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.

Education for upward mobility

I’m in Washington D.C. for Fordham’s Education for Upward Mobility conference, which will look at what schools can do to help children born into poverty move up in the world.

Mike Petrilli, the moderator, hopes to question the idea that college is the only path to the middle class.

What if by spending all of our efforts trying to boost the proportion of low-income students who are making it through college from 10 percent to, say, 20 percent, we’re ignoring the needs of the other 80 percent?

He hopes to “find a middle ground between the utopianism that characterizes so much of the reform movement (‘Let’s get every child college and career ready!’) and the defeatism that emanates from too many corners of the education system (‘There’s nothing we can do until we end poverty!’).” 

I’m on the Multiple Pathways in High School panel, which will look at adding “high-quality career tech ed and youth apprenticeships to the “college prep for all” model.

In Hard Work, High Hopes, I look at district, charter and private high schools with lots of lower-income, Latino or black students and a college-prep mission.

“President Obama wants the U.S. to lead the world in college graduates, but college dreams
usually don’t come true for the children of poorly educated, low-income parents,” I write.

Half of people from high-income families earn a bachelor’s degree by age 25. Only 10 percent of those raised in low-income families complete a bachelor’s degree.

This way up

A bachelor’s degree isn’t the only route to the middle class, but the upwardly mobile need “easy on-ramps, goal-oriented job training and a series of ascending steps, with industry-certified credentials to guide the way.”

Career planning starts in 8th grade

Is 8th Grade Too Early to Pick a Career? asks the National Journal. In South Carolina, counselors help middle schoolers set career goals through the Personal Pathways to Success program.

(Patricia) Reid begins by meeting and talking with each student about her interests, hobbies, and academic preferences. Together, the two identify a career path that the student can focus on during high school—perhaps technology, engineering, veterinary science, or manufacturing.

Then Reid meets with the student and parents to develop an individual graduation plan, which allows students to take electives throughout high school to bolster particular interests. So, if a student expresses interest in becoming, say, a veterinarian, he could sign up for an agricultural science or animal-care classes in high school in addition to enrolling in required courses such as English, math, science, and history.

South Carolina saw textile jobs move overseas in the 1990s. Attracting new manufacturing jobs was hampered by a shortage of skilled workers.

The state has required schools to include career exploration in the curriculum since 2005. By eighth grade, students meet one-on-one with counselors, choose a career cluster and take a few career-related electives in high school.

Counselors are the key to success, a five-year study concluded.

“School counseling used to be focused on college, college, college,” says Natalie Stipanovic, an assistant professor at the University of Louisville, who has extensively studied the counseling portion of the South Carolina program. “With all of the kids who don’t go to college, what do we do? This program makes sure that every student is seen as important to talk to.”

Career discussions should be more than college or bust, says Anthony P. Carnevale, director and research professor of the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce. “If you want upward mobility in America for low-income kids, you have to get them to think about how they will use their education to make a living,” Carnevale says. “Right now, we act like there’s only one pathway.”

In southern California, San Bernardino Unified hopes to put every student on a career path by 2017.

Students in career pathways programs have higher graduation and college enrollment rates, research shows. “Programs in visual and performing arts, construction technology, finance, and digital design and communication are joining long-standing district pathways, such as the Educators for Tomorrow program, and others in public safety, green technology and business,” reports EdSource.

College is about learning, not just job training

Community colleges’ mission is learning, not just job training, a professor writes. No other sector of higher education gives low-income and working-class people “a legitimate shot at upward mobility.”

Short-term job training is growing at community colleges. In Minneapolis, laid-off workers can find good manufacturing jobs with 16 to 18 weeks of Right Skills Now training.

‘Je suis nul’

“Je suis nul!” (“I’m useless!”) is a common expression for French students, writes Ben Wildavsky, who wonders on Chronicle of Higher Education if France’s schools are sapping students’ confidence.

Now comes a new book by Peter Gumbel, a British expat who teaches at Sciences Po, France’s elite Institute of Political Studies, lambasting the French education system for humiliating children, neglecting teamwork, character-building, and positive reinforcement, and fostering pervasive low self-confidence. In an excerpt of On achève bien les écoliers (They Shoot Schoolchildren, Don’t They?), published in Sunday’s Observer, Gumbel writes that when he moved to Paris and enrolled his two daughters in school, the rigor he had expected was accompanied by a worrisome downside:

There were obvious symptoms: tummy aches and other signs of stress, an unhealthy phobia about making mistakes and flashes of self-doubt. “I’m hopeless at maths,” my eldest daughter declared one day. “No, you’re not, you just need to work at it harder,” was my reply. “No, daddy, you don’t understand anything. I’m hopeless.”

Gumbel’s Sciences Po students have passed exceptionally difficult admissions exams. They’re very bright, but have no self-confidence, Gumbel writes.

Getting them to participate in classroom discussions was like pulling teeth. Exam time was trauma time: every year, several burst into tears during the oral.

In The Great Brain Race, Wildavsky extols “the potential of meritocratic college admissions standards around the world to allow young people to get ahead based on what they know rather than who they are (whether family background or nationality).”

But high scholastic standards and an exam-based path to upward mobility won’t help France if the K-12 system turns the brightest students into anxious, timid crybabies, Wildavsky writes.

It makes American over-confidence look not so bad.