Education Chat

Diplomas Count 2007: A Conversation With the Experts

Second of two discussions about the release of Diplomas Count 2007: Ready for What? Preparing Students for College, Careers, and Life After High School.

June 20, 2007

Diplomas Count 2007: A Conversation With the Experts

Anthony P. Carnevale
, economist and research professor at Georgetown University; and James E. Rosenbaum, professor of sociology at Northwestern University.

Kevin Bushweller (Moderator):
Welcome to the second of two online chats to talk about the release of Diplomas Count 2007: Ready for What? Preparing Students for College, Careers, and Life After High School. There were lots of great questions and insightful answers during our first chat, and based on the questions already submitted, today’s chat is shaping up to be equally interesting. So let’s get the discussion started ...

Question from Cynthia Taibbi, READ! 365, Pittsburgh:
Why isn’t vocational education being better understood? Children not interested in heading off to college can learn real skills in a well-run vocational setting. The world will always need carpenters and plumbers...these jobs are plentiful, honorable and pay well. It seems to me we could be providing real opportunities for so many of our youth if vocational education were given more respect and more dollars.

Anthony P. Carnevale:
As Jim Rosenbaum proves over and over again, we are underinvesting in vocational education. Shortages in skilled vocations have been chronic throughout modern American economic history. This is a case where culture trumps economics in the US. Vocational programs are universally regarded as second best. People tend to come to them because they need to not because they want to. In the US every parent knows that all our kids don’t need to go to college. But they also want their kids to go to college. So vocational program is widely supported as a good idea for “other peoples children” but never our own. And of course there is no such thing as other peoples children because all children have parents and all parents want their own kids to go to college. And besides vocational education raises issues on tracking that are inimical to Amerian culture. Catch 22.

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The last go round on this question came in the Clinton administration and “school to work apprenticeship"; which became “school to work????”. And eventually “school to careers” in order to emphasize the college option.

Question from Si Si Goneconto, Overcoming Obstacles:
Do you think that “non-academic” or “soft skills” such as communication, goal setting, conflict resolution, etc. should be part of the required K-12 curriculum? If so, is it best taught as a separate class (e.g., circle time, advisory)or infused with academic subjects or both.

James E. Rosenbaum:
Yes I do. It can be done in many forms. However, threatening schools with for test scores probably isn’t helpful for this goal.

Question from Greg Wolniak, Research Scientist, NORC at the University of Chicago:
The sociologist Sam Lucas suggests (through his “Effectively Maintained Inequality” hypothesis) that preparing more and more students for college and quality employment may do little to reduce inequality in society, as advantaged groups are able to secure “better” if not “more” education.

Is it possible for our schools to teach students economically valuable skills in a way that reduces inequality?

Anthony P. Carnevale:
Your question gets at the political economy of American education as much as the economics of education. As Americans we prefer to use education to allocate opporutunity because, in theory, it allows us to allocate opporutunity without surrendering our committment to individual responsiblity. Each student has to do his or her own homework and ace the tests to get to college and get the best jobs. Also education allows us to minimize direct income redistribution through an expanded welfare state. So the solution to our econimic inequality problems, trade problems, social problems etc. are always education, education education!

It is not hard to deconstruct this view as an intiellectual and empirical proposition but it is firmly in place in our cutlure and politics and will remain so over the foreseeable future. this education consensus has been strengthened since Clintons second term when we rapidly gravitated toward college for all. And with the gradual disappearance of the blue collar economy some form of postsecondary education and training is rapidly becoming not just the preferred to middle class status but the most traveled.

The most profound problem with this idea is that education is organized by race and class. As a result education tends to reproduce elites. Also US education is front loaded in the first 25 years of life so it is most influenced by being born into the majority race and the right bank account.It doesnt help adults very much. Lifetime learning is a line in every stump speech but never a line in any public budget.

But now that education is the dominant route to middle class status we will have to use it ore agressively to insure upward mobility. Education gradually became the centrist alternative to the welfare state in the US (but not in Euroope or Britain), it eventually became our third way between the European nanny state and runaway capitalism. When the blue collar economy waned we got what we wished for in concept - a society in which opportunity is based on merit based opportunity (tests an grades) now we have to figure out how to make it work. And it’s not working yet as you point out.

