Responses to Mike’s 'You’re just not college material' post

A few weeks ago, Slate published an article by Mike that argued that reformers’ obsession with college was blinding us to other valid routes to the middle class. The reaction was swift and sweeping: 31,000 shares on Facebook, 1,200 tweets, and nearly 1,000 comments. It also sparked several responses in the edu-blogosphere and in a private email chain that Mike moderated. Here’s a selection of some of the feedback—and pushback—organized by major themes.

Reaction #1: Students need to be ready for college and career, not one or the other

This was by far the most common response from the education-reform community: on college-ready versus career-ready, we need “both/and,” not “either/or.” Here are some comments along that vein:

Kate Blosveren, National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium:

Ultimately, I believe that this piece fails to put forward the right message parents need and want to hear. If over 90 percent of parents want their children to go to “college,” it doesn't really do CTE any good to frame itself as being the option other than college, but rather a pathway to a broader set of college options (since upwards of 75 percent of CTE concentrators go on to some postsecondary education within two years). By perpetuating the dichotomy of CTE vs. college, it still keeps CTE as “lesser than” rather than an equally viable (and more reliable) option.
It all comes down to redefining what college is—and getting parents, policymakers and others to see the high value in the non-baccalaureate path (and not just for poor and minority kids but for those suburban kids who go on to a four-year degree because that's just how it's done in their communities, regardless of students' actual career interests). This is obviously harder said than done but where I would love the education-reform community to come together. 

For more, read my full response: “Breaking our Baccalaureate Addiction

Bill Tucker, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation:

Kate has it right—college and career, not college or career. Anne Hyslop and I discussed this issue in our 2012 report, Ready by Design:

For decades, career and technical education (CTE) was seen as the less desirable, but still viable alternative to a college prep curriculum. Students who weren’t going to college were tracked into vocational courses and prepared to enter the world of work immediately after high school. With a strong basic education and a set of employable skills, they could earn a decent wage and begin their climb toward the American Dream.

But the economy has changed. Today, high school diplomas are rarely enough for adequately paying careers. And almost all students headed to postsecondary education aspire to meaningful careers. It no longer makes sense to think in terms of either college or careers when students need both. Even during better economic times, the artificial bifurcation between college and career paths was problematic. It often led to lower expectations and fewer opportunities for career-track students, many of whom were there solely because of family income or the color of their skin.

Today, high schools must ensure that students are ready for both college and careers. But while preparedness in each is essential, the “both/and” strategy also poses challenges. As U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan admits, “the truth is that most people—and I include myself here—have focused primarily on college readiness. Too often, career readiness is an afterthought.”

While it’s true that college and career readiness “share a lot in common,” says Gary Hoachlander, president of ConnectEd, the California Center for College and Career, “they are not the same.” Hoachlander describes career-ready students as those who’ve had “systemic, deep engagement with industry professionals around authentic applications.” In other words, they’re like the biology students who perform actual electrocardiograms as they learn about the role of electricity in regulating the human heart; they’ve engaged deeply with and applied academic understanding within a profession or workplace. Ideally, college and career readiness are interlocked strategies, each supporting one another. Rather than detracting from high academic standards, strong career programs complement and enhance academic learning. And, instead of limiting a student’s options, high quality CTE programs expand them, allowing students to “try on” a variety of career experiences.

States, including California, are also struggling to define appropriate measures of career readiness. One approach, embodied in SB 547, the proposed overhaul of the accountability system vetoed by Gov. Brown, is to create a separate “Career Readiness Index” that counts toward an overall accountability rating. The proposed index would include indicators such as course taking, completion of career pathways, certificates, and other measures. While the creation of a separate index would ensure that schools and districts focus on CTE, it may also have the unintended effect of reinforcing CTE as separate from a college pathway.

A better approach would be to integrate CTE and college pathways, using enrollment and success in postsecondary education and training. As outcome measures, these would include vocational training, participation in apprenticeship programs, military enlistment, and attainment of professional licenses or certifications. This approach would align with promising approaches such as Linked Learning, a high school improvement program that preliminary research has shown to increase college enrollment rates by integrating rigorous academic preparation and career education along with work-based experiences.

Sean Lynch, Association for Career and Technical Education:

CTE is a component of academically challenging, rigorous education for all students, be they high flyers or at risk. It’s important to balance our attention between acknowledging CTE’s benefits in engaging struggling students with their coursework and ensuring that every student has the knowledge and skills needed for success in both college and careers.

