Tim Stahmer wrote an excellent post yesterday titled, “Asking The Wrong Question.” His thoughts fall right in line with discussions I had this past weekend with my relatives visiting from out of town, talking about the role of schools and how most are inappropriately fixated on preparing students for college. Should schools offer rigorous preparation programs for college-bound students? Absolutely. Is it a good thing US schools do not “track” students at a young age into either a vocational or higher education course program? Yes, certainly: We want students to be able to “open the door” to educational opportunities at any age, we don’t want to close that door when the child is just becoming a teenager.

However, we also need to recognize that not everyone in K-12 schools today will be going to college, and also that this is OK. There are plenty of great jobs out there being worked by people who don’t have college degrees. I am not sure what his source is, but Tim cites the following statistics from a study on Chicago public schools:

The researchers found that only 6% of students who started high school had earned a bachelor’s degree by the age of 25. The rates were even lower for black and hispanic students.

Now, I’m not about to defend the Chicago school system. But, at the same time, many of the editorialists howling about the results missed two major points.

First, fewer than 25% of the adult population in this country have earned a college degree. Only about half of all adults has taken any college work at all.

I recognize this is a limited study of Chicago area students, and it would be inappropriate to use these results alone to generalize for the entire nation. That being said, I think it is safe to say many of the students in our K-12 public schools today are not going to college. Dropout studies consistently support this perception I think, whether we are talking about Texas (PDF) or other states.

Much of the talk at educational technology conferences these days focusing on books like “The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century” seems to suggest we need ALL students in our schools to become scientists and engineers. No doubt, we need to do a better job (at all levels, not just secondary schools, because it is in elementary school that students often get really excited about this stuff) helping students develop a passion for STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Projects like “Girls Go Tech” by the Girl Scouts, which I have posted about previously, are right in line with what we need to do.

That said, let’s acknowledge the fact that not every student is college-bound. That does not mean, “some kids are not college material.” I am not a deterministic disciple of “The Bell Curve”— to the contrary, I firmly believe in the transcendent abilities of people to redefine themselves at any stage of their life and chart a new course. I also don’t think we should be complacent with current trends: We should be working hard to open doors to a college education for MORE students, not less.

Given the fact that all students are NOT adequately empowered with financial resources as well as knowledge/skills to go to college, and some do not even WANT to go– we need to ask ourselves how well our schools are preparing students for LIFE– not just university admission. If you listen to much of the popular press rhetoric about our educational crisis and needed school reform, you’ll hear about how poorly many of our schools are doing even preparing students for college– much less, life. Many universities have to offer remedial courses for students in writing and mathematics, because their high school preparation was inadequate for collegiate expectations and requirements.

Are home economics or vocational ed classes regarded with distain by many students as well as teachers in school, as courses only for those “not on the college track?” They were when I was in school. Yet who in life is not going to need some basic cooking skills, or know about balancing a checkbook? Who is going to be a homeowner and not need some practical fix-it skills? Most people will need these things. Yet are these skills our schools are teaching broadly to most students, and more importantly things that students, parents, and teachers are valuing in schools? I am not sure, but my guess is they are not.

Schools must be about much more than just preparing students for college or for tests. As a friend and colleague at the University of Virginia recently emailed me:

We don’t need to be schooled, we need to get educated in issues that matter.

I am enthused about much of our focus on STEM for NSF grants and education in general. But I think we shouldn’t lose sight of the big picture. K-12 education MUST be about much more than college preparation. We need to be preparing students for LIFE, not just college.

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4 Responses to School must be more than college-prep

  1. These thoughts have been on my mind as well lately. We have been working so hard to increase college readiness — which most people interpret as rigorous academic courses — and ignoring the many paths that our students can take into the workforce.

    On our campus we created 4 different Career Academies that merge the Texas Recommended Diploma (college prep) with a four-year CATE course sequence in several different career fields. Our original goal was to develop certification programs for some of the career paths — Basic EMT licensing, CISCO and Microsoft certifications, Pharmacy Tech, etc.