Question from Steve Plank, sociologist, Johns Hopkins University:
A question for Jim Rosenbaum:

Jay Matthews’ column in The Washington Post on June 19 engaged you and your views in some detail. Matthews showed you a lot of respect but also worried that you ignore the power of the college myth in American society, and that your view of the educational world does not adequately address the difficult problem of how and when to sort students. I suspect you do not want to see schools sorting rigidly in an “either/or” fashion, but WOULD like to see schools move away from an exclusive focus on college preparation. Could you comment on what a kind and fair sorting machine might look like, in your opinion?

James E. Rosenbaum:
Mathews misrepresented my opinions, and only provided a small clarifying paragraph near the end, in response to my comments on his earlier draft, which was worse. Every college graduate knows someone who overcame low high school achievement, and managed to get BA & other successes. No one wants to close off that opportunity -- certainly not me. Yet national data confirm what commonsense expects -- of low achieving seniors who plan to get college degrees, only 20% succeed in getting any degree. In other words, college dreams can lead to success, but only for 20%. For the other 80%, many attend college, but they are in many noncredit remedial classes, they don’t complete a degree, and many get few or no college credits. Getting a few credits without a degree rarely produces earnings benefits. In other words, while we want policies to maintain second chances for the 20% to get degrees, we have to ask what high schools can do for the 80% who do not. Current HS policy ignores these students and aims everybody to college with no backup options. Mathew ignored the question I’d pose --what are high schools going to do for the many students who fail to get a college degree? More of the same hasn’t worked. You are correct, the answer is not either/or. It must involve adding something additional, and large numbers of students can benefit.

Question from Walt Lessun, Library Director, Gogebic Community College:
High Schools in the western end of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula are eliminating or reducing school librarians, art teachers and music teachers. Hence community colleges are devoting scarce resources to remediating first-year students in information literacy, visual literacy and aural literacy. Any ideas as to why libraries, art programs and music programs are seen as expendable by district administrators?

Anthony P. Carnevale:
Back to basics is primitive stuff. It reduces education to basic blocking and tackling - reading and math. But basics do not make great performers. The world record holder on basketball foul shots never played in the NBA. Michael Jordan’s inspired performances weren’t learned by shooting foul shots. Great performances in art, work and life in general come from a complex mix of competencies including knowledge, skill, ability,values and interests not rote learning in narrow subject matter. This is especialy true in the modern service based econmy. And we know, for instance, that in a modern service economy that nobody uses Algebra II on the job (when was the last time you had to solve a problem with a quadratic equation)but the vast majority of good jobs require creativity, critical thinking and a host of general skills that can be learned in art and music at least as well as in Algebra II. And of course Art and music give insight, pleasure and even epiphanies that can’t be had in the workaday world of dollars and cents.

Why do people cut art art,literature and music. Theyre desperate and their imaginations fail them and in some casess there is a giving in to a basic authoritarian instinct that fears the disruptive invididualism that arises with exposure to deep learning.

Question from Margaret Mahon Math Teacher Wadleigh secondary:
In preparing youngsters for graduation and beyond, what can we do as educators to instill in the student a belief that all obstacles are possible to overcome and their input into the plan really matters?

James E. Rosenbaum:
This is an important question, too large to fully answer here. However, if schools can help students see the many different realistic options from which they can choose, that will give a sense of empowerment. Also giving practical experience in workplaces, especially those that use their skills will also help.

Question from Jim Harper, writer, Miami Dade College:
Please elaborate on the level of parental involvement and graduation rates. Also, does household income play a stronger role than intact families?

James E. Rosenbaum:
The answer is not either/or. However, while parental involvement can be very helpful, and schools should encourage it, schools cannot rely only on parental involvement and must have other procedures to assist that goal. Some of the issues are discussed in the article provide some direction

Question from Caroline Byerman, Nevada Public Education Foundation:
What is the impact of high-stakes testing on the dropout crisis? Particularly high school exit exams. Are there national trends toward multiple measures to demonstrate proficiency, and is there a general agreement that standards are changed with the addition of multiple measures?

