Tuesday, February 19, 2008

College should be rigorous and a priority, MV 23

By Jeffrey C. Turbitt

Against a backdrop of Northern Marianas College fighting to retain its accreditation, the distinction that determines a valuable college degree versus a worthless piece of paper, stories about classroom overcrowding and the high failure rate for NMC's admissions test appeared in the local media this week.

Let me preface my thoughts by saying that for all the educational problems on the islands, compared to all the systems in the area and most definitely Guam and rural Hawaii, we are the most successful system in the region. The problem with that line of thinking in that commonly made point is that we live in a globally competitive economy, so being better than the rest of Micronesia just isn't good enough, and we should not want our local college to lower its placement standards.

For all the noise about PSS, there are two issues that dominate all others that I see. The first is that several schools are falling apart from a simple construction and facilities standpoint. The second big issue is that many classes are wildly overcrowded. Kagman High School is listed as having an average of 29 students per teacher. For a core class like language arts those numbers are usually higher. An art, music or computer class is usually much smaller than 29, so when the average says 29, there are usually more than 29 students in math, science or language arts classes to make up for those smaller elective classes. At SSHS, the freshmen pre-honors language arts class has 35 students. Three of my four classes are above 29 students per class.

As for the entrance exams, the criticisms of NMC have been somewhat ridiculous. College is supposed to be rigorous. Every college has admission tests generally in math, language arts and a foreign language. I had to take two remedial math classes myself when I entered college for the simple reason that my math skills weren't at the college level, which made it harder to graduate in four years, but it was still done. The argument that NMC is using this as some kind of money raising tactic is hokum. It could simply raise its already very cheap tuition fees if money was the prime focus.

This comment from a letter to the editor from Ivan Propst defending the NMC admission tests was interesting: "And for those whom the placement system indicates a need to improve their English skill development prior to entry into English 101, a far greater percentage require writing skill development than require further work on their reading skills."

This isn't very surprising. The high schools have a four period block schedule. A real world average of about 33 students times four eighty minute classes means 132 students. A two page writing assignment turns into 264 pages for a teacher to review. A five page paper would be 660 pages. Perhaps that is why a Hopwood teacher recently wrote a letter to the editor requesting help on this from other language arts teachers in the same boat. The simple fact is no one can do those in depth writing reviews more than once or twice per quarter, especially considering the no preparation time and wildly disparate skill levels in the classroom that are a fact of life in the public schools. In each class there is probably a minimum of two students who should be in an ESL class because they have absolutely no understanding of basic English. PSS has no ability to implement these classes because they lack the classroom space and the staff. It also just doesn't seem to be a priority.

Beyond that, while the local government has not funded education properly, an even bigger problem is that many parents have not instilled enough focus, will and urgency on their children to get that bachelor's degree, which is the admissions ticket for any serious hope at a decent middle class lifestyle. During my four years teaching seniors, I was staggered by the frequency that some of my best students told me their parents flat out told them not to leave the island to go to college. As expensive as college is these days, and it's astronomical, not going or taking the slow route is far more expensive. Median U.S. weekly earnings for a college graduate age 25 and older are $962. For a high school graduate the number is $595. That means it costs $19,084 per year not to have finished college in median earnings differential. That number might be even more dramatic in the CNMI. Very few students here avail themselves of federal financial aid loans that are easy to get, have low interest rates and flexible repayment schedules and instead hold out hope for the scarce "free college money," try the slow way by working low wage jobs to finance the degree or worst of all, "take a year off." That year costs a lot, and the longer it takes the student to get that four year degree, the more it costs in foregone potential earnings. Many other parents encourage direct military enlistment instead of going immediately to a four year college, joining college ROTC, entering the military with a degree as an officer and having far greater career and earning possibilities in the military while still receiving the college financial benefits the military offers, not to mention all that is offered by the college experience.

The CNMI is in a well documented financial crisis. There seems to be little will among our leaders to make hard choices. The temptation is going to be to continue to give short shrift to education as educational benefits are far off and the need to keep voters employed is immediate. Going that route would be a mistake. To obtain a college degree and to achieve a high level of intellectual ability should be a paramount skill and value we instill in our children. We should not look to diminish college standards because we are too cheap to do what we should be doing for the schools.

