‘College for all’ strategy misguided

Harvard study urges career training focus

A Harvard Graduate School of Education report that urges moving away from a “college for all” approach to education reform has created a coast-to-coast roiling debate.

“Pathways to Prosperity: Meeting the Challenge of Preparing Young Americans for the 21st Century” calls for a much broader approach to secondary education than a college-prep curriculum for a four-year university.  It should emphasize multiple career and college pathways in high school leading to associate’s degrees and job skills certificates.

An estimated two-thirds of jobs that will be created over the next decade will require some education beyond high school, notes the report. But half of these will demand less than an associate’s degree, for jobs in nursing, commercial construction, health-care technology and manufacturing that demand technical skills. More than a quarter of people holding licenses short of an associate’s degree earn more than the average person with a bachelor’s degree. Meanwhile, only 40 percent of young people who start college attain a bachelor’s or associate’s degree by their mid-20s. Most have little to show but debt.

The report is being praised as a dose of reality by business organizations and career and technical education advocates – especially vocational  teachers, who have seen their ranks depleted as middle and high schools have focused on core academic subjects. But some advocates of universal college-prep curriculums, like the A-G requirements for admission to CSU and UC campuses, worry about taking a step backward to tracking of low-income, minority kids and giving up prematurely on a movement committed to higher achievement for all children. “Here comes a report that wrongly suggests to them that all of the work they’ve put into this effort has been for naught,” said Kati Hancock, president of Washington-based The Education Trust.

There is middle ground between those advocating A-G as a default curriculum, including my employer, Silicon Valley Education Foundation, and the old guard at regional centers, offering stand-alone vocational courses. In California, it is 500 partnership academies, schools within larger schools combining academics, technical training and counseling, and an ambitious plan by ConnectEd California to expand the multiple-pathways approach to college and career training to whole districts. The report highlights this “linked learning initiative,” and Hancock, while noncommittal, says Ed Trust is examining it. Academic courses in the partnership academies are aligned with A to G requirements.

“Pathways to Prosperity” recommends looking at European nations, especially Denmark and Finland, where, after taking common courses through ninth or tenth grade, most students take a program combining workplace and classroom learning. The United States, the report says, is “an outlier in its approach to preparing young people for success. … We need to revolutionize our approach. Students should have plentiful opportunities to participate in work-linked learning – ranging from job shadowing to internships – in secondary schools.”

The elephant in the classroom

The challenge is to avoid reverting to tracking: steering low-income and minority children into non-college-bound classes, a prevalent past practice that continues. In California, the goal would remain for all students to complete Algebra I by the end of eighth or, at latest, ninth grade, to be at grade level in English, and to take courses that by the end of sophomore year leave open the option of going on to a four-year college.

The state must back up that commitment by extending the school day, attracting the best teachers to underperforming schools, and providing them extra resources, says Manny Barbara, vice president of the Silicon Valley Education Foundation. “Attention to jobs and careers cannot be an excuse to give up on equity,” he says.

If there were more money, there would be opportunities to expand middle school career education and counseling, apprenticeships in high school, and multiple pathways. But for now, there are only cuts. In some districts, vocational courses like wood shop and electives are being eliminated to make room for catchup courses in English or math.

On top of that, career and technical education is “on the outside of the three drivers of K-12 education: what is required, what is funded, and what is tested. CTE is not part of high school course mandates or testing,” so it remains vulnerable, says attorney Fred Jones, spokesman for the California Business Education Association.

The implication for California is, in the near run, to protect partnership academies and career and technical education from further budget cuts, says Gary Hoachlander, president of ConnectEd. When there eventually is additional funding, he says, a priority should be to expand the high school day from six periods to seven or eight. Then, he says, students will be able to do job shadowing and engage in experiences in real-world learning with time for taking other electives and repeating a course if necessary. “It wouldn’t come down to pitting the arts against CTE,” he says.


  1. Is there a single other nation that bases its educational system on the notion that every student should go to college, and that any educational path that isn’t focused on college prep is a failure destined to lead to endless “Sputnik moments”?
    Given that college is a massive financial burden, the notion that that’s the only successful outcome of high school simply makes no sense whatsoever. And that’s before we even get into the fact that not every student has the interest in or aptitude for more years of academic study, while many students have the interest in and aptitude for careers for which high school could and should be offering training. What about the fact that our society needs people with training in an array of vocations and careers to simply function, and we’re just casting our graduates out to find that training on their own?
    The “education reform” world is a major source of the notion that all students must go on to college, and that if they don’t they and their schools are failures. What can we out here in the reality-based community do to combat that misguided notion?

