There is no other U.S. metropolitan region that places as much emphasis on going to college as the Washington area.
We have a greater concentration of college-level Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Advanced International Certificate of Education in our high schools than anywhere else. Getting into a brand-name university is a regional obsession.
Yet a significant number of our high school graduates do not attend or do not complete college. What happens to them? As a region, we tend not to give that much thought. The same goes for me. That is short-sighted, particularly when scholars and policymakers have made great strides developing the ways to serve the majority of Americans who need preparation for work that our high schools don’t provide.
A key document in this debate is “Pathways to Prosperity: Meeting the Challenge of Preparing Young Americans for the 21st Century.” When that report was published in 2011 by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, I panned it. My headline said: “Smart people + big report = dreamy nonsense.” I eventually realized that was going too far. I gave the authors more space in a subsequent column. I acknowledged they were going in the right direction, more or less, but I still had doubts.
They proposed that we create new paths in high school course offerings that better prepare students for the workplace, expand the role of employers in this effort and create a social compact so that the changes would work politically and financially. I feared that approach would hustle students into vocational courses before they mastered reading, writing and math. I thought that school boards and unions would block employers’ influence and that the social compact was a pipe dream.
I may have been wrong. Blouke Carus, a business executive who has devoted much of his life to improving U.S. schools, has briefed me on what is actually happening in the national movement to make Pathways to Prosperity a reality. It is going better than I had expected.
While running a chemical company in Illinois, Carus help lead the creation of the International Baccalaureate program in North America and published the popular reading program Open Court. He and other promoters of the Pathways movement have developed ways of getting state-of-the-art vocational lessons into schools without school board vs. employer clashes, and with less chance of short-changing the academic skills graduates will need to get any well-paying job.
Carus said the plan’s backers want to “acquaint students starting in the fifth grade with career opportunities in the 21st century.” They would be encouraged to choose a career cluster beginning in the ninth grade, with the option of changing later. There would be no European-style forced choice at age 15 of the college track or the no-college track. All students would have to take rigorous tests at the end of sixth and 12th grades to make sure that they were literate in the three R’s, no matter what they do after high school, Carus said.
Employers wouldn’t take over high school programs, he said. They would develop “industry-recognized credentials for all important career opportunities,” so that both high school vocational teachers and their students and families would know what would be required. If students failed to be certified, the school would know that it had to upgrade its program or lose it.
Change made this way would affect fewer students and take longer than the Harvard report called for. But its authors recognized that the only time we had ever been able to bring about such rapid educational, social and economic change was during and after World War II, and that cataclysm, hopefully, will not be repeated.
The gentler and more politic approach Carus described makes sense. Educators in this area are getting involved in the movement. People like me who focus too much on college should applaud that.