College prep, job training — or both?

While most high school graduates go on to college, “nearly 40 percent of those who go to four-year colleges and some 70 percent of students at community college will never earn their degree,” comments John Tulenko on PBS NewsHour. Should more teens train for the workforce instead of prepping for college?

Marissa Galloway, Norton learned cabinet making at Southeastern Regional Vocational Technical School. Photo: Mike George

Marissa Galloway learned cabinet making at Southeastern Regional Vocational Technical School. Photo: Mike George

“It’s the shame of our nation, when you look at, a student comes out of high school, not knowing what they want to do, goes to college, drops out,” says David Wheeler, principal of Southeastern Regional Vocational Technical High School, south of Boston. “Now they’re in debt, without a job, and not knowing what they want to do.”

In addition to academic subjects, students at Massachusetts’ regional vo-tech schools learn skilled trades.

They do as well academically as students in traditional high schools. (Wheeler’s students outscored the state average.)

They don’t have to “skip college,” as Tulenko puts it. Statewide, 60 percent of regional vo-tech students enroll in college, while others go directly to the workforce.

Gov. Charlie Baker has proposed expanding the state’s vo-tech schools.

Charters work best for neediest kids

Urban charter schools improve the achievement of their low-income, black and Latino students, writes Susan Dynarski, a University of Michigan professor, in the New York Times. In predominantly white, middle-class suburbs, “charters do no better and sometimes do worse” than neighborhood schools.

MATCH's disadvantaged students are some of the highest scoring students in Boston.

MATCH students are some of the highest scoring students in Boston. Credit: Kayana Szymczak/New York Times

Lottery studies in Massachusetts and a national study of charter schools funded by the Education Department confirm the pattern, she writes.

A Stanford study of student performance in 41 cities “also concluded that their charters outperformed their traditional public schools.”

Charter schools in Boston, which predominantly educate low-income black students, produce “huge gains in test scores,” her research shows. Charter-school “score gains are large enough to reduce the black-white score gap in Boston’s middle schools by two-thirds.”

Boston’s charters also do a better job at preparing students for college. Charter students are twice as likely to take an Advanced Placement exam as similar students in Boston’s other public schools. Ten percent of charter students pass an A.P. calculus test, compared with just 1 percent of similar students in other public schools. This stronger preparation means that these charter students are far more likely than similar students in traditional public schools to attend a four-year college.

Urban charters have one big advantage: It’s not hard to do better than the district alternative.

The bar is higher in the suburbs. Suburban charters must be drawing parents who value a small school, more flexibility, a non-standard curriculum or . . . They’re choosing something.

Looking at eighth-grade math scores on NAEP, Hispanic charter students in Florida and Arizona “scored about a grade level ahead” of Hispanic students in district schools, writes Matthew Ladner. In Florida, Hispanic charter students outperform the state average for all students in half the states.

Second-chance system backfires

U.S. educators scorn “tracking” students into college-prep or vocational lanes, writes Marc Tucker in Ed Week. We brag that our system offers second chances — and third, fourth, fifth and sixth chances. Yet, our second-chance system ends up sorting students from first grade on, he writes.

Teachers know the low achievers will get another chance, so “they just keep passing them up the system, unchallenged and uneducated,” writes Tucker.

By high school, former Bluebirds are loading up on AP classes, ex-Robins are ambling toward unselective colleges and the Sparrows, if they haven’t dropped out, are headed nowhere.

Social class and parental education are more predictive of educational achievement in the U.S. than in most other industrialized countries, according to OECD data.

One alternative advocated by the Pathways to Prosperity network is to combine academics with work-based training that leads to skilled jobs. Some schools are collaborating with employers to provide pathways.

But many more are replacing tracking with covert tracking, writes Tucker.

How about 1) headed for selective colleges (at least a couple of AP courses with scores of 3 or better), 2) headed for open-admissions state four-year colleges and lower-tier private ones (at least an 8th grade reading level and some college credit), 3) headed for community college (same as #2), 4) headed for minimum-wage work (high school diploma/managed to show up for four years of high school), 5) headed for unemployment, poverty and prison (couldn’t read high school texts and so dropped out).

Vocational pathways are controversial unless they lead to college as well as careers. What’s not controversial is letting students pass classes labeled “college prep” with B’s and C’s, then go to community college or unselective universities, take remedial courses and drop out.

Let students choose career-tech path

Rob Friedman “learned very little” in high school — except in “small engines” and “auto shop” classes, he writes in Education and the Art of Minibike Maintenance in the Wall Street Journal.