James E. Rosenbaum:
This is not my expertise. A very good book by Martin Carnoy, the new accountability, indicates that Texas managed to avoid increasing dropout rate because it used high-stakes testing that required LOW standards. That may have assisted in raising the minimum achievement, which is a desirable goal, but it did not affect higher achieving students. High-stakes with high standards might have undesirable effects on dropouts, as some research has suggested.

Question from Shari Krishnan, Parent:
My son is 15 years old and is going to be in the 10th grade in the fall. I’m very interested in high school redesign and have been reading much about it for years.

I’d like to know how the experts and think tanks are engaging parents in the process, beyond having us simply tell our children to do their homework. LOL

Healthy home-school relationships are critical. Access to timely information on this topic, delivered to students and famlies will be important for buy-in.

Are there lobbying efforts to support this?

James E. Rosenbaum:
I am not involved in this area, but I have seen various groups who were interested. It is an important concern.

Question from William H. Bailey, Ph.D., Geography, Georgia State University:
Do you think that geography and history should be strong threads that permeate elementary, middle, and high school curricula in order to help high school graduates know and know how to know about the world’s people and places in view of the globalization phenomenon?

James E. Rosenbaum:
Yes I do. However it is a challenge to make these subjects feel real to students, especially those who have no opportunities to travel

Question from Dee Stearns, Manager, Advanced Technology Company:
What role does “industry” play in helping to ensure that students are prepared? How can companies/businesses develop partnerships with educational systems to: (1) design curriculum, (2) provide technology training for teachers and (3) provide opportunities for student intern/co-ops? I believe that in designing the solution, local businesses should also be encouraged to participate as well.

James E. Rosenbaum:
Industry can play an important role. You mentioned many important activities. I would stress their potential role of in providing strong positive incentives for students to see the importance of what they are learning in school and the importance of exerting effort to becoming more competent. When teachers urge these efforts, they would have more authority if industry representatives would back them up. Some employers have doubts about whether they really care about academic skills and students grades, but it turns out that high school grades strongly predicts high school graduates earnings nine years later, even if they didn’t attend college. You might look at my book, beyond College for all which discusses these issues.

Question from Anna Cicero, Professional School Counselor, Westwood High School, Mesa Unified School District:
School Counselors are at the forefront of reaching all students through the implementation of the National Model-comprehensive guidance, what priority is being placed in recognizing the importance of increasing the number of school counselors in K-12 settings to create personalized learning, college, and career plans for ALL students?

I encourage Ed. Week to speak to Arizona, California, and other “cutting edge” states who are working very hard to improve college attendance and career preparation among the youth of our nation. I have your contacts for people, programs and information on the National Model for Comprehensive Guidance and Counseling Program...School Counselors in the classroom teaching ALL Students, creating personal learning plans, electronic portfolios, educational plans, goal setting, decision making, resource research, etc. Georgetown Univ. has a good counselor education preparation program and transition program.

James E. Rosenbaum:
I agree, counselors can be an important resource. Unfortunately, their efforts are often misused on paperwork, discipline enforcement, and miscellaneous other tasks. In a study of two-year colleges, we found that counselors and a major impact in improving student motivation and degree completion. I suspect the same may be true in high schools.

Question from Olga Cuellar, Ex Dir, FUENTE Learning Center, A non profit org:
A critical question to address is: Do schools have the expertise to redesign schools to assist the many hard-to-reach-and-teach minority groups?

Especially since many students have poor family support or the students no longer respect their family support.

James E. Rosenbaum:
The obstacles are very great, but I have seen some teachers reach difficult children, even at the high school level. It takes individual attention sometimes, and extra teacher efforts, which requires resources and smaller classes. However, providing programs that lead to desirable future careers with a high probability can be a powerful hook for motivating students, and that is one of the issues raised in my essay and in my other research.

Question from Susan, resource teacher, Ca:
What about students with learning disabilities in high school. Can they earn the same diploma as their non-disabled peers?