Jeffrey C. Turbitt is the language arts department chairman at Saipan Southern High School, as well as an avid scuba diver and traveler. He offers more thoughts in his blog Hypercritical Thoughts at: www.turbittj.blogspot.com/ He welcomes feedback, tips and story ideas at turbittj@yahoo.com. His column appears regularly on Wednesdays.


The Saipan Blogger アンジェロ・ビラゴメズ said...

The greatest thing about my education?

I am capable enough to NEVER have to work for the CNMI government.

Jeff said...

Not everyone who works for the govt is incapable.

The Saipan Blogger アンジェロ・ビラゴメズ said...

Maybe I should have written:

"I am capable of NEVER having to work for the CNMI government."

Being outside of government is great. You can criticize and bitch without having to worry about getting fired.

Anonymous said...

Interesting. The alternatives the CNMI government has are not pretty.

The alternatives are to down-size government. The cause-effect of it is that many local people will be out of jobs. They private sector at this time will not be able to absorb them as quickly as in other times.

Whatever assimulation does take place will take place slowly and since most government employees do not have the same skills (some will say work ethic) that the private sector needs (say A/C, Plumbing repair, etc.), there must be some retraining efforts.

I think this administration for all its bad press, has done a decent job of keeping the financial situation from imploding. The financial markets who monitor the CNMI are actually satisfied that this administration has moved to help address the problem and not made it worse.

However, NMC has been a failure. Whereas, an educational institutional is a normally a tremondous asset to a community, this particular one has been a liability. I have no doubt Dr. Fernandez is trying her best but new approahces are needed. Frankly, they should form a true partnership with another institution, have them inject much needed $$$ and credibility and in the end, have an educational institution whose degrees and certificates have value.

Cheers nad go CNMI.

The Saipan Blogger アンジェロ・ビラゴメズ said...

NMC is anything but a liability. It has nothing but unfunded potential.

How many local teachers got their bachelor's degrees from NMC? Where would the teachers we need come from if it weren't for NMC?

This islands needs more education, not less.

Anonymous said...

The problems at NMC are long term problems that need to be addressed. The main one that got NMC in trouble was the lack of assessment of courses and programs. According to the WASC visiting team report, they still have serious problems with assessment. WASC has doubts about having the people writing the Student Learning Outcomes will be doing the assessment of those outcomes.

As for improving the facilities, NMC recently got a $200,000 loan to do that. Yes, more is needed, but I think the President of NMC is asking for too much at this time. She want $3 million, with $1 million going for an architectural study for a new campus. They need to fix the current campus and not waste $1 million on a study that most likely will not happen in the next 2 to 5 years, if at all.

NMC needs to be more open with what is going on there. The President needs to come clean about her contract and the amount she really is getting paid, including the housing allowance? Which other agency head gets a housing allowance? Also, there needs to be a public audit report of NMC's finances to make sure that the tax payers' money is not being wasted.

Yes, NMC needs to retain its accreditation at all cost. We need an education public and NMC is really the only game in town. But, NMC needs to be honest and open to the public, so that they have the publics support. Keeping secrets is not the way to win public support.

local teacher said...

I have had countless students not go to college and or join the military because their family refused to support them, and i do not mean financially. I remember one girl, the validictorian, had the opporotunity for the 7-32 scholarship but she chose to join the military because her parents were afraid they couldnt help her with money if she went to college. i fought tooth and nail to change her mind, told her about other grants, FAFSA, essentially free money, but her parents wouldnt, or couldnt see the opporotunity. she eventually went and joined. then a year into it got knocked up.
I think the parents lack of confidence and courage that their kids can make it is a huge problem.

many of our conselors are jsut as useful. there is no push for higher education beyond NMC, IF that. no education about scholarship, grant and fafsa prepartion or opporotunities. the SAT is hardly pushed. it makes me so sad.

The Saipan Blogger アンジェロ・ビラゴメズ said...

Alright, so I'm being an ass, but your last paragraph proves my point about this island needing more education, not less.

Marianas Pride said...

Jeff, well said.

Marianas Eye said...


Great article. I'd like to see the next one be "Three things that can be done now to fix this."


SFC Hawk said...

