Your editor always looks askance whenever anyone declares that providing all children with comprehensive, higher ed-preparatory education is senseless because some kids — namely those who are poor or come from black and Latino backgrounds — are supposedly incapable of learning. So you shouldn’t be surprised that I’m taking Thomas B. Fordham Institute President Michael Petrilli to task for his piece in Slate offering another (and not all that novel) version of this argument. The fact that this argument comes from the head of one of the most-prominent reform think tank — and a key proponent of Common Core reading and math standards — is especially unsettling.
Proclaiming that “I have no desire to punish students or deprive them of opportunity” Petrilli proceeds to declare that he wants to do exactly that. Why? From where he sits, providing kids with college-preparatory learning “does them more harm than good”. Why? From where Petrilli sits, poor and minority kids who are struggling in school will “not get that college degree anyway”. According to his narrative, struggling kids taking college-prep courses merely end up “thinking about dropping out” because they have been subjected to years of educational neglect and malpractice; even if they gain any remediation, these kids “probably aren’t going to make it” anyway.
As far as Petrilli is concerned, these students would be better off being placed into vocational tech courses similar to those proposed three years ago by Harvard professors Ronald Ferguson and Robert Schwartz in Pathways to Prosperity, their shoddy tome advocating for subjecting poor and minority children to low expectations. This “honorable path” as Petrilli calls it, is, in his view, the only way to provide “real options” to our children.
As you can imagine, there are plenty of reasons why I would look askance at Petrilli’s argument. For one, there’s the reality that, like so many who argue that some kids don’t deserve college-preparatory learning, Petrilli is unlikely to tell his own two sons not to go to college, even if their academic performance made them unworthy of admission. In fact, like any good parent with means, Petrilli would use all of his resources (including his status as a University of Michigan alum) to help his sons gain seats regardless of academic performance.
The bigger problem with Petrilli’s argument is that is falls apart when you consider actual facts. Simply put, college-preparatory learning is critical for success in both white- and blue-collar professions. Or to use Petrilli’s words, children who are not college material are also not going to be blue collar material, either.
For one, he mistakenly assumes that the high levels of reading, math and science literacy needed to graduate from college aren’t also needed high-paying blue-collar jobs. Welders, for example, need strong trigonometry and geography skills in order to properly fabricate and assemble products. Machine tool and die makers are often times the same kind of top-performing math students that go into the tech sector; the fact that machine tool-and-die work involves understanding computer programming languages such as C also makes them more like their white-collar peers working with Ruby for Web site development. Even elevator installers-repairmen, along with electrical and electronics installers, need strong science skills in order because their work combines electrical, structural and mechanical engineering. When one looks at nearly every middle class-oriented blue collar career (including nursing and other jobs in the healthcare field), the skills needed for success in those fields are the same as those needed to do well in white collar careers.
All these fields, by the way, require some level of higher ed training. Which leads to another point: College prep is key for gaining entry into the post-secondary institutions and programs that are the training grounds and gateways into those high-paying blue-collar jobs. After all, higher ed is more than just traditional colleges. Thirty-seven percent of the 20 million Americans enrolled in higher education attend community colleges, which operate blue-collar training and certification programs (including apprenticeships they operate in cooperation with companies and labor unions), alongside traditional academic offerings. At least 4.4 million Americans (and as many as 12 million) are engaged in some form of post-secondary technical school training for high-paying blue-collar professions, according to the federal agency. And among America’s four-year colleges are the leading for-profit training institutions for blue- and white-collar job training, including Apollo Group’s University of Phoenix and DeVry Education Group’s flagship university.
This matters because economic data shows the importance of higher education in helping poor and minority kids enter the economic and social mainstream. Unemployment levels for blacks age 25 and older with some college education was at between 5.7 percent and 10.5 percent in 2013 (depending on level of higher ed attainment), according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; that’s far lower than the 20.4 percent unemployment rate for high school dropouts, and nearly 17 percent lower than the 12.6 percent unemployment rate for high school grads with no higher ed training. In light of that data, it isn’t surprising that the nation’s seven-year-long economic malaise has damaged black and Latino communities more than any other; after all, they are the least likely to attain higher ed training. High school dropouts and high school grads without any college experience account for 49 percent of all African-Americans in the civilian population age 25 and older and a whopping 64 percent of Latinos, while just 42 percent of whites and 30 percent of Asians were dropouts and high school grads without college experience.