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  2. Our concerns about equity should primarily be addressed in grades K-8.  Our interest in providing a variety of educational opportunities should be addressed in high school.  That way every high school student can choose his own path and we can be confident that decision was made from a position of strength and not weakness.

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  3. It is time that policymakers acknowledge the fact that COLLEGE IS NOT A CAREER.  This excellent report emphasizes this point (and goes further by admitting that all too often, college graduates are unprepared for the REAL world of work).  Everyone who reads this blog should read the well-written, candid and very insightful report.

    And let’s please not continue the myth that Vocational Education has been a means of racially tracking kids … that is a tired argument that the FACTS clearly contradict (Dr. Hoachlander’s seminal study for Congress on this subject back in 1991 clearly indicated that minorities were not overly represented in Voc Ed courses from 1969-1987).  While it is true that many kids were (and unfortunately still are) directed away from the college-prep pathway, Voc Ed courses were/are AT MOST one-sixth of their school day, so why do people keep blaming these courses as the sole impediment to kids getting into 4-year colleges directly out of high school?

    Every student needs to be prepared for a career; not every kid needs a 4-year degree.  We clearly have our priorities backward.  Employers, labor groups and most importantly students are getting very frustrated with education’s fixation on decontextualized, theoritical coursework that does not adequately prepare the vast majority of young people for the REAL world.  The nearly one-third of high school pupils who drop out and nearly same proportion of non-completing college students should be proof positive that we need to adjust how and what we are teaching kids.

    Here’s to Harvard — the tallest Ivory Tower in the land — pointing these realities out!

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  4. Bravo to all above comments and the great report on this. We are losing way too many kids and not filling way too many jobs by not providing a balance in education that mirrors both the desires and needs of our economy.

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  5. I always want to ask “would this be a good program for my kids?”  When the answer is negative, I know the program is no good.  With this report, I am tempted to ask the same question.  It does not strike me that the writers of this have children who do not have college as a goal…
    The non-college path is almost always for other people’s kids…

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  6. I have a highly intelligent but also highly quirky kid who is in fact in college, but might well not be if conservatories didn’t exist.
    We have a close relative, now out of school and working, who is the quintessential good, kind and decent but non-academic kid who should not, will not, cannot go to college. The boy is the son of two (Caucasian) highly successful professionals from high-SES, college-oriented families and grew up in one of the nation’s two or three wealthiest communities, in a fully private-school world.
    This young man originally opened my eyes to the wrongheadedness of the notion that all kids must be either sent to college or deemed failures. The ability to choose and learn a vocation in high school would have been immensely useful to him. The fact that his family is wealthy has made his route easier, but a kid without family wealth would have benefited greatly from the ability to pursue a future vocation in high school, and would have badly struggled without any such option.
    I usually refrain from personal comments, but just this once, turning the tables — Stephen Williams, it may be that you have already raised teens and they were high-functioning, compliant and always eager to perform up to expectations. If you are the future parent of teens — brace yourself is all I can say. Maybe they WILL be high-functioning, compliant and always eager to perform up to expectations. But sometimes life bites us.

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  7. The reality here is that we have millions (literally) of students who are the children of poor immigrants who will not be able to achieve in K-12.  We can argue or debate on why our K-12 cannot prepare these students but that is a different argument, and one which I am happy to engage in.  The question remains will we continue to allow millions of illegal immigrants to compete with this population?

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  8. The problem with voc. ed. classes is that the assumption is that there is no need for good math or English skills or a solid knowledge of history or foreign language for any but the college bound so the classes for the non-college bound are basically useless.
    In Japan Toyota can rely on every HS graduate they hire knowing statistics at the AP level or beyond so they can do statistical analysis for quality control in their weekly meetings.   New cars are made there first before the American factories are allowed to produce them.
    A friend of mine won’t hire any American machine tool worker under 50 because they can’t do the math they need to be competent.  His only younger workers are from Germany.  A welding class in the local community college always has more than  1/2 the kids drop once they see the math requirements.  Since the 70′s the education establishment has focused on unmeasurable and unteachable things  like creativity and independent thinking instead of fundamentals.
    Until schools take voc. ed. seriously, it won’t prepare anyone for anything.  Most of the HS counselors I see are former 3rd grade teachers or HS English teachers who got tired of the class room.  They have trouble with fractions.  The idea of them telling kids what classes to take to prepare them for work is scary.

