Dropouts check out in elementary school

Requiring school attendance through age 18, as proposed by President Obama in his State of the Union speech, won’t make a difference, argues teacher Marilyn Rhames in Ed Week. Students drop out mentally long before high school — as early as third grade, she writes. By high school, it’s exceptionally difficult to save the 16-year-old illiterate or the 16-year-old expecting her second baby or the 16-year-old who “doesn’t feel safe at school because of bullying or gang activity.”

Reform efforts to lower the high school dropout rate must be focused on supporting the under-performing students in elementary and middle schools. This is where we can get the best bang for our buck. Of course, high schools would also need systems in place to continue to motivate students to stay in school. I believe that it is never too late to try to help a student, but by the time students prone to dropping out reach high school, they may be in need of an organ transplant—a radical, life-changing intervention. Just forcing him to spend a couple more miserable years in school until he reaches 18 is just prolonging the inevitable, especially if the learning credits are not there.

Some 1.2 million students drop out of high school every year, Rhames writes.

The death of vocational ed — and the middle class

The death of vocational education is hastening the demise of the middle class, argues Marc Tucker in Ed Week.

Years ago, almost all the larger cities had selective vocational high schools whose graduates were virtually assured good jobs, Tucker writes. Employers made sure these schools had “competent instructors and up-to-date equipment,” so graduates would meet job requirements.

That ended when vocational education became just another class, often crowded out by academic requirements, Tucker writes.

I will never forget an interview I did a few years ago with a wonderful man who had been teaching vocational education for decades in his middle class community.  With tears in his eyes, he described how, when he began, he had, with great pride prepared young men (that’s how it was) for well-paying careers in the skilled trades.  Now, he told me, “That’s all over.  Now I get the kids who the teachers of academic courses don’t want to deal with.  I am expected to use my shop to motivate those kids to learn what they can of basic skills.”  He was, in high school, trying to interest these young people, who were full of the despair and anger that comes of knowing that everyone else had given up on them, to learn enough arithmetic to measure the length of a board.  He knew that was an important thing to do, but he also knew that it was a far cry from serious vocational education of the sort he had done very well years earlier.

Career academies were developed to motivate students, not to prepare them for real jobs, Tucker writes. Voc ed, now renamed “career technical education,” is no longer a “serious enterprise” in high schools.

By contrast, Japan, Singapore, the Netherlands, Denmark and other leading industrial countries “doubled down to improve both their academic and their vocational programs.”

They built vocational education programs that require high academic skills.  And they designed programs that could deliver those skills.  They did not sever the connections between employers and their high schools; they strengthened them.  They made sure their high school vocational students had first-rate instructors and equipment.  Their reward is a work force that is balanced between managers and workers, scientists and technicians.  No one tells an individual student what he or she will do with their life.  But those students have a range of attractive choices.

Tucker links to descriptions of vocational education in the NetherlandsAustralia and Singapore.

In his State of the Union speech, President Obama called for states to require school attendance till age 18 or graduation. If schools offer no options except the college track, that seems cruel.