On the school of second chances: a Q&A with Mike Rose

Each spring across America, thousands of students who once lagged behind their peers get accepted to top-notch universities, thanks to what author Mike Rose calls “second chance” learning. In California alone, 20,000 community college graduates successfully transfer into the University of California each year. Other second-chance institutions teach people to speak English and read and write, and provide the training needed to enter trades as diverse as culinary arts and electronics. Their student bodies include people like my own father, a Guatemalan immigrant with a fourth-grade education, who came to L.A. and took night courses at Hollywood and eventually got an A.S. degree from Los Angeles Trade Technical College.

Rose, an L.A. native and UCLA professor, takes a look at the health of these institutions in his 11th book, “Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education.” He agreed to answer a few questions about his new book and the state of second-chance learning in the U.S.

You’re the author of several books about working people and education. Especially about people whose talents are ignored, or who are seen as “problems” by many educators. How did this life-long interest of yours come about?

Well, their story is in many ways my story. My parents were Italian immigrants who were drawn west by the classic 1950s California dream, traveling to Los Angeles to create a better life. They, and all of my family, worked blue-collar and service jobs, and like many working-class kids, I didn’t do so well in school. I drifted along and was tracked into a general-vocational curriculum in high school. Then my senior English teacher turned my life around and steered me toward college – where I struggled before finding my way. So the lives of children migrating here from Mexico or Central America or Asia, or men and women doing physical work, or people in adult school, or the freshman who struggles in college – they all reach something deep in me. But I have to say – because it rarely gets said – that these people’s stories are also intellectually rich: the unacknowledged linguistic gifts of the immigrant kid, the brains it takes to do physical work, the cognitive intricacies of an adult figuring out algebra. All this is as worthy of research as landing a robotic explorer on Mars


“Back to School” is about “second chancers” and the schools that serve them. Could you tell us a bit more about the wide variety of students you found at the adult schools you’ve visited and what kind of challenges that presents to the people who run those schools?

In an adult school in L.A., you’ll find everyone from the precocious 18-year old who could not stomach another day of high school to the newly arrived immigrant from Belarus or Taiwan or El Salvador, to a wide range of people in their 30s and 40s who quit high school to join the workforce and raise a family, to older folks who just want the stimulation of a classroom. You’ll find an even wider range of students in our community colleges, talking one minute to a young woman fresh out of high school with her sights set on transfer to UC, and the next minute to a guy who spent years behind bars and is getting his life together in an automotive technology program. I don’t think our policymakers fully understand the challenges of providing a quality education for such a wide sweep of students: specialized teaching and counseling, extra hours of services, high-tech facilities and a lot more. Yet budgets are being slashed, courses and programs and entire adult school campuses eliminated. We’re talking about denying opportunity to a broad cross-section of America. This doesn’t make long-term economic sense. And it violates our nation’s most basic principles.

“Back to School” has a wonderful blurb from President Clinton in which he talks about teaching students and putting America “back to work.” What kind of pressure has the economic restructuring of the last few years placed on “second-chance” schools?
One way community colleges are responding to the changing economy is by improving or establishing programs to fill emerging occupational needs in fields like healthcare and industrial technology. In some cases, colleges forge partnerships with local industries. I have been impressed with the entrepreneurial savvy of some of our local colleges. As valuable as it can be, though, this kind of training does raise an important question: Does the training also provide a good education? One of the major liabilities of traditional American vocational education was its tendency to focus narrowly on job training versus teaching students the knowledge and ways of thinking involved in their area of study. If their jobs folded, they were limited in their ability to transfer their skills to new work. At heart, we’re talking about a 100-year-old institutional and cultural problem: the sharp split in the curriculum between academic and vocational study – a divide a lot of educators are trying to bridge. Occupations involving the car, the kitchen, the industrial plant, the computer, the human body all have within them a rich academic knowledge base and ongoing problem-solving, troubleshooting, ethical judgment, and the like. As we respond to the pressing needs of our students for decent jobs, we need to be vigilant that we are not simply providing them with a snazzy 21st century version of narrow vocational training.

Your book mentions the project underway to redraft the GED, and the possibility of splitting it into two degrees. I’m wondering where you come down in that debate and why the function of the GED in the “new” economy.
A counselor in one of the adult schools I studied told me this story. A GED student had both work and childcare responsibilities that made it impossible for her to attend classes more than one hour a day. But she came week after week, month after month. And after several hard years, she passed the exam. She was overjoyed, as you can imagine, and, the counselor explained, her success changed the way she thought about herself. I’ve seen this sort of thing happen again and again in “second chance” institutions; when people begin to master what had eluded them before, it can have a powerful effect on the way they see themselves and on their willingness to take on further challenges. But these accounts tend to get lost in statistical averages of completion rates and tables of labor market advantage.

Now, it is sadly true that of those who pass the GED exam, only a small percentage go on to complete a two- or four-year college degree. The current efforts to toughen up the GED exam are an attempt to bring the exam more into line with the demands of college. And on the face of it, that’s not a bad idea. When a previous revision of the exam added a writing sample, it led more programs to increase instruction in writing – a good thing. I’ve spent my whole career urging a higher-quality education for academically underprepared people, but I worry about the assumption that amping up a test will make students “college ready.” Many of those preparing for the GED carry big burdens. There are 40 million Americans who lack a high school diploma or GED certificate; at least 4 million or 5 million are under 26. So, yes, let’s improve the test, but in the context of a larger national discussion about how to help more, not fewer, people move out of our educational shadow-lands.

The schools you profile in “Back to School” aren’t named. But you teach at UCLA and one senses, in the stories in the book, the diversity of the city of Los Angeles.

I’ve been fortunate over the years to be able to write about a wide range of schooling in the Los Angeles Basin, from kindergarten to graduate seminar to adult education and an equally wide range of work, from waitressing to surgery. This writing has taught me so much about teaching and learning but, more broadly, about the human condition as it plays out day to day in this dizzyingly complicated region: the yearning and disappointment, the intelligence and the barriers to achievement. You can’t really understand a school without understanding the community surrounding it, its economic and demographic present and past. I’ll give you one small example from the community where I grew up, South Central. You can be on a main drag with boarded-up storefronts and liquor stores and walk down a side street to find a block of modest homes with flower beds – people holding a community together. I don’t think I’ll ever forget a high school girl’s comment as the two of us were watching a local news broadcast on her neighborhood. The camera zoomed down a blighted street as the reporter compared the place to a Third World country. The girl, who certainly knew the problems and dangers of her neighborhood, was taken aback. “This isn’t the Third World,” she said after pausing a moment. “This is where we live.”


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