Friday, February 4, 2011

Brawl over college for all (an opinion on the Pathways report)

The new Pathways to Prosperity report from the Harvard School of Education has touched off intense debate. The authors argue that American P-12 education has been assuming that "four-year college is the only acceptable route to success" and should change dramatically to allow students to start moving towards other kinds of technical education and career skills as early as middle school. They propose a system more like those found in Germany and Scandinavia, with the technical programs deeply integrated into apprenticeships with actual employers.

Kati Haycock of the Education Trust is among those rejecting this approach.  She thunders back:
Nobody who spends much time in America’s high schools could possibly argue that they are focused on “college for all,” or that they ever have been. Most schools still resist the idea that all kids can and should be college-ready. By continuing long-standing, unfair practices of sorting and selecting, they create what is essentially an educational caste system – directing countless young people, especially low-income students and students of color, away from college-prep courses and from seeing themselves as “college material.” 
* * *
Americans have always valued education as “the great equalizer.” To truly live up to those ideals, we should be moving away from – not toward – a school system that automatically consigns certain groups to life on the margins.
Here's my take on this fight.

High school reality: Kati Haycock's got the winning side on how our high schools have operated. They have not expected most students to continue their educations, and they are not designed to get most students ready to handle complex texts, make regular use of key mathematical skills, or apply the body of content knowledge they need to be successful in college (or effective as citizens or valued employees in the jobs of the future).

The concept of "college: If some audiences hear "education beyond high school" and assume that means "four-year college degree," they're making a mistake.  The Pathways argument is right to reject that assumption.  However, that isn't what President Obama means, or what EdTrust means, or what I mean, or what most P-12 educators mean at all.   The argument for preparing all students for college is built on understanding that many will choose technical schools and community colleges, and pursue associates degrees or career certifications.

Technical skills for 16-year-olds: The Pathways authors offer a serious idea about integrating the last years of high school with study of technical skills and apprenticeships for students.  I can see that working.  Suppose that students entered that study after meeting the 10th grade expectations for Common Core literacy and mathematics, backed up by mastery of equally clear standards for science, history, civics, and appreciation of the arts.  And suppose that during the next two years, they continued building to the literacy and math expectations in the Common Core, while also taking on deep study of topics with both academic content and immediate economic application, including a major component of on-the-job learning. Those students would leave high school with good options for prompt employment in growing sectors of the job market. They would also have the skills to succeed in technical schools, community colleges, and four-year degree programs if they choose those options.  And, importantly, they'd have the skills to learn new career options later on if the economy shifts or their own interests change.

Life choices for 11-year-olds: Crucially, though, the Pathways proposal is for students to start making those choices in middle school, not after grade 10.   Splitting students into different programs that early really does raise major risks that some programs will be allowed to be deeply inferior and ineffective.  And expecting them to make wise choices that early misunderstands the age group pretty badly.

An economy where change is the only constant: Finally, the report makes the improbable assumption that we can tell in 2011 which technical skills will be in high demand in 2017.  It imagines that we can responsibly identify career tracks that starts in grade 6 and that will still make sense when participating students leave grade 12.  Surely we know by now that the job market changes faster than that.  Some pathways that look clear now will be forgotten and grown over by weeds in 2017, and others we haven't yet imagined will be opening up.  Students need the strong, nimble capacity to adapt to that rapid change, and that is the crucial reason that all of them need educations that include the same strong core until nearly the end of their secondary careers, with variations only when they're close enough to the end to get good information about what skills will really have market value--and already equipped to adapt if the information changes again within six or twelve months.

Bottom line: Pathways to Prosperity contains a kernel of valuable thinking, but that useful bit is wrapped in far too many layers of misunderstanding about our high schools, our job market, and the actual policy debate about equipping all students for learning beyond the high school level.

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