Anthony P. Carnevale:
Learning disabled students can learn with proper support and tools. They represent the cutting edge in teaching and learning. They force the education system and professions to focus on the learning processes from the students point of view. The usual notion that learning is something someone does to another person. With the learning disabled it is immediatley obvious that learning and teaching is a collaboratin and that it begins with an understanding of what the learner already knows and can do and only proceeds when the learng style of the student is primary. Learning is jointly produced in the economists terminology and the diploma is the mark of a successful collaboration. Standardization in diplomas, tests, curriculums and pedagogy are necessay in mass education sytems but human minds are not standardized. Hence the challenges in the teaching and learning of the learning disabled are essentialy the same. We shouldn’t back down from the challenge of learning diasblity becayse this is one of those burrs under the saddle of traditional education that makes the conventional uncomfortable and ultimately leads to better schooling for everyone.

Question from David Kopperud, Education Programs Consultant, California Department of Education:
California is currently building its capacity to collect, maintain, and submit accurately exit codes data to properly track all K-12 students in California. How essential is maintaining the integrity of the data collection to reducing the number of dropouts in the public schools and what interventions are recommended for students identified as dropouts?

James E. Rosenbaum:
Several states have begun this kind of data collection, but California is in the vanguard. It is of crucial importance that we gather statewide data, since otherwise we cannot tell whether students who leave one school go to another one. Knowledge about the extent of dropout in various schools permits relevant interventions to prevent it. There are many different intervention models, too many to mention here. However, the issues I raised about providing realistic desirable future goals and showing their relationship to students school efforts are certainly part of the solution.

Question from Jac VerSteeg, editorial writer, Palm Beach Post, FL.:
The study found that just 63 percent of Palm Beach County freshmen returned as sophomores. That’s an astonishing number. How did researchers measure the dropout rate from 9th to 10th grade? Does the calculation account for students who simply move away?

James E. Rosenbaum:
I do not know that study. Florida may have statewide data which would allow analysis of whether students attend a different school in that state

Question from Elizabeth, Science Teacher Educator/Consultant:
All of the responsibility for education seems to rest on schools. What about the importance of family cooperation, values and expectations? What is the role of society -- parents, community, leaders, others in supporting teachers’ efforts?

James E. Rosenbaum:
I totally agree. Teachers can be far more effective if students see them as important and respected. Some of the criticism of teachers overgeneralizes and may even undermine the authority and effectiveness of teachers. Employers can also help by considering high school grades when they hire. High school grades predict work performance, but employers don’t seem to realize that. In Japan, teachers recommendations affected the quality of jobs students obtained, if they didn’t go to college, so even work bound students were motivated to do well in school.

Question from Mitch Edwards, Director of Communication, Alabama Department of Education:
1. Since there is no common definition of a high school graduate or a dropout in the United States, what makes your definition the most correct/best one?

2. Are some states “gaming” the graduation issues by including students as graduates who clearly do not have all students meet the criteria (i.e. special eduation students)?

3. Since your report clearly references that the more minority students a state has the steeper the hill to climb, does your report really do anything but tell readers how mostly homogeneous/white student states beat more diverse minority laden states in most educational categories, graduation rates, NAEP results, etc.

James E. Rosenbaum:
I only wrote an essay, I did not write this report. However, your concern about gaming is a good one. Whenever we create policies with high-stakes punishments or rewards, we tend to find gaming. NCLB may have created some of this, by threatening schools with closure.

Question from Mary Ann K Philippi, Advocate, New Jersey:
What agencies should be involved the transition from school to adult life? And at what age should they get involved? I know about NJ. But I am interested in the rest the US.

James E. Rosenbaum:
I like your question, but I can’t speak about other agencies. The agency that should be most involved is the one where most youth already are -- compulsory public schools.

