Education Opinion

Preparation for College, But Not for Career

By Walt Gardner — April 28, 2010 2 min read
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Although President Obama has repeatedly urged all states to adopt “college- and career-ready” standards, in reality it is the former that overwhelmingly dominates the reform movement. That’s nothing new. Vocational education (now called career and technical education) has long been treated as a stepchild in the U.S. But this second-class status poses a serious threat to the nation in the new global economy.

While there is certainly some overlap between the knowledge and skills needed for college and those needed for work, they are different. This does not mean, however, that one is superior to the other, as Jeffrey V. Bohl made abundantly clear in “ ‘Career Diplomas’ Are Not a Lesser Option” (Education Week, Apr. 7).

Literacy serves as a prime example. In Real Education (Crown Forum, 2008), Charles Murray takes a random page from textbooks used in introductory courses in core college disciplines to show that the prose a freshman must be prepared to read and comprehend is not easy. The page is characterized by long sentences, unexplained references and unfamiliar vocabulary.

There are, of course, wide variations in the SAT scores that claim to measure verbal ability from college to college. An Ivy League school, for example, will typically demand greater rigor than a state university. But the larger point is that a different minimal proficiency is needed to succeed in college than is needed in many entry-level career positions. By giving short shrift to the difference, we set too many students up for failure.

More important, however, is the terrible harm done to students who have neither the desire nor aptitude to pursue a college degree. These students are made to feel like failures simply because they have not bought into the sheepskin obsession that permeates high schools. In addition, when these students see no connection between the courses they are required to take and their future plans, they either drop out or act out. Yet they often possess unique talents that will pay off psychologically and financially.

I’ve lost count of the number of class reunions I’ve attended of the high school where I taught for 28 years. But I remember one in particular. A student I had in my senior composition class introduced himself and proudly told me that he had his own business designing and building furniture. Although he was a quiet and average student who never went to college, he became a successful artisan.

It’s important to remember this student because the only jobs that will be secure in the next decade will be those that cannot be offshored electronically, according to Alan Blinder, former vice chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve. If he is correct, then auto mechanics, plumbers and electricians, for example, will be working steadily while many of their degreed classmates will be on the unemployment line.

Robert Reich, former secretary of labor under President Clinton, also acknowledged the threat of offshoring in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on Apr. 12 (“The Jobs Picture Still Looks Bleak”). But in arguing that the unemployment rate for Americans with college degrees is “now only 5%, while it is 10.5% for those with only a high-school degree,” he failed to identify which college majors offer more job security. This omission leaves the distinct impression that the sheepskin itself, rather than the specialization, is what matters the most.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.