College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

I Could Have Told You So

By Susan Graham — February 08, 2011 4 min read
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By concentrating too much on classroom-based academics with four-year college as a goal, the nation's education system has failed vast numbers of students, who instead need solid preparation for careers requiring less than a bachelor's degree.

You don’t say! Just about any public school teacher could have pointed this out, but what did we know? Now Harvard says it, so it must be true!

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan urged educators and policymakers to embrace a vision of career and technical education that prepares students simultaneously for college and good-paying jobs by imparting the blend of academic and workplace skills needed in both.

But Mr. Secretary, that’s not exactly what you’ve been saying is it? The mantra and measure of success has been college for all!

Michael Cohen, president of Achieve, which lobbies for college prep academic standards seemed to be doing a little backtracking. When he was interviewed he claimed that

No one is talking about preparing everyone for four-year colleges, or even two-year colleges. Everyone from the President on down is saying, 'Some form of training after high school.'

Hummm, I guess maybe the alternatives to COLLEGE FOR ALL! must have been in really really fine print because you just don’t hear a lot from policymakers and pundits about the Career and Technical Education programs of highly successful schools. When Jay Mathews rates America’s Best High Schools for Newsweek, the only considerations are the number of students taking Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or Cambridge tests. Successful completion of an external industry certification that prepares students to enter the job market upon graduation is not a consideration. Apparently it is a far far better thing to have attempted an AP test and failed than to pass an industry certification exam and become a Cisco systems engineer.

Secretary Duncan said that “....re-envisioned [CTE] programs will be ‘viable and rigorous pathways’ to college and career success.” But he qualified this by first saying, “....too many CTE programs have been dumping grounds for students tracked with weaker academic skills.” So does that mean we need to clean up the mess down in the vocational halls of our schools, or does it mean that we need to let the losers with “weaker academic skills” sit in the room with the “smart” kids. The implication is pretty clear that while he may say that quality career education is good, he believes academic coursework is a lot better.

American policymakers may have outgrown their belief in the Tooth Fairy, but they are still pushing the education fairy tale that ends: “And they went to college, became prosperous, and lived happily ever after.” The economists who are making education policy promise us a Field of Dreams with a job market where “If we build college graduates, the jobs will come.” But that’s not how the basic economic principle of supply and demand works. The Harvard report acknowledges research that we’ve had for a long time.

Six in 10 Americans do not complete associate’s or bachelor’s degrees by their mid-20s, and only one in 10 earns an occupational certificate. There will continue to be limited job growth in positions that require only a high school diploma. But neither is there a growth market in positions that require a four-year degree. Skilled technical jobs that cannot be outsourced are where opportunity lies. Going to college may help you compete for some job, but that competition may be fierce. In the meantime, hospitals are hard pressed to fill technical positions and some industries say their growth is hampered because employers are reporting that “Getting well-qualified, smart people who want to work in an industrial environment is not easy.” We have a mismatch between the job market and job applicant resumes.

According to Anthony P. Carnevale, one of the job-market experts cited in the Harvard report, we are overdue in readjusting our narrow focus on college prep and reconsidering how we prepare students for middle-skills jobs. But he warns that there are political pitfalls in changing the conversation because of a perception that some students, especially those from lower income groups, will be tracked into a career path and away from college preparation.

If that’s the concern, then experts and reformers are not actually talking about re-visioning, only renaming the old tracking system. If we are really going to re-vision our education process, then preparation for work and preparation for advanced scholarship will be seamlessly integrated.

Schwartz, a member of the Harvard team, says tracking is “when schools make decisions about what kids are capable of and what their futures are. It’s pervasive in our schools, and it’s a huge problem.” So what does that say about a recent EdWeek article about starting college prep in kindergarten which features No Excuses University Elementary School and reports

As part of a school reform effort in New Haven, Connecticut, parents of students in grades K-8 will be given college-ready checklists beginning this spring. Those lists will help them follow whether their children are on track at certain stages in school and what they can do to help.

When you tell five-year olds that they need to get on track for college, isn’t that a case of “schools making decisions about what kids futures should be?” Does that mean that if Johnny wants to be a fireman in first grade he’s “off track”? Does this tell Anna’s mother, who is proud of providing compassionate care to in a local nursing home, that she needs to realize that she’s a loser, and if she’s a good parent, she’ll insure that her daughter doesn’t grow up to be like her? What makes it okay to tell a kid she ought to take foreign language and AP chemistry to prepare for college when she’d rather graduate from high school ready to begin a career doing computer assisted drafting?

The Harvard’s Pathways to Prosperity report concludes that

The American system for preparing young people to lead productive and prosperous lives as adults is clearly badly broken....Other countries manage to equip a much larger fraction of their young people with occupationally relevant skills and credentials by their early twenties. Consequently, these young people experience a much smoother transition into adulthood, without the bumps and bruises so many of our young are now experiencing. The lessons from Europe strongly suggest that well-developed, high quality vocational education programs provide excellent pathways for many young people to enter the adult work force.

I realize no one really likes to hear this, but I could have told you so. In fact, I did.

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.