Jeff - have been there myself... I hear you, feel your pain and struggles! Before I rant and rave... let me first... I did my job FIRST and did it to my fullest! I did not care who liked or disliked me, I did not care what others had to say behind my back... my only concern was DOING MY JOB and the Kid. Sooo many people said, "its all about the kids"... Oh yay? If that is the case... WHY in the HELL are they NOT ready to attend a REAL COLLEGE abroad? How many of them are having to take the prep courses? The kids are not dumb - they are simply mis lead to believe their GPA is compatible with that of abroad!
My Goddaughter here (attending Bangkok University International College with me) is learning fast how far behind she really was in Saipan... She goes to college with kids her age - too just graduating from: Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Bhuttan, Japan, China, Korea, Vietnam, America, Thailand, France, Germany, Finland, Russia, etc... most her peers are children of the foriegn Embassies workers (State Department people {highly educated dignataries}) here in Thailand . She is totally being challenged! I am too teaching her the "American ways" preparing her for after college. I remind her to represent Saipan to the best! Use proper English in talking, so her peers do not view her as some cute island girl who is non educated... and I can go on.
Saipan should be proud of her as she is evolving speading her culture and gaining a new sub-culture.
My point is before we all bitch about the education levels at Saipan... I KNOW FOR FACT! All the teachers are given CLEAR BENCHMARKS and proper guidance... Are you achieving it? Are you revisiting the total process of what is working and what needs to be corrected. Are you controlling the classrooms or are the students? (be honest - I saw some of those classrooms and student do tattle on you) Stop bitching about having to teach beyond 30 per class... Manage it! I sit in these college classes of 50 plus... we are still learning.
JROTC takes on 45 plus at time 220 per semester. I know Kagman like to say they get about 500 plus (Riiiight), although there are 2 bodies in the program instructing JROTC there only is one instructing at a time (hell, I could do it alone don't be fooled or compare [everyone at SSHS knows that]) ...
JROTC does not have all the answers but we know how to read the BOE rules and regulations and enforce them... my only problem was the "cool teachers" that break the BOE rules for the kids (like chew beetle nut, smoking, gum chewing, tardiness, improper dressing, disrespecting, etc...)and we have to put them back into check! Why in the hell you think the kids love JROTC? It is the RULES and DISCIPLINE being enforced, providing a safe sound educational experience, the Motivational teaching methods we use, the total care and concern of the students, the added time before, during, and after school, breaking the tradition work hours of bell to bell hours (majority of the time I happy came home at 8pm). Teachers need to apply the same and get involved... stop bitching and take personal pride in their surroundings... Damn right I paid lots of money out of my pockets to fix the classroom (tons of hours as well) and outdoor stuff. ASK for assistances... Hell I remember when our Vice Principal has extra computers sitting around and no teachers would pick them up... I did (I scored 3). STOP HALF STEPPING IT! Everyone has to be pro-active. We can too help educated the parents! I know I did in a respectful way...
I will say this however, keeping quality teachers will always be a huge issue for PSS... with that BS pay check you contract with and the zero raises with quality performance (certificated and plaques cannot pay the increasing CUC bills and gas to get to work)... PSS will never retain off Island hires. America offers much better for its teachers.
EVERYONE that TRUELY knows me, like my Cadets (our students at SSHS) knew I stood for one thing [oddly enough it was not military] it was only about... EDUCATION! I found it totally absurd that our cadet was conditioned to believe JROTC was only about Drill & Ceremonies, shooting rifles, and Parades... we needed to be much more than that. Why because the military education evolved too...
