There has been plenty of chatter since last week’s release of the report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce declaring that there are 30 million “good jobs” for young men and women who don’t have a baccalaureate degree. Which sounds good on its face.
But a deeper look at the report offers another reason why school reformers must continue to push American public education to provide the college-preparatory education all children, especially the most-vulnerable, need so they can become part of the middle class and be successful in life.
Certainly the Georgetown report is correct in noting that there are still plenty of jobs paying that pay the kind of wages high school dropouts and graduates without some experience in traditional colleges, apprenticeships and technical schools need to become part of the nation’s middle class. This include jobs in traditional manufacturing sectors such as welding, machine tool-and-die making, and construction, as well as in service sector jobs such as nursing, computer service technicians, and bookkeepers.
The problem is that there are fewer of these jobs available in the first place. As the Georgetown team led by Anthony Carnevale admits, the percentage of $35,000-plus jobs held by dropouts and high school graduates without a baccalaureate declined by 25 percent (from 60 percent of jobs to 45 percent) between 1991 and 2015. There are also six million fewer jobs for them than there were 25 years ago, a 16.7 percent decline (from 36 million to 30 million) in that period.
The six decades-long decline in manufacturing and other traditional blue-collar fields, a trend that will continue into the future, is a major reason why so few jobs are available for dropouts and high school grads without higher education of some kind. Thanks in large part to advances in technology (including the increase in the number of robotics used to handle low-skilled jobs once done by people), those jobs aren’t coming back.
But the bigger reason lies in the reality that the jobs that pay middle-class wages require higher levels of education than dropout and high school grads without higher education have mastered.
Between 1996 and 2016, some 4.1 million jobs were gained by high school graduates with some form of higher education other than a baccalaureate, while dropouts and grads without higher education lost one million jobs. Because so many sectors require higher levels of knowledge (as well as at least 60 college credits), those who don’t finish high school or don’t gain some form of higher education lose out on brighter futures. This is especially true for healthcare, which accounted for more than a quarter of the jobs gained by high school grads with at least some higher education, and the financial services sector (which accounts for another quarter of those jobs).
Even traditional manufacturing has become a place where workers must have higher education. Machine tool-and-die work makers who work on computer numerical control machines, for example, must both have strong math skills and be well-versed in computer programming languages. With robots having an even greater presence than ever in factories, those working in them must master computer programming languages such as C in order to do their work.
Given that higher levels of education are necessary for attaining most jobs, it becomes clear that all children need high-quality college-preparatory education. Especially since the kind of high-level math and science skills needed for success in white collar jobs requiring baccalaureate and graduate degrees are also necessary for the new blue collar jobs that can only be gotten after attending tech schools, community colleges, and apprenticeship programs (which are often run by state universities and community college systems).
The need for college-preparatory education goes beyond the jobs of today. Thanks to other advances in technology, including the rise of artificial intelligence and automation of even tasks such as crafting basic legal documents, even jobs requiring baccalaureate and graduate degrees are at risk of disappearing in the coming decades. As seen in the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ report last February on the decline in the number of teens in the labor force, the lack of high-quality education for current generations of adults has led to them taking jobs flipping burgers and other work that used to be the domain of adolescents who, are in turn, are now focused more on greater educational attainment. [By the way: The need for teens to learn more is something lost on the likes of U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, who penned an op-ed this past weekend in the New York Times bemoaning their lack of summer employment.]
College-preparatory education is critical in providing children with the knowledge they can use in any job or career, helping them to remain employable for future challenges and remain employable no matter what happens. Even if they don’t choose to initially attend a traditional college after high school, the knowledge they learn will help them when they inevitably end up going to campus in order to find a career path more-suited to them.
But as Dropout Nation readers already know, the problem is that American public education does a poor job of preparing kids for success in adulthood. Seventy-fie percent of the nation’s 12th-graders tested below grade level (Below Basic and Basic) in math on the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress. The numbers are even more bleak for children from poor and minority households. Ninety-six percent of Black high school seniors eligible for free- and reduced-priced lunch, along with 95 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native seniors, 92 percent of Latino 12th-graders, and 86 of poor White high school seniors scored below grade level.
The lack of preparation for higher education is why the percentage of Black adults with middle class jobs not requiring a baccalaureate barely budged (from nine percent to 11 percent) between 1991 and 2015, according to Georgetown, while the percentage of White adults holding such jobs declined by 16 percentage points over that same period.
The problem begins long before secondary education. As a team led by Amy Claessens of the University of Chicago determined in a study released two years ago on the effects of academic content on the learning of kindergartners, “all children benefit from exposure to advanced content in reading and mathematics”. In this case, advanced mathematics for kindergartners included advanced number concepts, and basic arithmetic such as addition and subtraction usually taught in first grade. Yet few children are provided high-quality content in math (as well as reading) in the early grades, ensuring that they will struggle academically by high school.
Continuing the overhaul of American public education, an effort complicated over the past couple of years by the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act and its evisceration of both accountability and the ability of the federal government to advance college-preparatory curricula standards, must be kept apace. It will take new approaches to make it happen.
Providing kids with college-prep curricula that aligns with Common Core reading and math standards is key to making the promise of high-quality content a reality. It is also about building upon efforts such as Project Bright Idea in North Carolina as well as the work of the St. Charles Parish district in Louisiana.The work of providing kids with high-quality education must begin early. This includes providing intensive math instruction, especially on helping kids understand that numbers represent quantities, as well as basic arithmetic, in kindergarten.
The work must accelerate, especially once kids get into secondary schools. This includes providing all middle schoolers with Algebra 1 as well as with statistics, both of which help them with the hard math work that will come. Continuing to expand access to Advance Placement courses in high schools to poor and minority students will also help. But as the Education Trust details in a report released last week, districts and other school operators must provide youth with the support they need, as well as streamline practices such as setting master schedules for schools, in order to help improve their achievement.
Meanwhile it is important to help kids understand the relevance of what they learn to what they will do in adulthood. This includes efforts such as the Minddrive program in Kansas City, Mo., which helps kids see the connections between math courses and real world activities through the uses of 3D modeling, trigonometry, and electrical engineering in designing and building cars. Adding such courses will even help kids who are focused primarily on attending traditional colleges and careers requiring baccalaureate degrees.
The Georgetown report is another reminder that providing all children with high-quality education is critical to helping them gain economically. We can’t afford to give them anything less.