How serious are we about preparing everyone for college? This is perhaps the most widely avoided question in American education. It’s politically dangerous. Merely asking it seems to raise doubts about our core belief in equal opportunity. And it sounds crabby, cranky, arrogant, and classist.

But think about this. The new “common core” standards that states are being encouraged to embrace are indeed rigorous. By eleventh and twelfth grade, for example, they expect students to do such things as:

  • Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text…contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.
  • Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.
  • Use words, phrases, and clauses as well as varied syntax to link the major sections of the text, create cohesion, and clarify the relationships between claim(s) and reasons, between reasons and evidence, and between claim(s) and counterclaims.

And that’s just part of the tip of the intellectual peaks that our schools, our teachers, and our young people are being asked to scale. (I haven’t even mentioned math!)

Yes, it’s a very good thing to raise this bar. Yes, it’s essential for international competitiveness. Yes, people who have mastered such cognitive skills and knowledge will surely be college ready—and more of those who enroll in college will be prepared to succeed there. Presumably the same will be true of those who embark on (most) careers. The standards are said to be calibrated to college and career readiness.

But do we seriously mean that everybody should be expected to learn what’s in them? Even with today’s mostly-modest K-12 academic standards; with relatively low “cut scores” on high-school graduation tests (generally set around eighth grade competence); with slews of “credit recovery” and “dropout recovery” programs; with hundreds of “open admission” colleges; and with generous provision for on-campus remediation (and employer-delivered training)—even with all of that, barely 70 percent of our young people graduate from high school. Though most of them subsequently enroll in some sort of postsecondary institution, fewer than half will complete college, a grim reality than hasn’t changed in four decades.

Nobody doubts that we will do better with college completion if those who emerge from high school possess the sort of intellectual mastery built into the “Common Core.” (This presumes that the yet-to-be-developed assessments aligned with the Common Core, and the yet-to-be-set cut-scores for “passing” those assessments, will keep faith with its spirit and rigor.) And that would be a swell thing for America as well as for millions of individuals who now fall by the wayside. It’s definitely worth recalibrating our K-12 system so that many more young people are prepared to succeed on that path.

Having said that, do we really expect everybody to follow that path? Picture, say, 100 random Americans and ask yourself how many of them are likely to have the aptitude, desire, and perseverance to become adept at these sorts of things. Betcha you don’t say 100 percent.

I’m by no means the only person with doubts about the wisdom and economic utility of making college universal. My immediate concern, however, is that even as raising the K-12 academic bar does great good for a great many people, it will also discourage others. Faithfully “enforced,” it could worsen the dropout rate even as it better prepares those who complete high school to succeed in college and the more challenging occupations.

The “turning off” is apt to be a mix of “I’m not smart enough” and “This stuff really doesn’t interest me and isn’t related to what I want to do in life.” How about those who want to be plumbers, nurses’ aides, soldiers, landscapers, or chefs?

Does anyone actually not expect such responses from a goodly number of young people as the bar gets raised and a greater-than-ever premium is placed on academic/intellectual attainment?

But will we continue to avert our eyes from this problem because we’re afraid of the backlash that will surely follow when someone says “We don’t really expect everybody to meet our uniform academic standards and we’re prepared to watch some young people fall by the wayside?”

Nobody says that today—because nobody is prepared to face the consequences, such as angry political factions or ethnic/racial rabble-rousers rising up and saying “It’s our kids that they’re prepared to throw over the side.”

But hold on. That’s not the only way to view this problem, or the only outcome to anticipate. Recognize, though, that to find an acceptable alternative, one must accept the fact that a high-standards academic diploma at the end of twelfth grade isn’t the only imaginable credential that might be worth earning, nor the only imaginable timetable, nor the only imaginable way to organize our school system.

Which means, simply stated, that one must be open to multiple options for kids and schools and—hold on tight—for some modern version of what used to be known as “tracking.” No, not the old-fashioned four-track high school where some kids earned “academic” or “honors” diplomas while others received “vocational” certificates or that abomination known as the “general” diploma.

Instead, picture something like Marc Tucker’s bold plan for paths to diverge after tenth grade. Each path leads to a worthwhile place—but not all of them to college.

This concept is set forth in Tough Choices or Tough Times, the 2006 report of a blue-ribbon commission on “the new skills of the American workforce.” You can find a summary here (pdf) and a depiction of the “schema” on page 11.

Tucker and company have been assiduously working these past four years to identify states willing to experiment with this radical alternative to our traditional structures for K-12 education and at this writing they’ve signed up six of them: MA, NH, UT, DE, AZ, and NM. This has been happening quietly, as the spotlight has beamed onto the “Common Core” state standards initiative, and I’ve no idea how far actual implementation may have gone in any of those six jurisdictions.

Mind you, there’s much more to this plan than simple tracking. Tucker & co. envision serious academic standards for all and big changes in how schools are organized and instruction delivered. They don’t intend to let anybody off the hook. But they’ve got serious plans—and career opportunities—for those not headed to academic colleges. They expect the dropout rate to be far lower than today’s. And they might just be right.

You should read it yourself. You might think up a better plan. The point is simply that we ought not, as a country, stumble into the challenges of the Common Core standards initiative without asking ourselves how far along that intellectual continuum we seriously expect everyone to move—and what’s in store for those who may not want or need or be able to move as far as others.

If we don’t force ourselves to think creatively about this—and deal with the politics of thinking about it—we’re bound either to dumb-down the Common Core standards or risk an even higher dropout rate and more alienated young people than we have today.

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