Truth, not tracking

Peter Cunningham

In a provocative piece in Slate recently, Fordham’s executive vice president Mike Petrilli asked why Euro-style tracking isn’t a better strategy for high-school students who are significantly below grade level. Here’s one response.

I do some work with a nonprofit organization in Chicago called Manufacturing Renaissance, which trains high-school students and ex-offenders for manufacturing jobs in the area. Austin Polytech Academy (APA) was founded in 2007 as a small high school to replace a larger underperforming school. Of the student body, 95 percent are low income, 13 percent are homeless, and 30 percent have diagnosed learning needs. The school’s graduation rate is 60 percent, and the average ACT score is just 14.5 on a scale of 36, well below the level deemed “college ready.” The students are precisely the ones who would be tracked toward career programs in a European-style education system.

APA is also surrounded by hundreds of small and medium-sized manufacturing companies desperately in need of trained workers to replace an aging workforce. By some estimates, there are 20,000 unfilled manufacturing jobs in the Chicago region alone and 600,000 nationwide.

To meet this need, APA began offering a career-education program that offers students work-ready credentials from the National Institute of Metalworking Skills (NIMS). To date, more than 150 APA graduates have earned more than 250 work-ready NIMS credentials. More than half of the students get paid work experience while in high school, and about two-dozen APA graduates have gotten jobs upon graduation. Starting wages are between $9 and $13 an hour. With overtime, they can earn upwards of $30,000 in their first year and considerably more within just a few years.

However, these students were never “tracked” into these jobs. Nobody told them they weren’t college material. Nobody pushed them away from challenging coursework. In fact, the school’s explicit goal is for all students to have a college-acceptance letter and a job offer upon graduation so they can choose their paths.

Tracking is essentially lowering the standard for some kids who have the misfortune of having received a low-quality primary education. On the other hand, high-quality CTE programs that complement rigorous, college-ready curricula empower students and their parents to choose college or work after graduation. Unfortunately, many students do not choose this path, partly because of the stigma associated with manufacturing jobs and partly because many career- and technical-education programs do not include a work-ready credential and a real job. The results, as Mike Petrilli pointed out, are low college-completion rates.

Still, there’s a big difference between telling a student he isn’t “college material”, which implies intellectual inferiority, and saying he isn’t “college ready,” which implies educational inferiority and is a lot closer to the truth for many students. With the imminent arrival of assessments aligned with higher college-ready standards, it will be increasingly apparent that enormous percentages of students, including many middle-class students, are not on a path to succeed in college.

So, for that incoming ninth grader who is two or three years behind, there should be an honest discussion of how much effort is required to be college ready by graduation, in terms of nightly homework, tutoring, extra coursework, and so on. It should include facts about earnings potential with a college degree, a high-school degree, and a work-ready credential in a field with available jobs. Then, the child and parent can consider dedicating some high-school time to earning a credential, but the school or the district should not make that decision. “College ready” should be the goal for every child.

Rather than tracking, we should just rely on the truth to drive behavior, and the conversation should begin not in ninth grade but in Kindergarten. By facing the truth about student performance, college readiness, and academic outcomes, America will see the need for both high standards and good CTE programs like the one at APA in Chicago.

Peter Cunningham is a former assistant secretary of education (2009–12) at the U.S. Department of Education and currently works as a consultant in Chicago.

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