Question from James Fullerton, Southern Lehigh School District, PA:
After a few decades of declining drop-out rates, recent reports suggest that while drop-out rates amongst white students will increase slightly, non-white (Latino and Black) student drop-out rates are increasing, again. Asked of Alvin Toffler, as he appeared at a Congressional Economic Committee in June, 2006 on Capitol Hill, what he would suggest to be done to improve our educational system, he replied “…shut it down.” His views are echoed by Bill Gates as well. Is the answer more funding directed at these top 20% at risk students in the form of early intervention programs and re-teaching extension classes that eventually recycle these students back into the main stream, or is our educational system functioning as best it can? Currently, educational reform is being target at the obvious culprits, teachers; yet should reform start with teacher colleges, many of whom still practice out dated theories of learning, lecture, and focus on teacher methodologies known to be less than beneficial to student performance?

Anthony P. Carnevale:
Change is mostly about what’s next not what’s ideal. The nineties were a period when we decided to set standards. We werent ready. We didnt even have the basic student record systems and assessments in place that would allowus to figure out if we were meeting standards over time. We didn’t know what the standards were for. For example were we trying to fix it so that every youth knew Algerbra II and if so Why? Presumably to get a good job. but he relatiship between curriculums and good jobs is not at all obvious. We knew that good jobs requreid a complex sets of knowledge, skills, ablities, interests and values that were mostly not listed in any school catelogue.

But we set the standrds anyway. Why? Beciase if we sidnt we wouldnever be forced to tackle the tough questions on teaching and learning as well as measuremt and assesment that would only come up if we waited till we were truly ready to set and meet standards.

So now that we have the cart before the horse we are in the painfull and disruptive process of tryng to build a horse to pull the cart. Standards were just the beginning not the end.

The current standards dialogue on NCLB for exampleis all hung up on the uses of federal power and money. What’s next? Federal power in NCLB will recede (the feds are in full retreat mode at home abroad). The seems will send a little more money. But all that is beside the point in terms of its effects on teaching and learning. What really matters is that the standards have forced a much more complicated dialogue on the capacity of American education to deliver. and swe are beginning to build tht capacity with new student records sytems, and a ong overdue focus on qujaity asserssamnts thqt will allow us to actually follow student progeress. place that could but most peorple incoved resoned that even though we had teh cart before tdh orseto

Question from Dr. Harry T. Fogle, State Team Leader Baltimore, MD:
Now that many states require some type of exit exam for the high school diploma, what do you think will happen in terms of litigation for students with disabilities who are not able to meet the minimum standards to receive a high school diploma when they have been on a diploma track their entire high school experience and that has been documented in the students Individual Education Program?

James E. Rosenbaum:
The nation has rushed into the standards movement without very much careful attention to detail. These issues regarding students with disabilities need to be carefully thought through. Litigation is crude tool, but it is sometimes necessary to force ambitious politicians to think clearly about what they are doing.

Question from Clem Lausberg Education Consultant Oregon:
In your opinion, what are the best steps that can be taken to improve the college attendance, and success rates, of low income and minority students.

James E. Rosenbaum:
There are many things that need to be done. In my essay, I pointed to the need for providing incentives for students to work hard in school, in tasks they can see as relevant to their future goals. I address these issues more fully in my books, beyond College for all, and after admissions.

Question from John Thompson H.S. teacher, Oklahoma City Public Schools:
Our district has a graduation rate of 47%, up from 39.9% in 1996, so our schools with a critical mass of generational poverty have long-standing problems.

We’ve raised test scores in elementary and magnet schools, but not in our neighborhood secondary schools. Now we face the challenge of graduation exit exams.

My theory is that we implement “Best Practices” in a “cookie cutter way, simply assuming that strategies that improve low- poverty schools will turn around dysfunctional high-poverty schools.

Can you give us advice for becoming better consumers of educational research?

James E. Rosenbaum:
High school exit exams must be designed very carefully so they provide the right incentives. If designed poorly, they increase dropouts. According to Martin Carnoy, They tend to work best if they pose LOW minimum standards, which raise the achievement of students near the bottom. Providing incentives for middle and higher achieving students requires other techniques.

Kevin Bushweller (Moderator):
Thank you for joining us for today’s chat. And a special thanks to our guests for taking the time to answer questions. This chat is now over. A transcript of the discussion will be posted shortly on

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