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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