Thursday, February 3, 2011

Harvard Report Questions Value of 'College for All'

Leaders of the “Pathways to Prosperity” project at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education are proposing a reorganization of middle school through high school education that would allow many students to prepare better for careers that do not require a 4 year college degree. (click here for the Education Week article on this) The authors of this paper believe that by attempting to prepare all students for 4 year colleges, our educational systems have failed vast numbers of students, who instead need preparation for careers requiring less than a bachelor's degree. What a surprise that top educators from one of the most prestigious Universities in our country would actually agree with many guidance counselors and experienced teachers who have pointed out that the present system is causing many of our students to drop out before they are prepared for a career of any kind!

Those who would condemn the Harvard proposal as an attempt at reviving the dreaded “tracking” of disadvantaged students should first review the credentials of the primary authors of this proposal. Robert B. Schwartz is a prominent champion of higher academic expectations for all students who said he began to doubt the wisdom of a 'college for all' approach to education. Ronald Ferguson, the director of Harvard's Achievement Gap initiative, is a national expert on improving learning opportunities for disadvantaged children.

According to the Harvard study, half of the new jobs created in the next ten years will require Associate degree training or less. Many of these jobs are expected to be solid, well paid jobs, but they won't be available to the students who have dropped out of school before obtaining a diploma.

Other “experts” on education reform such as Arne Duncan and Paul Pastorek have unfortunately decreed that all students need basically the same curriculum through high school in order to prepare all for college and careers. That curriculum turns out to be basically a fairly dry college prep program that contains little practical skills training but much of the pure academic math, English, science and foreign languages. These “experts” believe we should ignore pleas by many students who complain that such pure academic courses are boring, frustrating, and irrelevant to their career aspirations.
Maybe its OK to ignore student complaints about the alleged irrelevance of the curriculum since these kids are too young to know their own educational needs.

 “Just complete the curriculum the experts have prescribed for you, then you can decide about going into technical, Associate degree or 4 year degree programs,” they knowingly advise.

Sounds great, but for thousands of students in Louisiana and many other states, this elitist plan results in disengagement, high stakes test failure and dropout. The problem in Louisiana is that we tend to flunk our or run off students who are turned off by pure academic requirements. Our message to them is "if you don't succeed in the college prep plan, we don't believe you deserve a high school degree."  How do we explain to the thousands of dropouts that this was for their own good? The Harvard proposal points out that the design of most European schools provides numerous practical pathways to careers that appeal effectively to more students.