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  9. John writes, “the challenge is to avoid reverting to tracking: steering low-income and minority children into…”

    The challenge is to supply instruction in disciplines necessary for everyone’s development and society’s enlightenment.

    What do we know about skill and concept formation? What do we know about body and brain development? What do we know about the primal social needs of humans? What do we know about the integration of the senses? What do we know about the relationship of increased, untreated, mental health problems and overcrowded jails? Why are more dangerous politicos are prevailing? We know plenty, but don’t connect the dots.

    People are becoming more disconnected within themselves and to each other. Basic Voc ed skills should be required in middle school for everyone, all genders welcome. Arts ed should be mandated in primary grades for everyone. We need a smarter society – one that exhibits wider knowledge and skills, and one that’s truly proud of our diversity. While we have public schools, let’s connect them to our collective conscience.


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  10. I am pleased — for a change — to be on Caroline’s side of this argument.
    To answer her question, to my knowledge there is no single other nation that bases its educational system on the notion that every student should go to college.
    In many nations there is a pressure to increase the number of college goers, and it is a legitimate discussion how big such a pressure should be. We have had such discussion in the U.S. for the recent decade or two but — until last year — nobody ever raised the crazy idea that everyone ought to be ready to attend college. But then we got Duncan and Obama pitch the Common Core Standards (through their Race to the Top) which — surprise, surprise — sets its goal on having everyone to be “college ready.” Just to make sure this idiocy is not lost on anyone, the Administration also proposed it in its draft re-authorization of ESEA to the Congress.
    In reality, even the authors of Common Core knew that it was an unrealistic goal, so they re-defined Common Core’s “college readiness” to be much lower than what most state colleges today expect. But their highfalutin’ language still left us with this pretentious mess.
    So I welcome the Harvard report as a refreshing voice of sanity. Gary Hoachlander’s ConnectEd is an excellent option for students interested in technical education. Another possibility could be a system like the Massachusetts Regional Technical High Schools that provide viable (and highly desirable — most have long wait lists) vocational education while still maintaining the option for more academically oriented students to continue to colleges and engineering schools. But this idiocy that “everyone must go to college” must stop.

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  11. I think that U.S. high schools have been judged for a while in the public discourse — praised or shamed — based on the underlying assumption that all students should go to college and any who don’t are failures, as is the school that “failed” to get them there.

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  12. I think you have to ask what your definition of college is.  For our society, college generally means a 4 year BA degree.  But as the report points out, college can be a 2 year AA or 2 or less year certificate.  Now think about ‘your kid’.  Are there parents who know there kids well enough to say, hmmm…. maybe there is college that is less than a  4 year degree and it is a better fit for my son or daughter.

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  13. It sounds as if we have come full-circle. Does anyone remember the composite high school, which blossomed with the sprawling, suburban campuses of the 1950s? There, you could study a subject like math on either an academic or practical level, and take a trade or vocational course like wood shop, drafting, hairdressing or ‘secretarial’, in the same day, in the same building.
    I taught in an urban, 1950s-era middle school, whose expansive shops wing had recently been converted to regular classroom space. With our six-period timetable, most of my students had one period each of math, remedial math, English, remedial English, P.E. (legally mandated), and either social studies or science, depending on the grade level. There were no electives to speak of. Barely passing algebra and English, as most of them were, is not going to lead to fulfilling career opportunities. Access to trade or vocational courses, starting in the 6th grade, might spark their interest.
    Despite my own academic bent and fondness for math, I should add that mechanics ($30+ per hour), electricians ($50+ per hour) and nurses ($75K+ per year) can be quite successful without mastering the quadratic formula, factoring, operations with negative numbers, equation manipulations, systems of linear equations, and other topics emphasized in California’s Algebra I classrooms. In the debate about vocational training and equality, algebra is a red herring.

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  14. I love the discussion! It’s long overdue. Thank you, Harvard for opening this issue.

    Ironically, of course, as we continue to head in the wrong direction of trying to make colleges work for everyone, college is becoming less like college and more like college-prep, with its plethora of remediation courses.   How sad that is.  And, all the while, we focus on student weaknesses (what they CANNOT do), instead of student strengths and interest (what the CAN and LIKE to do!).  

     Check out Massachusetts’ own lawn care guy gone reformist, Joe Lamacchia.  http://www.bluecollarandproudofit.com 
    There are many, many ways to succeed in life. College is not for everyone. It’s time we acknowledge this and let students flourish on their own paths.

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