Students should work with their mentors at home and in school to identify their ideal career path and obtain the education they will need to succeed, regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds. School counselors play a crucial role here by building bridges between students and an education that prepares them for the career they want—and oftentimes, those are in-demand careers in CTE related fields that provide respected, high-wage positions. And it’s certainly not a choice between attending a four-year college or participating in CTE, because the majority of students who explore CTE programs do enroll in postsecondary education, earn degrees and credentials, and are committed to lifelong learning and professional development.

(Keep reading)

Reaction #2: Mike is practicing the soft bigotry of low expectations

This position was taken both by accountability hawks and by critics of tracking. They pointed out that to succeed in high-quality CTE, students need solid foundational skills in reading and math, plus soft skills like working in a group and following directions. Thus, it’s simply not okay for students to reach high school with fifth-grade-level skills or to graduate and not be “college and career ready.” Furthermore, any return to traditional tracking will invariably push poor and minority students into lower-level courses and reserve the challenging, college-prep classes for the elite. Here’s a sampling:

RiShawn Biddle, Dropout Nation:

Your editor always looks askance whenever anyone declares that providing all children with comprehensive, higher ed-preparatory education is senseless because some kids—namely those who are poor or come from black and Latino backgrounds—are supposedly incapable of learning. So you shouldn’t be surprised that I’m taking Thomas B. Fordham Institute President Michael Petrilli to task for his piece in Slate offering another (and not all that novel) version of this argument. The fact that this argument comes from the head of one of the most-prominent reform think tank—and a key proponent of Common Core reading and math standards—is especially unsettling.

Proclaiming that “I have no desire to punish students or deprive them of opportunity” Petrilli proceeds to declare that he wants to do exactly that. Why? From where he sits, providing kids with college-preparatory learning “does them more harm than good”. Why? From where Petrilli sits, poor and minority kids who are struggling in school will “not get that college degree anyway”. According to his narrative, struggling kids taking college-prep courses merely end up “thinking about dropping out” because they have been subjected to years of educational neglect and malpractice; even if they gain any remediation, these kids “probably aren’t going to make it” anyway.

As far as Petrilli is concerned, these students would be better off being placed into vocational tech courses similar to those proposed three years ago by Harvard professors Ronald Ferguson and Robert Schwartz in Pathways to Prosperity, their shoddy tome advocating for subjecting poor and minority children to low expectations. This “honorable path” as Petrilli calls it, is, in his view, the only way to provide “real options” to our children.

As you can imagine, there are plenty of reasons why I would look askance at Petrilli’s argument. For one, there’s the reality that, like so many who argue that some kids don’t deserve college-preparatory learning, Petrilli is unlikely to tell his own two sons not to go to college, even if their academic performance made them unworthy of admission. In fact, like any good parent with means, Petrilli would use all of his resources (including his status as a University of Michigan alum) to help his sons gain seats regardless of academic performance.

The bigger problem with Petrilli’s argument is that is falls apart when you consider actual facts. Simply put, college-preparatory learning is critical for success in both white- and blue-collar professions. Or to use Petrilli’s words, children who are not college material are also not going to be blue collar material, either.

(Keep reading)

Carol Burris and Kevin Welner*

Mr. Petrilli and the governors are correct to the extent that they are simply acknowledging that not all children will go to college and that those who do not should nonetheless have opportunities to thrive. It is also true that the decision to forgo or delay college should be made before graduation day.

From that point on, however, the “sort and select” advocates get almost everything wrong. Their fundamental two-part assumption is, first, that they can and should identify children who are beyond academic hope. Second, they believe that it is possible and beneficial to identify these children early, separate them from their academically oriented peers, and put them on a track that hopefully prepares them for post-secondary employment but does not prepare them for college.

Equitable schools reject such tracking policies because they believe in the American Dream and because they have learned from past mistakes. History tells us that schools should not be in the business of foreclosing children’s options. At the start of the 20th century, schools faced an influx of immigrants, and policymakers responded by creating programs for those who were called the “great army of incapables.” Vocational tracks prepared immigrants to be factory workers, while the children of well-off parents were given a college preparatory education. This pattern of separating students into different classes was repeated during the era of racial desegregation as a way to maintain segregated classrooms—and then again in the 1970s when students with special needs were increasingly enrolled in mainstream schools.

History and research show that when schools sort in this way, it is the disadvantaged children who are directed toward lower-tier tracks. No matter what criteria are used—scores, recommendations or even choice—the same patterns of stratification occur. Accordingly, when lawmakers adopt these misguided policies, they open up opportunity gaps that inevitably lead to the achievement gaps that these same lawmakers then decry.

