Helping Kids Who Hate High School

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 1, 2008 2:22 AM

A couple of years ago I debated Chris Peters, a thoughtful and energetic high school teacher in San Bernardino, Calif., about vocational education. He thought it had more value than I did and could energize students who can't stand dry academics. I thought high schools were incapable of doing vocational ed well, and too often made it a dumping ground for students from low-income families thought incapable of college.

We did not convince each other, but my recent column on the surprising results of research into high school career academies, showing they had great benefit for students' job and family prospects, led him to conclude I was still educable on the subject. He came back to me with a plan to shake up high school in a way that would give both college-oriented and job-oriented students an equal chance, rather than force kids who don't like school to stew in English and science classes.

Peters' plan, which he conceived without benefit of well-paid staff, shares important elements with the very expensive report of he New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, which Peters had not seen until I pointed it out to him. Many people, it seems, want to fix high school in this way, which I trashed in a previous column.

I figured we could have a lively discussion. First, Peters' proposal, then our debate, very appropriate for Labor Day:

PETERS: So here's my radical three-step proposal for stopping the madness that leaves the vast majority of American teenagers educationally high and dry and left to fend for themselves at the age of 18 as if they were all so many emancipated foster children:

Step 1:

Condense all universal high school requirements down to those which can be completed within two years and which consist of standards that are essential for the development of an informed citizenry and ensure that the student has the basic skills and knowledge base necessary for life-long learning. Then require all students to master these super-standards before starting either upper-level, college preparatory courses (AP/IB, intermediate algebra, chemistry, etc) or voc ed. courses.

Step 2:

When high school students reach the end of their sophomore year, present them with four choices:

(1) Continue on a college preparatory path leading to a four-year university or a four-year college transfer track at a community college. This choice would be contingent upon their having passed a standardized exit exam in English composition and literature, health and environmental science, elementary algebra and geometry, U.S. history and government and economics; or

(2) Enter a community college vocational program of their choice , with close supervision and support by their high school and continued access to the high school's extra-curricular activities. This would be contingent on their passing the same battery of exams the Choice 1 students take. Using existing ¿ and underutilized ¿ community college vocational programs means high schools would not have to reinvent the vocational wheel at their own sites, or:

(3) Receive intensive tutoring in high school, if unable so far to pass all or some of the exams, until they do so. They would have up to two year to climb over those barriers, and then an extra two years of free schooling to take AP and other prep classes on the college track if they so desire. This choice is just for those who want college prep their last two years of high school, including any who started the vocational track, choice 2, but changed their minds, or:

(4) Quit school and choose some other path.

Step 3:

Create a simple report card to evaluate the instructional effectiveness of individual high schools that everyone could understand. It would consist of five simple ¿ and largely unfudgeable - measures of the school's success: its pass rate on the two-year exit exams; its rate of graduate enrollment in four-year colleges (either right out of high school or as community college transfer); its AP/IB test-taking rate; its rate of students earning vocational certifications within four years of completing the exit exams; and its rate of graduates earning bachelor's degrees within six years of completing the college preparatory program.

The three steps would eliminate the high school diploma (an utterly meaningless document) and all standardized tests at the high school level except the eight subject-specific exit exams.

I know this is radical. I know it flies in the face of the ironclad education reform consensus of the past quarter century. I know it goes against virtually everyone's vested interest in the education establishment. But I'll dump it all and stick with my humble day job if you can show me one piece of meaningful empirical evidence that the college-prep-for-all philosophy has resulted in any significant expansion of educational opportunity or achieved any result different from that achieved by the benignly neglectful, teach-only-the-smart-kids philosophy of the 50's, 60's and 70's.

MATHEWS: Okay, here is one: In 1982, high school graduates earned 2.6 math credits and 2.2 sciences credits on average. By 1998, those numbers were up to 3.5 and 3.2, respectively. Also, 405,475 members of the class of 2000 took at least one AP exam. By 2006 that number was 666,067. We never came close to those numbers in the 1960s, when I was in high school. The level of teaching then was inferior, and minority kids from low-income families were routinely shoveled into non-college tracks. How are you going to keep that from happening with your plan, which forces 16-year-olds to make this life-changing choice before they have matured enough to know what they are capable of?

PETERS: There's no question that the college-prep-for-all philosophy has resulted in more kids taking more math and science classes. The problem is that this is an entirely process-oriented statistic. It indicates nothing about outcomes ¿ how students' lives are actually impacted by what they do in high school as you discussed in your column about the career academy. All it means is that kids spent more time sitting through classes with fancy college prep labels on them such as the ones at my school with names like "geometry standards 2" and "integrated math" or "health science" or "earth science" -- all notorious bonehead classes which on paper look like perfectly solid college prep course work. My sense, gleaned from eight years as a high school teacher along with the hard results data, tells me that most kids get absolutely zilch value-added to their lives from those extra math and science units.

Your point about the AP results is admittedly a trickier one. The evidence indicates that high schools with really good college prep programs can boost their 4-year college-going rates from 5 to 10 percentage points over the 15-20 percent national average. Additionally, I can somewhat immodestly claim personal experience working with these new AP test takers, having significantly raised the AP test-taking rate at our high school. ( We're in the top 4 percent on the Newsweek list.) Without question those kids benefited greatly from and are far better prepared for success in college because of their AP experience ¿ which is why this stat is such a good, outcomes-based stat. Here's the problem, though. I believe that all of those new AP test-takers still exist within that top 20¿30 percent of high school seniors that we can't seem to get beyond as far 4-year college-going is concerned. I do not believe that there exists the dream high school where large numbers of average kids take AP tests.

The only demonstrable difference between the bad old days when the teaching you received was so bad and now is that small margin of high-achieving kids are receiving much more rigorous instruction than they used to. I am personally involved in this process and agree that it is a good thing. It is just that it is completely immaterial to the aspirations and needs of the vast majority of high school students.

My proposal does not "lump" anyone anywhere. Kids would earn the right to take voc. ed. in the exact same way that they earn the right to take college prep. No stigma, just freedom ¿ as soon as they earn it.

MATHEWS: Ponder this question raised by your good point on higher ed. In California we have one of the best studies of the effect of AP on college success, by Saul Geiser of the University of California system. He looked at about 75,000 UC students and found that those who passed an AP exam in high school did significantly better in college than those who did not. He also found that half of the students applying to college in California in 2002 had not taken an AP course or even an approved honors course in high school. Don't you think they would do better in college if they had? And how are they going to get that chance if you open the exit door at the end of 10th grade and say bye-bye without keeping them around so they can grow up a bit and encounter a teacher like you who can show them how much they can learn?

PETERS: In regards to your excellent data on the positive effects AP coursework, it strikes me that we're both already getting a little circular in our arguments. You keep giving me very good examples of how improved college prep curricula benefits kids and I keep arguing that, yes, that is true but that these improvements don't touch and won't touch the average high school student. So let my try and get us off this merry-go-round by being more explicit:

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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