Many of his vocational classmates quit high school, he writes. They were being “force-fed” college-prep courses.

His parents — a doctor and a teacher — pushed him to earn a college degree. Friedman enrolled in junior college, but dropped out to run his car-repair business.

Jordan Smith, 15, left, and Andrew Carson, 16, work on a small engine at their Placerville (CA) high school.  Photo: Pat Dollins/Mountain Democrat

Jordan Smith, 15, left, and Andrew Carson, 16, work on a small engine at their Placerville (CA) high school. Photo: Pat Dollins/Mountain Democrat

He promises to go back to school when business slowed down, but it never did.

Half our students want an academic education leading to a university degree, Friedman writes. But his auto-shop classmates — and many others — do not.

In many other countries, ninth graders can choose  to pursue an academic high-school diploma or a technical/vocational high-school diploma, he writes.

Imagine what would happen in the U.S. if young men and women were offered interesting, real-life curricula that appealed to them, such as auto shop, computer repair and fashion design. Not only would they learn real-life skills, but along the way they would be taught real-life math. I’m talking about merchant math and accounting, balancing a check book and insurance practices.

Many skilled blue-collar workers can make a better living than the average university graduate, Friedman writes. He’d like to let students choose whether to attend a college-prep-for-all high school or a school that blends academic and vocational courses.

Hard work, high hopes

Here’s my take on college-prep high schools for disadvantaged students, which will be part of Fordham’s upcoming (next fall) book, Education for Upward Mobility. 

It starts:

In a Texas border town along a curve of the Rio Grande, everyone takes college classes in high school. Half of the class of 2014 earned an associate degree, a vocational certificate, or a year’s worth of college credits, as well as a Hidalgo Early College High School diploma. For Mexican American students in a minimum-wage town, it’s better to aim too high than to take the easy path, says Superintendent Ed Blaha.

At a San Jose charter high school, Latino students (and a few blacks, Asians, and whites) struggle to get on the college track and stay there. Ganas (Spanish for desire, determination, or—yes—grit) is essential for Downtown College Prep’s students.

“Find a way or make one” is the motto of Providence St. Mel, an all-black private school, formerly Catholic, on Chicago’s West Side. Every year, all graduates are accepted at four-year colleges and universities, and more than half go to selective “tier 1” colleges.

I look at common elements of schools that are making a difference.

Downtown College Prep (see my book, Our School) is fighting San Jose Unified’s plan to move the flagship high school to a site with half the classrooms it needs and no science lab. DCP students would have to walk across the street to a district high school to use classrooms, labs and athletic facilities. Why would the district try to disrupt a successful charter — and disrupt its own high school? It makes no sense.

Environmental science students work on DCP’s teaching garden, a collaboration with a local nonprofit.

Florida drops special-ed diploma

Florida’s special-ed students must take college-prep classes required for a standard diploma, reports The Ledger. A new state law has abolished the special diploma alternative. .

At Roosevelt Academy, a school for learning-disabled students in Lake Wales, ninth-graders were transferred from intensive math to Algebra I two months into the school year to comply with the law.

The special diploma is not accepted by state universities and may not be accepted by state colleges, technical centers, employers or the military.

But at Roosevelt Academy, teachers don’t encourage their students to go to college.

“We tell them that if you want to go to college, don’t come to our school,” said Phillip Miles, a life skills math teacher. “We’re preparing you for work, not college.”

Miles’ students are way behind in math. His class taught practical skills such as how to make a budget or calculate sales tax.

About 80 percent of Roosevelt Academy graduates have jobs by the time they collect their special diploma. That’s goal they and their parents set when creating an Individualized Education Plan.

Till now, special-ed students could earn a special diploma by mastering the “employment and community competencies” in the IEP and completing a semester of successful employment.

Now all students will have till age 22 to pursue a standard diploma — or settle for a certificate of completion.

Teachers are supposed to make college-prep courses accessible for disabled students.

In geometry, for example, a student who has trouble writing or speaking might point to an equilateral triangle rather than draw one or explain why it is equilateral.

. . . “They have to fail for four years before they even get a certificate of completion,” said Henry Smith, vocational teacher and career placement coordinator for Roosevelt. “I guarantee you the dropout rate is going to be astronomical.”

Seventeen states offer only a standard diploma, according to a 2013 report by the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

AP for average students

A Pittsburgh high school is “spreading the AP gospel” to average students, not just the high achievers, reports the New York Times. Brashear High, a school with “middling” performance, is collaborating with the National Math and Science Initiative, to get more students to take AP classes — and pass AP exams.

