College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

If Not College, Then What?

By Guest Blogger — January 23, 2014 4 min read
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Robert Pondiscio of CitizenshipFirst writes again to Deborah Meier.

Dear Deborah,

Let me divorce you of a misconception. If I am fixated, as you insist, on “deciding what children should know,” it is because I see how our language proficiency is largely a function of the knowledge and vocabulary we possess.

I have no burning desire to play curriculum content czar. But the broader your knowledge base, the better equipped you are to speak, listen, read, and write with understanding. Once that’s clear, it makes no more sense to be unconcerned with the content of a child’s education than to be unconcerned with her diet. We would never say to parents, “The food your child eats isn’t what’s important. What’s important is creating a lifelong love of eating!” That’s basically what many of us say about reading every day. It’s simply not true.

But I’m content you get this, Deb. You wrote, “Learning to use one’s mind well requires content knowledge.” So we agree. Or at least we agree enough.

If every teacher and parent in America understood that our big-picture goals for schooling—reading comprehension, critical thinking, problem-solving—depend on specific knowledge, and that there’s no such thing as an all-purpose problem-solver or critical thinker, there would be little need to be prescriptive about curricular content at all. We would hear no more empty-headed talk of 21st century skills and other education fads du jour. A grounding in history, mathematics, science, literature, and the arts would be seen and seen correctly as the route to the outcomes we seek for all learners.

It’s interesting to me that you’re ambivalent about “college prep.” I will confess I’m not sold on it myself. We are duty bound to keep as many doors open to students for as long as possible.

For low-income children who do not come from a college-going tradition, we serve them well by introducing them to the world of higher education and the opportunities it affords, even if it’s just a signaling mechanism or credential. I want my students to go to college because I’m ambitious for them. But I do not believe that a student has “failed” if he or she doesn’t go to college. There are many ways to live a rich and fruitful life. I do think we have failed, however, if a child remains in our care for 13 years and does not leave prepared to live independently, whether or not they attend college.

I’m curious if this will be something we agree on, Deb.

As a child, my father took me to LaGuardia Airport (he worked for American Airlines) and introduced me to a co-worker who was mopping the floor in the hangars. I must have said something dismissive afterward because I vividly recall my father lighting into me about how this man worked hard all day to put food on the table, provide for his family, and asked for nothing. I was never, ever, to think I was better than him. There is dignity in work, regardless of what that work is. It’s a lesson that stuck. I am my father’s son.

You don’t like “college prep,” but how do you feel about “work prep?” About independence prep? And how does that color our interactions with children? I like your view of school as “apprenticeship for novice adults.” But does that apprenticeship include teaching the nobility of work and the dignity of economic independence?

Part of our students’ apprenticeship is not habits of mind or even the specific content of their curriculum, but our attitudes and biases as adults. “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders,” James Baldwin observed, “but they have never failed to imitate them.”

How did your novices imitate the adults at Mission Hill and your other schools, Deb? What did they learn about work and economic independence? Was it valued? Praised? How did you define adult success for your students? I define it in part as the ability to care for oneself and one’s family. We fulfill our responsibilities as citizens by making our own way in the world, freely and independently.

I don’t think this is a controversial statement. We all want these things for our children and others’. In the world of high-expectations charters, college tends to be a non-negotiable. Again, I’m not completely sold on that. But I am 100 percent sold on independence and self-sufficiency, and “selling” that as surely as we now sell college.

How about you, Deb? Should teachers say to their students what my father said to me?


P.S. Speaking of things teachers say, did you see this? There has been a lot of sturm und drang about how testing and teacher evaluation will chase people from the profession. But this study seems to suggest it’s not happening. Why don’t we shift gears and talk about teaching?

Robert Pondiscio is the executive director of CitizenshipFirst, a civic education initiative based at Democracy Prep Public Schools in Harlem. A former 5th grade teacher in New York City’s South Bronx, Mr. Pondiscio has written and lectured extensively about education and ed reform. He previously served as the vice president of the Core Knowledge Foundation. Prior to becoming involved in education, Mr. Pondiscio was the communications director for BusinessWeek, and the public affairs director for TIME Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rpondiscio.

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences 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.