Arguing that only some children are worthy of comprehensive college-prep curricula, as Petrilli does, is akin to condemning them to poverty and social despair. This is especially true when you keep in mind that placing kids onto vocational ed (or what we now call career and technical education) tracks while in high school doesn’t work, either in helping kids gain entry into middle class jobs or even in keeping them from dropping out of high school. Why? For one, vocational ed courses provide little either in the way of strong or relevant academic and career content. This isn’t shocking; after all, vocational ed tracks are a legacy of ability tracking and the comprehensive high school model, both of which emerged from the bigoted assumption that poor and minority kids (especially those from immigrant households) were incapable of mastering academic subjects. The second: Because in reality, young adults really don’t know what careers suit them until they enter the workforce; what may be an ideal fit in theory (or based on a brief internship) often turns out not to be in the bright light of day. This is why only 30 percent of kids in vocational courses spend any time working in their chosen fields, according to education policy consultant Richard C. Seder.
Given this reality, along with the fact that job- and career changes is common for young adults under age 25, what children need is strong, comprehensive college-preparatory education that allows them to succeed in any white- or blue-collar career path they select. The last thing they need is to be relegated to vocational tracks that inhibit them from writing their own stories. This isn’t just an economic issue. The reality is that college preparatory education is critical for students so that they can fulfill whatever economic and social destiny they choose. At some point, every young man and woman will have to deal with abstract concepts, think through political issues, and even engage in cocktail conversation involving Chaucer or genetics. Comprehensive college prep education helps prepare our kids for productive lives, to serve as leaders in their communities, even help their own children continue onto the path to success in society. Arguing that they don’t need such an education merely damns them to lives of mediocrity — and in the case of kids in our dropout factories, prison cells and welfare lines.
Meanwhile Petrilli shamefully and conveniently ignores the reality that few poor and minority kids are getting college-preparatory learning in the first place, and thus end up leaving school without the reading, math, and science skills they need for either white-or blue-collar careers. Starting from the moment they enter school, poor and minority kids are denied opportunities to attain comprehensive college-preparatory curricula because of how they are perceived by the teachers and guidance counselors who serve as gatekeepers for such programs (along with the relationships their parents have with these gatekeepers).
This is especially clear when one looks at the treatment of poor and minority children who by any academic measure would be considered high-achieving. Some 3.4 million children from poor backgrounds — many of which came from homes where parents were either dropouts or merely received high school diplomas — were among the top-performers in their schools, according to a 2007 study by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. Yet only 56 percent of them remain that way by fifth grade largely because those adults who are supposed to do the best by them are either incapable or unwilling to provide them with the learning they need and deserve. Add in other pernicious practices– including the overlabeling of young black and Latino men as special ed cases — into the mix and it is clear that very few poor and minority kids are provided anything resembling college preparatory learning.
Certainly the efforts of charter school operators such as the Knowledge is Power Program, along with programs such as North Carolina’s Project Bright Idea (which provides at-risk poor and minority kids the same learning opportunities as kids considered gifted in part by changing the way teachers deal with students) are addressing these issues. So are systemic reform efforts such as the implementation of Common Core’s college-preparatory reading and math standards (of which, by the way, Petrilli is one of the staunchest supporters). But the reality remains that American public education is still failing our poor and minority children. Helping these children means doing more to provide them with the college prep learning they deserve — not tossing them into an “alternative path” to social oblivion.
The fact that Petrilli is more-willing to do the latter than the former exposes the biggest problem of all with his argument: That is based on the implicit conceit that providing all children with high-quality teaching and curricula (and ultimately, helping them succeed economically and socially) isn’t worth doing. He is also declaring that we should subject children from the communities that have suffered the worst from the nation’s education crisis — and from the racialism that has been the Original Sin of both American public education and the nation — to low expectations. And in the process, Petrilli is forgotten that he is supposed to be a school reformer, a champion for brighter futures for all children, and a defender of providing every child with high-quality education.
For anyone to embrace such thinking is morally reprehensible. For a school reformer — especially the boss of one of the movement’s leading think tanks — to do so is even more shameful. In fact, it is cowardly. Especially in light of Petrilli’s recent piece, it is particularly hard for anyone to take Petrilli’s defense of Common Core — or his advocacy for reform, in general — seriously.