Study hard, work hard

Young people are told they must earn a bachelor’s degree to get a good job, says Mike Rowe, who hosted Dirty Jobs. That’s not necessarily so.

(Photo via mikeroweWORKS)

As a high school student in the late ’70s, Rowe decided to go to community college, which he could afford, rather than going into debt at a four-year university. His counselor pointed to a poster urging students to “Work Smart, Not Hard.” The smiling “smart” person had a diploma.

It was “the worst advice in the history of the world,” Rowe says. “Skilled trades are in demand.”

He’s created a new poster that advises: “Work smart AND hard.” In Rowe’s version, the college graduate looks glum, while the worker is smiling.

On his Profoundly Disconnected web site, Rowe challenges the idea that college is right for everyone. Hisfoundation gives trade school scholarships to students who show a strong work ethic and financial need.

College dreamers meet reality

In 1988, 59 fifth graders in a low-income Maryland school were promised a college education by two wealthy businessmen, recounts the Washington Post. The college “dreamers” were given transportation, tutors, field trips, camps and an advisor who followed them through school.

One would become a doctor. One would become a cellist. One would become a UPS driver. One would kill herself. One would kill his father. One would become a politician. One would become a cop. One would become a drug dealer.

Forty-nine graduated from high school or earned GEDs, surpassing the graduation rate in the area, and almost half enrolled in college. But only 11 “dreamers” earned bachelor’s degrees; three of those went on to earn advanced degrees. Another 12 students completed trade school.

Most of the successful “dreamers” were motivated students before the scholarships were offered. Others, growing up in violent, drug-ridden neighborhoods, followed their peers, not the dream of college.

Many of those who made it to college failed their classes and gave up. That’s typical of similar programs. Nationally, “dream” scholarships have increased high school graduation and college enrollment rates, but have not produced many college graduates, according to the “I Have a Dream” Foundation.

Success can’t be measured by a college diploma, concludes Tracy Proctor, who served as the counselor for the 59 students into adulthood. (When the drug dealer was ready to retire, Proctor got him into trade school.)

The doctor and the pharmacist are successes, for sure. But so are the UPS driver and the Prince George’s police officer. They may not have college degrees, Proctor says, but they have a sense of purpose and ambition.

Where did that drive come from? The series profiles Darone Robinson, the most surprising success story in Proctor’s eyes. Almost kicked out of high school for fighting, Robinson almost flunked out of college. But he couldn’t face telling his mother that he’d failed. So Robinson worked harder, raised his grades, earned an IT degree and now lives a middle-class life with his wife and children. Without Proctor’s help, he might not have made it through high school. Without the scholarship, he might not have started college. But what got him through was something that can’t be given.

Permanent record: 1920′s report cards

After finding 1920s report cards and employment records from the Manhattan Trade School for Girls, Paul Lukas traced the former students to see how their lives turned out. The series on Slate includes a gallery of photos with links to reports.

Girls attended Manhattan Trade in lieu of high school, usually beginning when they were 14 or 15, and were expected to finish by the time they turned 17. The school . . . offered one- and two-year programs in a variety of disciplines, primarily in the “needle trades” (dressmaking, sewing machine operation, millinery) and, to a lesser extent, the “brush and glue trades” (sample catalog mounting, novelty box making, lampshade making). The curriculum also stressed thrift, home economics, personal presentation, and other life skills that would help the students survive in the labor marketplace.

Manhattan Trade, started by “wealthy progressives”  (“reformie” types!) in 1902, placed students in jobs for years after they left the school.

. . . the majority of the students had been born to immigrant parents—Italians, mostly, but also lots of Eastern European Jews, some Russians, and a smattering of others. Many of their families appeared to have been desperately poor, with lots of bad luck to boot. Here was a girl whose mother had ended up in an insane asylum and whose father was “paralyzed and a drunkard.” Here was one who needed dental work but couldn’t afford the dentist’s $3 fee, so the school’s secretary gave her $1.50 to have the work started. Here was one who said she had received $3.50 for three days’ work and had then been forced to leave the job because the work site was so cold “your hands almost freeze off of you.”

But there were also tales of success, triumph, and joy—stories of striving and pride, of the American Dream taking shape.

One graduate started a business making stuffed animals and toys that’s still around.

Today, girls from low-income immigrant families are urged to go to college with little guidance on what they might do there to reach their real goal, a decent job. Most will start in remedial classes, give up on a degree and work low-skilled, low-paying jobs forever.

School choice: college or career prep?

Students need a choice of college prep or trade school, writes Ilana Garon, who teaches high school in the Bronx, in the Huffington Post.

Uninterested in learning to spot the symbolism in Animal Farm, tenth-grader Danielle announces she doesn’t plan to go to college.  Instead, she’s taking community college courses to qualify as a massage therapist. “I want to have something ready to go when I graduate,” she says.

A few years ago, I would have been horrified at this pronouncement. . . . But these days, I’m more inclined to be impressed by Danielle’s self-awareness, foresight and her implicit understanding of a fact I wish our system leaders would see: that perpetuation of the current “college for all” trend in education is neither economically viable nor beneficial to all students.

Career tech students would need strong literacy and math skills, Garon writes, but not necessarily the same skills required to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Curricular emphasis in trade schools would perhaps be shifted from traditional literary analysis (themes, symbols, etc.) to literacy in functional documents, perhaps teaching students to read technical articles or to use math-based software programs that would be applicable to our tech-reliant workforce.

Queensland, Australia has introduced a “learning or earning” program after 10th grade, a commenter writes. Students can take academic classes to prepare for university, train for a job at a technical college or start a trade apprenticeship.

Students must be either enrolled in the program full-time, or working a minimum of 25 hours per week and studying part-time.
. . .  ALL young people receive a statement of learning detailing their achievemen­ts when they turn 17.
Parents and students decide on the “senior phase of learning.” Students can change paths, if things don’t work out.
In high-scoring Finland, about half of students go to vocational school at the age of 15 or 16.
Of course, developing high-quality career tech programs on this scale would be a challenge.

Axing French, Italian, classics, theater …

Do Colleges Need French Departments? On the New York Times’ Room for Debate, professors discuss the State University of New York at Albany’s decision to eliminate degree programs in French, Italian, classics, Russian and theater. The university president blamed budget cuts and said the programs attracted few students.

Should these humanities programs be saved at public universities that are hard pressed to meet the needs of all sorts of students? Are they luxuries that are “nice to have” but not what taxpayers need to support? What’s lost, if anything, if they are eliminated?

Not everyone needs French, writes linguist John McWhorter, a former French major. As long as some colleges and universities offer humanities degrees, others can focus on career training. Some students should be able to choose vocational tracks, he writes.

The very notion in America of four years of a post-high school liberal arts education as a default experience for people between 18 and 21 is a post-World War II novelty. It is unclear that it has created a populace significantly better informed or intellectually curious.

Most of the respondents argue that the humanities produce culturally aware, clear-thinking, flexible learners and thoughtful citizens who can adapt to a changing world.

On Community College Spotlight:  The shampooer with a bachelor’s degree.