Appearently I joined a different Army (1979) from my peers! I joined with a sick AFQT of 32/99 and a GT 85/130(General Education score)... when I arrived to my first duty assignment I was immediately sent to BSEP (Basic Education of the 3Rs) and after 6 months of intence education focus I raised my AFQT 76/99 and GT 126/130. Years past by I had to attend BNCOC and ANCOC (Leadership Courses) because I was an Engineer I was held to a very high Algebra and Geometry Standard (back to military Math school for 4 weeks)... much later in my career - Special Forces, that was a whole new educational level there, equivilent to a BA degree and of course higher for the Officers. I was fortunant my leaders always preached EDUCATION!
I preached EDUCATION and of course the bitching and complants came out about to me about - no or lack of money $$$in the families... (I wounder how the families budget themselves, how much of it goes to booze and gambling, does the family see their childs education as a great investment [like mutual funds])
I always taught and reminded my cadets, just because I am a "White" American it does not mean I grew up with money. I can from the ghettos of East Side San Jose (pre Silicon Valley days [Microsoft]) in a 2 bedroom house and 7 brothers! we lived off of government subsidiaries FOOD STAMPS!!! my family drove a used station wagon [dad was a mechanic for the city bus], mom was at home all the time. We grew up poor and always refered to as "White Trash"...
All my teachers "SUCKED"! They never pushed education on me, waist of time and said I would never amont to...(humm, I am sure I passed them in life by now!) As long as I stayed quiet and out of trouble I would get my Cs... Track and Cross Country seasons at school was great because I would get As and Bs due to the fact I was great in sports. BOTTOM LINE... my GPA was a sick 2.5 NOBODY lined up to give me a dime or encouragement to go to college.
I choose the Army because - I had no choice back in 1979! My mom reminds me of many parents on Saipan... "Go to the Army it is good for you"... instead of telling me the truth (Go to the Army, we cannot afford to send you to college, we cannot afford to keep feeding you and your brothers, we cannot afford medical or dental, we cannot afford to keep you around!) No problem - Uncle Sam loves me, he will take me in... but it comes with a price!
Saipan knows that price well (I am Honored to have been there to witness how they Honor their Heroes!)... but, the down side it... Saipan parents is it really worth sending your kids so you can have access to the Troop Store to get that cheap Budwieser and toilet paper as well as ordering Washers/Dryers vs. buying it at Ace... The military is a great worst case senerio! Listen I don't care who the next US President will be - understand that the US presence we will be in the Middle East FOREVER and there will always be unrest! Learn that from Israel.
EDUCATION... You got to search for every angle there is to afford it! My Goddaughter is Majoring in Computer Graphics and Drawing Technology. She is being encouraged by me to then leave for America and work for a Corp like Disney or a movie production company. She will be looking at a hourly salery starting at $25.00 in a states, like Manchester New Hampshire. Just imagine what Disney pays beside the benefits (stock options, medical, dental, etc...) she will have a future.
EVERYONE BITCHES ABOUT COLLEGE COST... yay your right... I could not afford it grow up too (by the way my 1st EX wife drained my education money from my GI Bill - I have nothing) So, I too had to RESEARCH colleges and price... Load and Behold the answer was simple! I found US America accredited colleges abroad. Check any US Embassy web site. My Goddaughters total degree will cost me just over $13,000 at a Private College (America the same degree would by 5 to 10 times that). The cost of living abroad in some countries like Thailand can run as little as $300 monthly [life styles dictates). We are living big...But, I am also affording my education as well.
Listen, we can bitch and point fingers all day long... we can blame governments... or we can simply do our jobs as parents, teachers, etc... if Everyone would just stop their BSing around look at their part of the pie and get back in line (but do think outside the box) and get goal (mission) oriented... I am sure changes will occur...
Eh what do I know... I am only retired 21 years from the military, 2 time Honor Unit with Distingtion (2nd highest world wide in 2006), just about to graduate with BAMA (Marketing and Accounting), then move on to Assumption University for a Master in Education (ah the total cost $7,000) again an America accredited [Private} college. I may not be the smartest rock in the pile but... I am positive one day I will be a Principal at my own High School in America!
Good luck to all and Fight the Good Fight!
Richard C.Haugh SFC(Ret)US Army

