the book.

But for educational policymakers and the general public, adult ed is not on the radar because, well, it isn't sexy. Its programs are viewed as either remedial or practical -- correcting what an adult screwed up in his or her youth, or providing some training they can use to get a job. But Rose painstakingly details in his book that adult ed means much more than that.

Like the greatest universities, community colleges shape students' notions of themselves and their capacity to achieve. Adult ed gives its students a sense of purpose and belonging to the whole vaunted American culture of possibility they might have never have felt before. But as a group they are stigmatized and marginalized, chiefly for being poor. "We see the poor as 'it's their fault,'" Rose fumes over dinner. "Like they're poor because it's something they didn't do."

Rose had two big epiphanies doing in the book. One was seeing up close the extraordinary untapped potential in poor people. He tells a story about being on a local community college campus with a group of mostly black students. "One woman says, 'I'm taking basic math. I really want to learn math this time,'" he recalls. "And then she looks around and she says, 'You know, this is really nice. I didn't know it was going to be this nice.' And this is a very modest campus. As much as I know, as much as I've lived this stuff, I realized again just how powerful that desire to learn is."

The second epiphany, more sobering, was realizing just how much work there is to do to make education not just available to undereducated adults, but workable on their terms. "I've been close to a number of students who are the poster children for adult-education success," says Rose. "They're doing everything right. But every single one of them is living right on the edge. They have a margin this thin" -- he grabs a packet of sugar to illustrate -- "to work with. And these are the people who don't have addiction issues or incarceration records or anything. But they have no cushion, financially and in so many other ways." It's these sorts of things that must be taken into account, Rose believes, if we really want to develop a "community of learners," as they say in education circles.

At the end of his book, Rose quotes post-Revolutionary War tracts that tout the "general diffusion of knowledge" -- knowledge as nation-building for a new republic. He admits that the authors of the tracts were almost certainly not thinking of everybody when those words were written, just as the ideals of democracy put forth in the Constitution were not written for everyone either. But that diffusion of knowledge and the equality of opportunity and participation it suggests remains a good idea. Self-creation and reinvention are as American as apple pie, but not all of us are given a slice.

Championing adult education and other second-chance -- and maybe last-chance -- educational programs is one way to finally grant us all admission to the feast.

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