Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Most Troubling Thing I've Read Lately
Last week, CUF released a report I wrote titled "Schools That Work," which explores issues relating to vocational education--now known within the field as career and technical education (CTE)--in New York City's high schools. The report reached two main conclusions. The first is that CTE seems to represent a valuable educational option for students, particularly those who fit the profile of being at high risk to drop out before graduation. According to New York State Board of Regents data, compared to their academics-only counterparts, CTE students in NYC graduate at higher rates (64 percent to 50 percent) and drop out at much lower rates (5 percent to 20 percent), despite the fact that students at the 21 dedicated CTE high schools are poorer, more likely to be overage for their grade, and test sharply lower on standardized exams than the overall city averages. The second is that CTE has vast potential to serve as a pipeline to produce skilled workers in economic sectors projected for large numbers of job openings over the next ten to twenty years. The report has gotten decent media attention and seems like it will have some impact on a high-profile task force appointed by Mayor Bloomberg earlier this year, which is now concluding its deliberations.

What I really find compelling about career-focused education, though, is that if done right and at scale, it could come to complement or even supplant the current norm of academic progression in the United States: high school, then college, then work. CTE partially inverts that model by offering education in the context of work: in part, students choose a discipline that could (but certainly need not) lead to employment, and that creates a framework for their mastery of academic skills. So for instance at Automotive High School, one of the schools I profile in the report, English classes involve car-related literature like On the Road and students write essays about their perfect cross-country vacation, what cars they would take and how they might make their way from coast to coast. Another part of the curriculum, one with more direct relevance to potential employment, might focus on technical reading and writing--so that, say, a Volvo mechanic will never struggle to figure out what the writer of a service manual was trying to communicate.

Vocational education fell out of favor because education reformers of an earlier generation came to view it as classist and even discriminatory, a second-tier system for kids that someone concluded could not cut the academic mustard and had no prospect of going to college. This was understandable and laudable, given the challenges to the educational system as perceived in the second half of the 20th century. But the guiding principle that replaced it--the notion of "college for all"--has its own set of problems. The stunningly high college dropout rate suggests to me that we're admitting too many students who either don't know exactly why they're in college and what they hope to gain by the experience, who don't possess the basic academic grounding necessary to complete college-level classwork, or (most likely) both. Thirty years ago, it was assumed that "voc ed" existed in high schools as an alternative to college-bound academics; now, as I write in the report, it's less an "either/or" than a "both/and." Two-thirds of CTE program graduates from the city do go on to higher education, and the limited data available suggests that they outperform their academics-only counterparts.

This resembles what I imagine as the possible and desirable future path of working and learning in the post-industrial world: one starts with basic skill acquisition in elementary and middle school, and by the time you reach high school there's career-oriented instruction available that students can pursue without stigma or presupposition in terms of where it might take them. Post-secondary education might or might not resemble "college" as we've traditionally thought of it; maybe it's two years becoming a master mechanic or a radiologic technician or a restauranteur, in which you work while you learn--a new model of apprenticeship for the 21st century. And it might or might not happen when you're 18, right after college; given what we know about how often people change jobs and careers in the contemporary labor market, you might or might not keep alternating between work-only, school-only, and both at the same time through your entire adult life.

Which brings me, finally, to the piece I read earlier this evening that's bothering me so much. It's by an adjunct professor who teaches at two colleges, one private, one community, in the northeastern US. The story he tells both supports my take on what's happening in detailing the struggles of younger students who just "landed" in his classroom, and confounds it in telling of how fully adult learners--the people I envision as being in the vanguard of figuring out new models that blend work and education--are falling short as well. I highly recommend the entire article.

I work at colleges of last resort. For many of my students, college was not a goal they spent years preparing for, but a place they landed in. Those I teach don’t come up in the debates about adolescent overachievers and cutthroat college admissions. Mine are the students whose applications show indifferent grades and have blank spaces where the extracurricular activities would go. They chose their college based not on the U.S. News & World Report rankings but on MapQuest; in their ideal academic geometry, college is located at a convenient spot between work and home. I can relate, for it was exactly this line of thinking that dictated where I sent my teaching résumé.

Some of their high-school transcripts are newly minted, others decades old. Many of my students have returned to college after some manner of life interregnum: a year or two of post-high-school dissolution, or a large swath of simple middle-class existence, 20 years of the demands of home and family. They work during the day and come to class in the evenings. I teach young men who must amass a certain number of credits before they can become police officers or state troopers, lower-echelon health-care workers who need credits to qualify for raises, and municipal employees who require college-level certification to advance at work.
A few weeks into the semester, the students must start actually writing papers, and I must start grading them. Despite my enthusiasm, despite their thoughtful nods of agreement and what I have interpreted as moments of clarity, it turns out that in many cases it has all come to naught.

Remarkably few of my students can do well in these classes. Students routinely fail; some fail multiple times, and some will never pass, because they cannot write a coherent sentence.

In each of my courses, we discuss thesis statements and topic sentences, the need for precision in vocabulary, why economy of language is desirable, what constitutes a compelling subject. I explain, I give examples, I cheerlead, I cajole, but each evening, when the class is over and I come down from my teaching high, I inevitably lose faith in the task, as I’m sure my students do. I envision the lot of us driving home, solitary scholars in our cars, growing sadder by the mile.
Adult education, nontraditional education, education for returning students—whatever you want to call it—is a substantial profit center for many colleges. Like factory owners, school administrators are delighted with this idea of mounting a second shift of learning in their classrooms, in the evenings, when the full-time students are busy with such regular extracurricular pursuits of higher education as reading Facebook and playing beer pong. If colleges could find a way to mount a third, graveyard shift, as Henry Ford’s Willow Run did at the height of the Second World War, I believe that they would.

There is a sense that the American workforce needs to be more professional at every level. Many jobs that never before required college now call for at least some post-secondary course work. School custodians, those who run the boilers and spread synthetic sawdust on vomit, may not need college—but the people who supervise them, who decide which brand of synthetic sawdust to procure, probably do. There is a sense that our bank tellers should be college educated, and so should our medical-billing techs, and our child-welfare officers, and our sheriffs and federal marshals. We want the police officer who stops the car with the broken taillight to have a nodding acquaintance with great literature. And when all is said and done, my personal economic interest in booming college enrollments aside, I don’t think that’s such a boneheaded idea. Reading literature at the college level is a route to spacious thinking, to an acquaintance with certain profound ideas, that is of value to anyone. Will having read Invisible Man make a police officer less likely to indulge in racial profiling? Will a familiarity with Steinbeck make him more sympathetic to the plight of the poor, so that he might understand the lives of those who simply cannot get their taillights fixed?
America, ever-idealistic, seems wary of the vocational-education track. We are not comfortable limiting anyone’s options. Telling someone that college is not for him seems harsh and classist and British, as though we were sentencing him to a life in the coal mines. I sympathize with this stance; I subscribe to the American ideal. Unfortunately, it is with me and my red pen that that ideal crashes and burns.

For all the thought I've put into these issues--for all that figuring out this sort of thing would seem to be why I do what I do--I don't know what the answer is here. Not require cops to take English 101? Raise the high school standards even higher? Give up the notion that our workforce should be higher-skilled?

Maybe the takeaway is that even a powerful new model that seems a better match for the needs and priorities of this time will bring its own problems and challenges. Perhaps it should be a small consolation that I'll likely never run out of things to work on in my field.

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