September 27, 2005

Column 2005-9-25 Commentary

In his latest column, Brooks inexplicably lays the blame for the increasing gap between those with a college education and those without on the colleges. "The most damning indictment of our university system is that these poorer kids are graduating from high school in greater numbers. It's when they get to college that they begin failing and dropping out. " So says Brooks, despite the fact that a few minutes (ok, maybe more than a few minutes in his case) of thought should make the gaping hole in his argument perfectly clear. According to Brooks, these poor kids graduate from high school with essentially the same education as their more affluent peers: the problem is that colleges just don't treat them right somehow. The obvious rejoinder to this is that most poorer kids receive worse, often far worse, elementary and high school educations than the better-off, and that colleges simply expose these differences. At any rate, it should be obvious that some fault lies with the poor quality of public schools where most poor children receive what education they get. For example, we know this, from Bob Herbert via the Daily Howler: “By the fourth grade, low-income students read about three grade levels behind non-poor students." Will these children catch up to their wealthier peers? What do you think? And even if they don't catch up, a good number of these kids will graduate from high school, as we know from Brooks's (admittedly unsourced) claims. Even assuming that these kids remain only three years behind, it's no wonder that new college students who can barely read at a high school level are "failing and dropping out" in a college with any type of standards. And yet Brooks refuses even to acknowledge the possibility that the pre-college preparation of these poor children may be at fault: indeed, he explicitly states that "Crucial life paths are set at age 18 . . . ." Ok, so even Brooks can't completely ignore what's staring him in the face: he gives the necessity of being "academically prepared, psychologically prepared and culturally prepared for college" a throwaway line at the end of the column. But he, and "Thomas Mortenson of the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education", the only person whose work is cited in this column and so presumably the source for the whole thing, appear to be blaming colleges for failing to compensate for the abysmal performance of the lower levels of the public school system. Could colleges do more to help lower-income students? Yes, of course. But to concentrate on what they could do, while ignoring the far more pervasive and damaging problems with the public schools, is sheer idiocy. As such, is it any surprise that Brooks is embracing it?