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Helping Kids Who Hate High School

In the eight years I have worked at my high school, a group of other teachers and I have made it our mission to improve four-year college-going rates, access to rigorous curriculum and AP and IB pass rates. In that period we have improved all three of those measures at our school by about 10 percent. If we worked just as hard for another 20 years, I don't believe that we could budge those rates more than a couple of points higher no matter what we might try. Both my direct observations of the culture of high school as well as, I believe, the relevant state and national data back up this depressing assertion. I am not arguing that schools shouldn't be trying to maximize access to good college-prep curriculum. I'm saying that they'll never get past a third of the population on average.

MATHEWS: Don't you think if we removed all restrictions to charters, and encouraged other small schools of choice -- like the small learning community you told me earlier you were working on -- you might be able to make much more progress?

That seems to me to be the lesson of the several successful examples of such high schools we have now, such as the YES and KIPP charters in Houston, or even my alma mater Hillsdale High in San Mateo, now a model for small learning communities in regular public school. Hillsdale has greatly increased the percentage of kids passing courses that qualify them for UC or Cal State. In our debate two years ago, you spoke of the many kids in your school that just didn't have the urge or the preparation for college prep, no matter how much you tried to help them. The KIPP people have succeeded in instilling that urge in middle-schoolers, and are now doing even better with elementary school kids. So it can be done, if we start soon enough. The more schools like that we have, the more likely it is that parents will apply, even those who once thought nothing much could be done for their kids.

PETERS: Don't get me wrong. I love schools of choice and charter schools for largely the same reasons you do. They are great hot-houses of innovation and put pressure on neighborhood schools to perform better. I just no longer believe that they promote the expansion of educational opportunity, which is what they promise to do. They are very much like the conservative solution for solving the healthcare problem with individual health savings accounts. They're great for the minority of healthy people with a lot of wherewithal, but everyone else gets left out in the cold.

MATHEWS: Your proposals are interesting, but we both know they are going to be difficult to make real, because of inertia and politics. So I need you to justify, or even better quantify, your belief that charters do not "promote the expansion of educational opportunity, which is what they promise to do." How do you think those thousands of kids who have seen their reading and math improve significantly at KIPP and Green Dot and Aspire and YES and Achievement First and the other successful charters would be doing if those schools had not been created? You think they would have done just as well in their regular public schools through some magic of parental influence? If that were the case, then why were their achievement levels so low BEFORE they switched to the charters, when they had the same parents?

Charters, unlike radically reconfigured high schools of the sort you recommend, actually exist. Why dump them, and their achievements, for a dream that may be impractical? I think you should still pursue the dream, but don't you think we need to hit at the apathy of inner-city schools from several directions at once?

PETERS: I have clearly screwed up by leaving you with two false impressions of my proposal. The first is that I want to "dump" schools like Marshall or KIPP or Central Park East or your alma mater. To the contrary, I say God bless and more power to any school that wants to stay all college prep and can attract its own clientele. And more power to any kids and parents who've got what it takes to find and gain admission to those schools. I also mistakenly gave you the idea that I don't think that these schools significantly improve the lives of a large chunk of students, which they clearly do within that 30 percent ceiling.

There clearly is a persistent 5¿10 percent margin of kids who need the value-added of a good college prep program to get them over the top and into college. Those kids are my specialty. The essential disconnect between the two of us seems to revolve around your talking about whole numbers while I keep talking about aggregate percentages. The irony is that we are both right about our figures and their significance. You are accurately asserting that we have developed many programs that are proven successful at expanding educational opportunity to the full 30 percent or so of high school kids that have the basic socio-economic tools (and I don't just mean money) to realize them. I am agreeing with this and simply trying to point out that we need to somehow address the entirely different needs and aspirations of other two thirds or so of high school students for whom we have absolutely zero evidence that they are even genuinely interested in college. (Yes, I realize that most high school students say they want to go to college ¿ but only because they are quite literally never informed that they have other legitimate options.)

The other read besides your column that got me amped up about this topic this summer was Peter Gosselin's wrenching book "High Wire" on the increasingly precarious economic lives of the middle class. In his section on education he put the issue very succinctly:

"College has become the nation's principal jobs policy . . . despite the fact that that less than 30 percent of the workforce has college degrees. Efforts to create an education system for those without college degrees have repeatedly been tarred as efforts to track people into lesser lives. The fraction of high school seniors in vocational education programs has dropped from 24 percent in the early 80's to 14 percent."

This abandonment of voc. ed. has occurred at the same time that we have almost completely failed to achieve any significant increase in college-going or college-completion rates despite gargantuan efforts to do so over the past quarter century. The need for access to free, high quality vocational instruction and guidance has become ever more vital in the last 25 years even as our high schools have increasingly abandoned it for a college-or-nothing philosophy. I believe this for the following reasons:

-- The virtual disappearance of middle-class wage jobs (paying at least $20-$30 per hour) that can be had with a traditional high school diploma;

-- The fact that there are plentiful jobs that pay these wages that do not require college degrees but do require highly specialized 1¿2 years of training and credentials that most high school grads have no clue how to obtain;

-- The fact that the lowest cost training for these jobs can be found in our community colleges, yet three quarters of students entering community college enroll, by blind default, in transfer-track liberal arts programs that most drop out of prior to completion;

-- The steady erosion of the social safety net provided by the workplace in the form of reliable, long-term employment, paid sick-leave and vacation, health and retirement benefits necessitates that young people be much better informed about and prepared for the job marketplace.

Don't we have some obligation to prepare kids for the lives they will actually lead rather than the ones we wish they would lead?

With regard to college, we educators have become exactly like the kind of overbearing parents who insist that all our children play competitive sports just because they did and who can't imagine a richly fulfilling life without them.

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Editor's note: The next edition of Class Struggle will appear Friday as the online column moves to a new weekly schedule. The Jay Mathews Metro column, a new and separate forum for the veteran education writer, will appear regularly Mondays in the newspaper and on washingtonpost.com.


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