Brashear has offered A.P. classes in biology, chemistry, physics, computer science, calculus and statistics, but few among the school’s 1,400 students excelled. Last year, of the 159 enrolled in those classes, nearly two-thirds did not even take the tests, which normally cost $89 each. (Because of subsidies by NMSI and the school, the fee this year is as low as $9.)

Just 10 students accounted for the 13 passing scores of 3 or higher. No Brashear student has passed the chemistry exam since 2010, or scored higher than 1 in statistics in the two years that course has been taught.

NMSI uses teacher training, student study sessions and cash incentives to raise test-taking and pass rates.

In the first year of NMSI’s help, the number of passing scores on science and math A.P. exams jumps by an average of 85 percent, according to data from the College Board, which administers the A.P. tests. By the end of the three-year effort, the number has nearly tripled, on average.

Students get $100 for a passing score of 3 or better on the AP exam. The teacher also gets $100 — plus a $1,000 bonus for reaching a target number of passing scores.

Many Brashear students are struggling in rigorous AP classes this year, reports the Times. However, Principal Kimberly Safran has turned down most requests to drop AP. “Parents are beginning to understand that the rigor of the course and having the tenacity to complete the course are important for success after high school,” she said.

Advocates say students don’t have to pass the AP exam to benefit from the challenge.

“We think 20 out of 40 passing physics is better than 10 out of 10,” NMSI’s Gregg Fleisher said. “What typically happens is our pass rate usually stays the same, but the kids that were in class that were passing at 30 percent, now they’ll pass at 50 or 60 percent. And the kids who were never given an opportunity would pass at 20 or 30 percent.”

Today’s students, tomorrow’s jobs

(Academic) college isn’t for everyone, wrote Fordham’s Mike Petrilli in Slate. Some students who are failing in college might succeed if they pursued job training, he argued.

It sparked a huge response. Many argued that students need college prep and career prep.
Others accused Petrilli of “the soft bigotry of low expectations” for low-income and minority students.

“Community college ready” should be the minimum goal for all cognitively able students, responded Sandy Kress, an aide to George W. Bush. That means high school graduates should be able to take academic or vocational classes at a community college without the need for remediation.

Kress “prays” that “CTE advocates make these courses as rigorous and valued as they promise they will, and not just a dodge for them to avoid teaching and learning in the so-called old fashioned courses.” In the past, dead-end vocational education has been a “trap” for low-income and minority kids, writes Kress.

Preparing Today’s Students for Tomorrow’s Jobs in Metropolitan America, edited by Penn Professor Laura Perna, looks at the gap between school and the workforce.

Check out “Nancy Hoffman’s excellent chapter on career and technical education,” advises Liz McInerny on Education Gadfly. Education and training for a specific calling  would keep students in school and on track for decent jobs, Hoffman writes.

ACT: 10% of blacks are ready for college

Most black high school graduates aren’t prepared to succeed in college, according to an ACT study.

Only 10 percent of African-Americans met at least three of the ACT’s four College Readiness Benchmarks in 2013, compared to 39 percent of all graduates who took the test.

Sixty-two percent of African-Americans who started college in 2011 made it to their second year, compared to 73 percent of all  ACT-tested 2011 graduates.

Blacks were somewhat less likely to take a college-prep core curriculum in high school. “While 81 percent of Asian-American students and 71 percent of white students had access to a full range of math and sciences courses, only 57 percent of African American students had full access,” observes Ed Week‘s CollegeBound.

Charters grow, but so do wait lists

Charter schools are growing steadily — as are charter wait lists — reports the Center for Education Reform’s 2014 Survey of America’s Charter Schools.

Sixty-one percent of charter schools serve predominantly lower-income students. Charter students are much more likely to be black and somewhat more likely to be Latino than other public school students, according to the survey and National Center for Education Statistics data. Sixty-three percent of charter students qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch compared to 48 percent of public students.

The populations of charter students and public school students appear to be comparable with respect to special education status, the proportion of English language learners, and gifted and talented students.

Educational approaches include: college prep (30 percent), STEM (8 percent), Core Knowledge (16 percent), Blended Learning (6 percent) and Virtual/Online learning (2 percent).

On average, charter schools receive 36 percent less revenue than traditional public schools, the survey finds. “Unlike other public schools, most do not receive facilities funds,” which means they must spend operating funds to rent space.

The percentage of charters offering an extended school day increased from 23 percent in 2009 to 48 percent in 2012.

More charters are paying teachers based on performance, the survey reports.