Education Opinion

Sorry, Your Reservation Has Been Cancelled

By Susan Graham — January 12, 2008 3 min read
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It’s funny how one thing leads to another. I’ve been questioning whether college preparation should be the primary goal of high schools, so Kevin Bushweller’s January 9 Motivation Matters blog: Comparing American, Chinese, and Indian Students, caught my attention when Kevin wrote

The economic benefits of being highly educated and having a "safe" career seem to be major motivators for the students in India and China, but not for the Americans.

And that led to Andrew Trotter’s article, Film Depicts China, India Besting U.S. in Schooling, about Two Million Minutes

… an independent documentary film. The documentary, conceived and financed by high-tech entrepreneur Robert A. Compton, suggests that the difference in the way students use their roughly “two million minutes” in high school will seriously affect their economic futures and that of the United States.

Notice that both of these quotes focus on a common theme: “economic benefits” and “economic future.” What these young people from China and India seem to grasp that American young people do not is that the specifics of their education, rather than the extent of their education, will be critical to earning a secure income. We are a nation accustomed to expansion and accustomed to being the economic powerhouse of our world, limited only by our imagination, ambition, and work ethic. But as the world shrinks, we are beginning to feel a little crowded.

Perhaps this outlook on the part of our young is predictable, when so many politicians and policy wonks seem to come up with the same simplistic answer to the “problem.” In order to ensure our economic pre-eminence, we need a highly educated work force. And to secure that work force, we must make sure that no child is left behind, therefore every child should go to college. A college education has been promoted as the magic talisman of success, social standing and security. All they need is a degree!

Here’s the reality. While our high schools are “graded” on their success in preparing students for college entrance, most students who enter American high schools never go to college. Far too many never finish high school. They drop out because they need to work or because they don’t need the frustration of being marked as failures at sixteen. Being accepted, especially to a “good” college, is a competitive process and for many of our young people winning this competition is what high school is all about. What they intend to learn after they get in college and what they intend to do with that knowledge is vague, but they seem sure that it will result in economic security.

Impossible dream? Maybe, but don’t we want to set high expectations for all students? And what if we actually meet our goal? What if we really don’t leave a single child behind in the quest for enrollment in a four-year college program? What if every high school student aspires to and achieves a perfect score on the SAT? Where will we find sufficient college placements for them? Who will pay for their post secondary education? And if we enrolled them all and they all graduated within six years, where will they find jobs? Because while there are a growing number of jobs that require a degree, and while those jobs do pay more, there are not enough of those jobs to go around.

College graduates are often disconcerted to discover that the world is not waiting breathlessly for their entrance into the job market. Their degree is not a ticket to a secure career; it is only admission to the competition for professional employment. Many of our college graduates are underemployed either because they lack specific job skills or there is no market for the skills they acquired in college. More college graduates will not fix the problem.

As a real-live teacher, I am touched by the honesty of Robert Compton, the orginator behind Two Million Minutes.

I don’t consider myself knowledgeable enough to make policy recommendations. I’m just showing you the truth … about high school education.”

The truth is that as Americans we have grown accustomed to preferential seating at the economic table, but globalization has cancelled our standing reservation and economic isolationism is not an option. Nothing will turn back the clock. A college education is no longer a meal ticket because the table is crowded and the competition is now global and fierce.

So, if a college degree for everyone is not the answer, what other strategies might help secure the next generation a place at this increasing crowded table? Are there other ways to win?

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table 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.