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.

Vo-tech grads head to college

Southeastern Regional Vocational Technical senior Jonathan Berry fires up an oscilloscope in the electronic engineering shop. Berry will be headed for W.P.I. this fall instead of immediately heading into the work force.

Southeastern Regional Vocational Technical senior Jonathan Berry fires up an oscilloscope in the electronic engineering shop. Berry will attend Worcester Polytechnic Institute. (Photo: George Rizer for the Boston Globe)

Massachusetts’ well-regarded vocational schools are sending more graduates to college, not to the workforce, reports the Boston Globe.

Once viewed as a place for student slackers with no college ambition, Massachusetts vocational high schools are increasing academic standards, offering honors classes, and producing more college-bound students than ever before.

Employers are seeking more formal education for entry-level workers in the fastest-growing career sectors, such as information technology, environmental studies, engineering, biotechnology, and health care, said Patrick Collins, superintendent at Assabet Valley Tech.

Vocational schools still are seen as academically inferior, said Daniel O’Connell, superintendent of North Shore Tech. Some 29.7 percent of seniors in the class of 2013 went on to four-year colleges and universities, up from 15.1 percent five years earlier.

“Vocational education has changed so drastically,’’ he said. “If you were a vokie you worked with your hands and were a discipline problem. That’s archaic. But it’s still a process to educate the public. Each year that goes by, people realize more and more what the opportunities are with a technical education.’’

All students take the Massachusetts curriculum and must pass the state exam to graduate.

Only 30 percent of young people will earn a four-year degree, says Bill Symonds. He’s co-author of Harvard’s 2011 Pathways to Prosperity report, which argued that U.S. high schools should provide a variety of paths to adulthood.

Chris Symonds working in the kitchen at Blue Ginger.  Chris is heading to the elite Culinary Institute of America. (Photo: Emily Hanford)

Chris Symonds working in the kitchen at Blue Ginger, a Wellesley restaurant. Chris is heading to the elite Culinary Institute of America. (Photo: Emily Hanford)

His son attends Minuteman, a 21st century vocational high school in Lexington, Mass., reports American RadioWorks

Chris, was a C- minus student who loved to cook. The local high school had no courses to prepare students for a career in cooking.

In the wealthy, well-educated Boston suburbs, “there is a tremendous bias against” vocational education,  says Symonds. But Chris knew it was the right choice for him.

In middle school, he asked himself, “Why am I learning this?” Always behind, “I just felt so stupid.”

. . .  once he got to Minuteman, he started to see why he needed to learn math and English. Chris is now a senior, about to graduate in the top 10 percent of his class.

“In culinary arts, there’s not just the side of, ‘Make this recipe and put it out,’” he says. “There’s the side of, multiply this recipe. Break it down. Make more, make less. There’s the side of hospitality, and learning how to write out business plans, pay wages, make a profit.”

Students who’ve failed in traditional schools can do well at Minuteman, says Michelle Roche, the director of career and technical education. “They’re standing on their feet, they’re working with their hands, they figure out a problem,” she says. “And success breeds success.”

“Every year, some one million students leave before earning a high school degree,” writes Symonds in Pathways to Prosperity. “Many drop out because they struggle academically. But large numbers say they dropped out because they felt their classes were not interesting, and that high school was unrelentingly boring. In other words, they didn’t believe high school was relevant, or providing a pathway to achieving their dreams.”

Career and technical education can engage students and widen their options — including going to college — says Symonds.

A drop in ‘dropout factories’

The number of  “dropout factories” — schools with graduation rates under 60 percent — declined by 6.4 percent from 2008 to 2009, according to a report released today for the kick-of of the Building a Grad Nation Summit in Washington.

Since 2002, there’s been a 20 percent drop in the number of students attending dropout factories, concludes the report by the Johns Hopkins University Everyone Graduates Center, America’s Promise Alliance, and Civic Enterprises, which are hosting the summit with the Alliance for Excellent Education.

California, South Carolina, Illinois and North Carolina showed the most improvement, while the number of  high-dropout schools increased in Georgia, New York and Ohio. State data is here.

At the summit today, reports College Bound, Robert Balfanz, co-director of the Everyone Graduates Center, suggested districts use “new comparison data on graduation rates to shape targeted efforts, follow students over time with longitudinal data to see how their high school success is linked to their postsecondary success, and look at case studies of schools that have turned around their graduation rates using enhanced student supports and early-warning systems.”

The goal of a 90 percent high school graduation rate is achievable, said John Bridgeland, president of Civic Enterprises.

“We will focus in like a laser on dropout-factory high schools and look at the feeder middle schools and elementary schools,” said Bridgeland.

. . . Bridgeland said many schools have early-warning systems in place in 9th grade, but that’s too late. They should be as early as the 4th or 5th grade. Mentors can also help off-track students, and states should raise the compulsory age that students are allowed to drop out, suggested Bridgeland.

Also at the summit, Vice President Joe Biden pitched President Obama’s college-completion goals, suggesting governors link funding to performance, align high school standards with college entrance and placement standards, simplify transfers, use data to drive decisions and target adults with “some college” but no degree.

Obama’s goal — a 60 percent college graduation rate by 2020 — ignores many students, Harvard Education Professor Robert Schwartz told the Washington Post.

Schwartz heads the Pathways to Prosperity Project, which released a study in February concluding that the U.S. education system should offer greater emphasis on occupational instruction.

