‘College for all’ strategy misguidedHarvard 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.