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Class Struggle
In-depth coverage: Education Page |  The Answer Sheet
Posted at 05:30 AM ET, 06/16/2011

Flaws in my college-for-all fix

I find myself more and more interested in the growing debate over how much and what to teach high school students. I support the side that thinks all students should be given skills that will make them ready for college because the same abilities---to write, read, do math and manage their time—are necessary if they want good jobs or trade school slots after high school.

On the other side are those who think college prep for all is a failed experiment. They say it alienates too many students and must be replaced by vocational programs that get to the heart of what employers want without killing student interest with required essays on the Romance poets and the Federalist papers. A recent report by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, which I trashed here, is the best and most complete recent example of this argument.

I hadn’t encountered any promising efforts to bring the two sides together until I saw a commentary, “Untangling the Postsecondary Debate,” by Mike Rose, professor of social research methodology at UCLA, in the latest Education Week “Diplomas Count” report. He is critical of both sides, but helped me most in understanding where my arguments are weak.

I will dispense quickly with his complaints about the side that wants to revive vocational education, since you have already seen me pound them. Rose believes as I do that they are acting in good faith, but do not appreciate the harm that has been done by several decades of automatically tracking low-income kids into trade-related courses.

As this system developed, Rose says, “there was much talk about the limited mental capacity of various immigrant and working-class groups and the distinct ways their brains functioned. In contrast to college-bound students (overwhelmingly white and middle-to-upper-class) who were ‘abstract minded,’ working-class and immigrant students were ‘manually minded.’ We don’t use those phrases today, but they echo in loose talk about ‘learning styles,’ ‘kinesthetic learners,’ and other terms heard in contemporary educational discourse that reduce and reify cognition.”

That was fun to type. Three cheers for our big college-for-all team. Now for the more interesting part of Rose’s piece--what’s wrong with my side of the argument?

“As a person who has worked as both a teacher and a researcher for many years with students who have not been well served by our schools,” Rose says, “I am sympathetic to the push to prepare as many of them as possible for a college degree. . . . Yet it would be foolhardy to dismiss labor-market realities, for many low-income students are in immediate financial need. These students can commit to postsecondary education only if it leads to a decent wage and benefits.”

It is much riskier for them than it was for my kids, who had two parents with graduate degrees, good incomes, and many ways to support them if they struggled in college. Many low-income students, Rose points out, “leave college without a certificate or degree that can help them in the job market, and, in many cases, they incur significant debt.”

People like me jabber about great high school teachers they have seen having enormous impact on disadvantaged students. But, Rose notes, those classroom magicians didn’t save everyone. The majority of students in their schools never get near a college. Rose says he has worked with students who were bad in high school, but are now deeply engaged in vocational community college courses. “Yet they resist, often with strong emotion, anything smacking of the traditional classroom, including the very structure of the classroom itself. This resistance holds even when the subject (textiles, history of fashion) relates to their interests.”

College-oriented intellectuals like me who can’t fix anything mechanical beyond changing a battery don’t understand the conceptual depths of some vocational training, Rose says. The physics of electrical repair and the chemistry of hospital lab work “can give rise to the study of the arts and sciences,” he says.

This makes sense. Our side of the great high school debate will have to find ways that low-income students can afford college and support themselves and their families as they seek a degree. College programs that combine work and study make sense.

Even more important, and more difficult, is the failure of our side to produce a style of college-prep high school instruction that overcomes the visceral distaste many students have for sitting in a classroom and responding to a teacher at a white board or an overhead. There are high schools that appear to be doing this, like the Big Picture and High Tech High models. But they require unusually skilled teachers of a sort not easily found, and not being given that kind of training in our education schools.

The only way we can make progress on this is if we have more educators like Rose who know the problems first hand, and can blend the best ideas from both sides.

By  |  05:30 AM ET, 06/16/2011

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