    I should state that our structure and four-year plans are in no way designed to track students into “college-bound” or “vocational” tracks. The goal is to develop pathways that tie into student interests — as a way to keep them engaged and interested in school — while providing ALL students with a curriculum that would prepare them for college if they chose to attend.

    In fact, a few years ago we met with representatives from one of the local unions to discuss the possibility of linking in to their apprenticeship programs for electrical and construction workers. In the meeting they told us that they wanted their workers to graduate from high school with the same knowledge and skills as students entering college. In other words, they approved of the Texas Recommended Diploma as the minimum, required diploma for all graduates (which is has been across the state since 2003).

    However, with increased testing pressure and accountability demands, these career pathways have been viewed as “fluff” that do nothing to contribute to student success on TAKS.

    The result has been “watered-down” Career Academies and an increase in TAKS remediation classes. I am hoping we can reverse this trend with our new 9th grade initiative… but I worry about the hundreds of students that we have graduated who did pass the TAKS, but who are minimally prepared for college, because of all of the remedial courses, and who have not had the chance to explore another route. I especially worry about our students who dropped out due to frustration with a system that focused so heavily on TAKS and college-prep that it ignored their needs as learners and as future members of the workforce.

  2. Mike Muir says:

    I worry a lot about the argument that since statistics show so few students do not go to college, therefore we should make sure that our schools prepare students for other futures. It ignores two important possibilities.

    One is that a curriculum that that readies students for college may also be the curriculum that readies them for other paths. The president of Central Maine Power recently told a group of us that she has to let go a large number of entry level line readers because they cannot do the basic math necessary to read the meters. Perhaps we are simply using the wrong words – we don’t just want kids ready for college. We want all our kids to be better educated to a higher level.

    The other possibility that some of those students don’t go to college is that schools have failed them. When I look at the work of Erin Gruwel and her Freedom Writers, at the work of Jobs for Maine’s Graduates, at the work that Seymour Papert and Jim Moulton have done at the Maine Youth Center I know that when caring educators work to reach those kids we don’t think can go on to college, they can be successful in school and on into college. But they need that door opened to them while they are still in public school.

  3. Mike Muir says:

    Sorry – here’s the link for Jobs for Maine’s Graduates – http://www.jmg.org/

  4. Mike —

    You state two very important points here…

    1) We are using the term “college-bound” and that gives everyone the impression that the curriculum is ONLY for students attending college. In my experience in working with business and community leaders to develop the programs on our campus — these leaders want ALL employees to have this curriculum — even the employees in positions that do not require a college degree because the traditional basic “college-prep” program should give all students the basic skills needed for any job or career — plus it gives them the skills they need to continue learning new skills — and I think all of us would agree that this is very essential.

    Employers DO NOT want students tracked into “college-bound” or “vocational” — they want students who can communicate well, can do basic math, can use technology proficiently, are knowledgeable about the world and culturally aware, are self-directed, and who are cooperative team-members and responsible citizens.

    2) “The other possibility that some of those students don’t go to college is that schools have failed them.” — I agree with you here. Our state is develpping plans to instill a “college bound culture” from PreK through 16. For the past three years all high school students have been required to take the Texas Recommended Diploma — Which is the standard “college-bound” curriculum that most of us are familiar with. So what is going to be different? If the students have been taking this curriculum, then WHY are they still not going to college?

    I have a colleague who is now in a central office position, but she used to teach at the middle school level. We had lunch together one day last year and she told me about an incident that occurred with one of her former students. She was visiting one of the local colleges and ran into this student who was in her first semester at college. My colleague asked her how things were going and the student replied “Oh, okay… but all of my classes this semester are remedial and I’m not receiving any credit for the classes that I am taking this semester. I’m so angry with my high school because all they did was focus on the TAKS test — they would pull me out of my regular classes to put me in TAKS tutorials.”… So, imagine for a second the frustration — especially for a young, female, minority student from a low-income family. How much tuition are they paying for classes that won’t count — for courses that cover material that she should have mastered in high school. I wonder if she is even still in college.

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