Jeff said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts Sgt. Haugh. The school misses you, as do I. There is a small chance I'll visit thailand this summer, and I'd love to meet up with you.

Richard C. Haugh said...

Anytime Jeff, Oh sorry about the typing errors and the grammar errors (hard to believe I just graduated from TESOL as well)... Certain issues totally get under my skin, like this one. I am also taking my breaks while I am studying for mid-term test all these next two weeks. It is tough going to back to college at my age when all the students are between 16-20 years old and I am older than my professors... But, I will pay my dues and enjoy the INVESTMENT of EDUCATION! Peace - Out Brother! Oh, I do think of you all the time I am sucking down a Starbucks coffee! Lol

Mike said...

Good post.

Here's my crack at solution #1 (for Dr.K). Take it or leave it. And, full disclosure, I am a dive instructor and would probably benefit somehow from its implementation.

It completely escapes me how there isn't a huge diving push at NMC (actually, pss too, but we're talking NMC here). There could be, like 15-20 adjunct profs taking all the students from Open Water to Divemaster, Assistant Instructor or even Insturctor. Boom! Instant trade school.

But, its more than that. PADI courses are transferable almost universally (there is a fee and some paperwork, but nothing that couldn't be added into the course). I'm pretty sure NAUI courses transfer, too Boom! Instant Minor accomplished if you transfer to finish out your degree somewhere. At the very least, the PHY ED requirements have been met.

I just think it would be cool if the diveshops were owned and managed by locals, who had to hire one or two non-english speakers, rather than the current system, where most are owned by non-locals, who hire, at most, maybe one local.

And it totally, completely, fully escapes me how we're not in a program with some mainland school's (or many of them, for that matter) marine biology department.

Recently, Mike Trip and I went out at Obyan with a marine biologist who gets to dive every day in his aquarium. He was completely astounded at what we had out here.

Every student in the US who graduates in Marine Biology ought to have to spend a semester at NMC diving (guided by local Divemasters, who were taught by local Dive Instructors). They would bring tuition, room and board. And they would spend money and leave. Win-Win-Win.

Oh, and imagine the word of mouth advertising we would get. Heck start it right now with Japanese, Korean and Chinese colleges.

Just my thoughts.

Marianas Pride said...

It is sad that parents often blame PSS, NMC, high school and college teachers, and administrators for what they deem as poor student performance. I've always been a firm believer that a true education begins at home.

I'd also like to point out that no one "fails" an English placement test. It is simply a system that was put in place to accurately assess a student's reading and writing skills and to ensure that students are not in a class that is over their head. If we take away NMC's English Placement Test, then we should also take away the Math Placement Test. Can you imagine a kid who can barely add and subtract taking a college-level calculus class? Before you learn to run, you need to learn to walk.

As a former student of MHS and NMC, I am thankful for the education I received. But I want to re-emphasize that my education really began at home. I learned to read at age four because my parents read to me every day. While I wasn't the Valedictorian of my high school class, I graduated with good grades and eventually went on to get my bachelor's degree.

I give props to all teachers here in the CNMI. Our teachers do more than teach English and Math. From what I have learned as a student and teacher, our local teachers counsel, mentor, challenge, and inspire our students to excel not just in the classroom, but in life.

As former Apple CEO John Scully put it, "We expect teachers to handle teenage pregnancy, substance abuse, and the failings of the family. Then we expect them to educate our children."

It seems teachers would have it a lot easier if all parents remembered to read to their kids, to teach them right from wrong, to respect their elders, and to always give their best efforts in whatever they do.

Just my two cents...

Jeff said...

I agree with you Ed. I just received a nice email from your dad on this issue.

Ivan Propst said...


It was so good that in your column yesterday you presented the rationale regarding the extreme difficulty high school teachers have in trying to teach English writing skills. I’m very much aware of that problem as my son Edwin taught English at MHS for a few years. We frequently discussed the arduous task relative to reviewing student writing assignments and why most teachers simply couldn’t effectively teach writing even if they wanted to.

To make the teaching situation discrepancy between the college and high school even worse, college developmental writing classes are limited to 15 students, which is supported by NCTE (or at least was “back in the day”). And would you believe that at one time the NMC administration even agreed to give a writing instructor an additional credit in determining teaching load for each three credits of writing instruction (also supported by NCTE)? That has been discontinued due to financial difficulties, but it at least demonstrated for a time a recognition of the extra work/time required for effective writing instruction.

Here’s hoping that the information you included in that column, relative to high school writing instruction in the CNMI, might have been read and comprehended by legislators, PSS Board members, and PSS administrators.

So kudos for providing that information to the public,

Ivan Propst

The Saipan Blogger アンジェロ・ビラゴメズ said...

Not that I'm an expert in this, but the best way to become a good writer is to be a voracious reader.

Jeff said...

That is my professional opinion as well.

Jeff said...

The answers are in there, David. Parents need to encourage, not discourage, their kids to get a BA/BS in a timely fashion. PSS needs to reduce class sizes, and that is a product of this community not viewing government as this quasi Communist system we have as a job bank and actually focusing on essential services like education.

Anonymous said...

Guam college is definitely better than NMC.