 * Originally posted on the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog

Sandy Kress, former White House aide in the George W. Bush administration:

I hate to be simplistic about this, but here’s an idea: why can’t we go down “the middle of the fairway” and hold ourselves accountable, at a minimum, for graduating virtually all students at least “community college ready.” That is to say, cognitively able students should generally and minimally be expected to graduate high school without need of remediation at a community college. I am not saying that all students will jump this bar, nor am I saying that we should refuse to give them a diploma if they don’t. What I am saying is that this goal is one that we ought to reach for most high school graduates in order to give them a good shot at a decent job and success in life. I’m also saying that we should hold ourselves accountable in various ways for moving ever-increasing numbers of students to this goal.

Some students will go to Harvard, Yale, Stanford, etc. God bless them.

Some students will go to state colleges. Some will go to community colleges. And some will go straight to work. Some of these students may want to take and should be able to take high quality, high value career and technical education in high school. They could then go in several different postsecondary directions.

My big fear, as has been well expressed in other comments, is this: since CTE is once again the big rage, let’s hope and pray its advocates make these courses as rigorous and valued as they promise they will, and not just a dodge for them to avoid teaching and learning in the so-called old fashioned courses. We’ve all seen how this promise has been abused in so many ways over the years as a trap for low-income kids, kids of color, and others in useless “vocational education.” Somehow I suspect most middle class and upper class parents will continue to demand and get the full dose - chemistry, physics, Algebra II, and the like - for their own children. (These new developments deserve a lot of work and attention. I have great fears about how all this will actually play out.)

In any event, while we’re working all this out, let’s at least strive for AND hit reasonable targets toward real and important goals for young people that reflect readiness to go out in the world in several worthy directions. This can be achievable, if structured reasonably, and would help leverage real advances for most students.

Reaction #3: Mike is right: we need to embrace CTE for lots more kids

The responses from the general public pointed strongly in this direction. A few of Mike’s fellow reformers were willing to express agreement, too:

Tim Taylor, America Succeeds:

In the early years of Colorado Succeeds, we did quite a bit of work related to CTE. We toured the country and saw some of the best (and worst) of what is out there. Lake Travis High School just outside of Austin, Texas is an impressive example of a “career academy” high school. The curriculum prepares kids for multiple pathways across a number of diverse career options—it's up to the kids to choose if they want a path that requires a certificate, two-year degree through a doctorate (it was ingrained in the students that one could get a job with a HS degree, but any real career would require some additional education). What really set the school apart was the expectation that every student would graduate with the knowledge and skills that gave them real options.

It was, as you suggest, unpopular, even bruising, to suggest anything other than college for all. Unfortunately, we also saw CTE programs teaching VCR repair and photocopying, which makes them easy to dismiss as a credible option. Until more programs solve for both relevance and rigor, giving more kids the option alone does not provide any greater path to success. I am bullish on your premise and recognize you specifically refer to high quality programs but the shift in attitude must be accompanied by higher standards that ensure real opportunities. Thanks for initiating the conversation.

Matthew Randazzo, Choose to Succeed (San Antonio):

I spent the last few days in West Texas on a listening tour with business, civic, and philanthropic leaders and this was one of the most commonly asked questions- what about the kids who 'aren't college material?' I cringed at that question while I was a senior leader at IDEA Public Schools—a network that is effectively getting 55%+ of it's alumni to and through four-year college. The absolute heroic effort is takes to accomplish that has proved scalable at 10,000 and 15,000 students but will it still be possible at 20,000 or more? How scalable are those strategies in more traditional school districts? Even worse—does it even matter if you're sending students to bottom tier universities where they graduate with a degree that may not be worth its cost—a question we all seem to avoid.

I also ask what happens to those kids who leave these high performing networks—perhaps because they cannot meet the rigor our simply do not see the pathway to college, in spite of the school's best efforts. We're all smart enough to know that great schools don't push out any kids. However, we should all confront the brutal fact that some kids are opting out because they see no pathway to success.

Presumably we all agree with the idea that schools should prepare kids for college AND career. Sadly, there are few examples that do both well enough to provide real choice to students. So what? Do we track kids in 9th grade? It's college or career for you. Choose. Now. Or, do we throw kids into painfully rigorous courses where they'll struggle to pass and never reach college readiness? Perhaps they enroll in a community college where fewer than 10% of them will ever earn an associate’s degree.

There are no easy answers here and without proof points of effective workforce readiness it will remain a philosophical debate. It would be great to see the foundation community invest in a few pilots that are scalable within existing district and charter schools. Early on leaders in the charter sector asked foundations and philanthropists to diversify their education giving and invest in charters. Perhaps we need to ask foundation to diversity or hedge their bets on college for all.

***

What do YOU think? The comments section is open.

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