“What’s the strategy for the other 40 percent of people?” he said. “We can’t keep saying, ‘College for all, college for all’ and yet set targets that even if you could meet them are going to leave out very large proportions of young people.”

In Massachusetts, the highest performing state, only 54 percent of adults have earned an associate or bachelor’s degree. In Arkansas, Nevada and New Mexico, the college graduation rate is 28 percent.

Closing the Expectations Gap

In Closing the Expectations Gap 2011, Achieve reports that its college- and career-readiness agenda has been accepted by policymakers, business and education leaders and the general public.

Forty-seven states and the District of Columbia have adopted academic standards that are aligned with college- and career-ready expectations, including many states that have adopted the Common Core Standards.

“States must now ensure that the higher expectations they have adopted in their standards are carried out in related policies such as graduation requirements, assessments and accountability systems that value college and career readiness,” (Achieve President Michael) Cohen urged.

Students who take college-prep courses will be prepared for college or careers, Achieve argues. But last week, its former president, Harvard Professor Robert Schwartz released a Pathways to Prosperity report criticizing moves to require a college-prep curriculum for all high school students. Students should be able to choose a career education path, Schwartz now believes.

Harvard: ‘College for all’ fails students

There’s one path to success — go to college to earn a bachelor’s degree — most high school students are told.  Only about 30 percent will earn a degree. “College for all” isn’t working for most students argues a new report by Harvard’s Pathways to Prosperity project.  Young people need alternative paths to adulthood, including better counseling, high-quality career education, apprenticeships and job training based at community colleges. Those who lack the academic skill or motivation to earn a bachelor’s degree should know about “middle-skill jobs” that pay middle-class wages.

. . . while the United States is expected to create 47 million jobs in the 10-year period ending in 2018, only a third of these jobs will require a bachelor’s or higher degree. Almost as many jobs – some 30 percent – will only require an associate’s degree or a post-secondary occupational credential.

The report asks employers to create more work-based learning opportunities for young adults.

“We are the only developed nation that depends so exclusively on its higher education system as the sole institutional vehicle to help young people transition from secondary school to careers, and from adolescence to adulthood,” says Robert Schwartz, academic dean and professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, who heads the Pathways to Prosperity Project.

In response to the “college for all” movement, districts and states are requiring a college-prep curriculum based on four-year universities’ admissions requirements   for all high school students. “Unless we are willing to provide more flexibility and choice in the last two years of high school, and more opportunities for students to pursue program options that link work and learning, we will continue to lose far too many young people along the path to graduation,” Schwartz says.

Career and technical education has been “the neglected stepchild of education reform,” said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan at the report’s Washington launch. “That neglect has to stop,” Duncan said.

Some fear disadvantaged students will be tracked into “watered-down programs that curtail their prospects,” notes Education Week. But Schwartz is “a prominent champion of higher academic expectations for all students” and co-author, Ronald Ferguson, director of Harvard’s Achievement Gap Initiative, “is a national expert on improving learning opportunities for disadvantaged children.”

Rather than derailing some students from higher learning, their system would actually open more of those pathways, (the authors) say, by offering sound college preparation and rigorous career-focused, real-world learning, and by defining clear routes from secondary school into certificate or college programs.

“College for all” advocates say it’s too early to give up. The college-readiness agenda is very new, said Michael Cohen, who succeeded Schwartz as the president of Achieve, which works with states to raise academic expectations. “To say we’ve tried this and it failed seems a bit premature, like snatching defeat from the jaws of victory,” he said. Besides, Cohen said, “college for all” really means “some form of training after high school.”

“Every single time we create multiple tracks, we always send disproportionate numbers of poor kids and kids of color down the lesser one,” said Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust.  College expectations are not the norm for black and Hispanic high school students, who are half as likely as white classmates to enroll in a “full college-ready curriculum.”

If we were teaching all of our kids to the levels reached by 10th-graders in Finland, students and their parents might have a base of knowledge and skills strong enough to make informed choices of the sort imagined in this report – real choices, rather than those forced on students who weren’t prepared for much of anything.

. . .  in the German system the authors hold up as an example of success, the three high school tracks have been deeply segregated by income and ethnicity, with mainly affluent Germans attending the college-prep schools while low-income and immigrant students are assigned to the two lower options.

Education Trust is working with ConnectEd California and several school districts on linking career-oriented learning with college-prep classes.

The report praises ConnectEd California’s Linked Learning initiative and Massachusetts’ network of regional vocational-technical schools.

At Construction Technology Academy at Kearny High School in San Diego, students  study architecture, engineering, and construction as well as the typical core curriculum. Some go on to construction apprenticeships, while others study at  community colleges or universities, said Gary Hoachlander of ConnectEd.

Update:  Everybody needs college-prep skills — including future welders, tool and die makers and elevator installers — argues Rishawn Biddle on Dropout Nation.

The 52-page report along wrongfully perpetuates a century-old philosophy — that poor and minority kids aren’t capable of high-quality, college-level education — that is condemning far too many young men and women to poverty and prison.

What condemns young people to poverty is the failure to learn reading, writing and math (and science, history and civics), followed by the decision to drop out of high school.  I think many low achievers could be motivated to learn academic skills in order to train for a job. If the only motivation is the chance to spend more years in a classroom — almost certainly a remedial classroom — with a better job as a vague hope for the distant future . . .  Maybe a few kids will catch college fever and go all the way to a bachelor’s degree. But not very many.