Losing Ground

Is the college-for-all philosophy hurting the economy?

Back Longreads Aug 1, 2012 By Allen Young

On a sweltering day in mid-June, more than 100 newly minted teachers assembled for graduation at The Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts. The event, held for the UC Davis School of Education, represented the awarding of teaching credentials and other honors to a new generation of educators. The keynote address emphasized the importance of directing all students toward the high echelons of academia.

“Make it your mission to maximize the potential of every student you serve,” instructed keynote speaker Marie McDemmond, board chair of the private Lumina Foundation, which strives to increase college graduation rates among underrepresented communities. “Embrace the reality that all students have postsecondary — yes, even college — potential. They’re even college material, because all of them need some type of college-level learning to be truly successful in life.”

Woven through the nation’s public education sector is the belief that professional success depends on the attainment of a college degree. The kindergarten-through-12th grade (K-12) accountability model is based on standardized testing — the same barometer universities use to determine which students they accept. As taxpayer dollars for education fall under a hemorrhaging economy, No Child Left Behind has forced school districts to avoid administrative penalties by funneling discretionary resources into the areas where they are measured: core academic subjects. The effect has been massive cuts to vocational courses that offer students actual work experience.

These bedrock education policies are also failing. In California, only about three-quarters of public high school students graduate after four years, state data shows. In 2009, the last year for which data is available, only about 40 percent of graduating high school seniors enrolled in a California public college or university. In Sacramento County, the enrollment rate was just under 50 percent.

Pushback to the college-for-all philosophy has come from some business and education leaders who want to eradicate the stigma that vocational classes lead to blue collar, second-rate opportunities. College may be enlightening, but it isn’t for everybody, they say.

“We ought to knock off this arrogant attitude that because you and I had that skill set and that drive and that support from parents and mentors, all we have to do is simply provide that for every kid and we’re all going to drink free Bubble Up and have a four-year degree. It’s aristocracy, it’s wrong and it’s got to stop because it’s not sustainable,” says Jim Aschwanden, a former member of the California State Board of Education and a current spokesman for GetReal, a vocational education advocacy group.

Interest groups such as GetReal are responsible for swapping the term “vocational education” for “career technical education,” a phrase intended to change minds about what hands-on learning is all about.

In California, only about three-quarters of public high school students graduate after four years.

High school dropouts have also called for more career-related offerings. Eighty one percent of dropouts said schools could better retain students by offering more “real-world” learning opportunities, according to focus groups interviewed for a 2006 report by Civic Enterprises, a public policy firm in Washington, D.C. Forty seven percent of dropouts said they left school because they were bored and disengaged with the classes. Thirty two percent said they needed to get a job and make money.

Despite the desire among youth to get an early career start, business owners complain young people often lack essential technical and social skills. At Armour Steel Co. in Rio Linda, CEO Steven Ayers says incoming welders can earn well over $100,000 annually after just a few years. But young people seeking jobs often are sorely under-qualified, and Ayers considers about half of them unemployable.

“I can see (public education) is lacking just by virtue of the applicants coming through the door,” he says. “We have people that come here, and some of the very basic skills, such as reading a tape measure — they don’t know how to read a tape measure.”

When asked about the primary challenge facing career education, proponents emphasize that the state’s entire K-12 system is underfunded. After that point is made, experts such as Lloyd McCabe, an administrator with the California Department of Education, appear more at ease discussing how historically philosophical differences have stifled public workforce training.

“We have old guard vocational educators who have been teaching for 40 years in our system,” he says. “There are old guard, traditional, academic folks who are teaching today. They don’t want to change. They’ve been doing it the same way for all these years. But our focus changes because we believe in helping all kids. Their systems don’t help all kids. Both sides. They only help certain types of kids.”

Separately, civil rights organizations, which work to ensure that students of all ethnicities and income levels have equal access to college, support career technical education only when it doesn’t conflict with college preparation. The Education Trust—West, an Oakland-based advocacy group, defends college preparation programs as a way to prepare all students for a workforce with unpredictable needs.

“The notion of alignment between industry and high school on a regional level is enormously important, but the notion that immediate workforce trends are going to translate into future workforce trends needs to be deeply considered,” says Arun Ramanathan, the group’s executive director. “Ten years ago, people were saying we needed a lot of construction academies, and we built a ton of construction academies but the jobs haven’t been there.”

The concern that underrepresented communities will fall short if they’re filtered into less academically demanding courses has historical roots. In the mid-19th century, there was no societal pressure to get every kid to college. Children were required to master each grade in an exit exam before they could move on.

Did You Know?   Only about 6 percent of U.S. graduates leave college with a degree based in science, technology, engineering or math, compared to 28 percent in Germany, 37 percent in South Korea and 47 percent in China, according to the National Center for Education Statistics

But at the dawn of the 20th century, education reformers highlighted studies showing teens dropping out of high school. To retain students, alternative curricular tracks emerged with nonacademic electives. This model proved successful. As reported in a 2011 article by The Nation, “In 1900, just 6 percent of Americans graduated from high school; by 1969, partly because of tracking policies that offered less academically demanding courses, nearly 80 percent of all Americans had earned a high school diploma.”

But also during this time, social Darwinists and racial segregationists influenced curricular tracking to adhere to their paradigm. “Tracking was used as a tool of discrimination, especially during the Depression years, when students who might otherwise have been working poured into high schools by the thousands,” writes Tom Loveless in “The Tracking and Ability Grouping Debate.” “Tests measuring IQ and academic achievement lent legitimacy to the task of placing students in tracks — and were used with both humane and pernicious intentions.”

Tracking fell out of favor in the latter half of the 20th century following a series of articles highlighting the imbalance of minorities in nonacademic courses and fears that Americans were increasingly losing intellectual competency to the Russians.

During these years, the California public university system gained popularity as a viable way for students to increase knowledge and employment opportunities. In 1983, state lawmakers passed the Hughes-Hart Education Reform Act, raising emphasis on K-12 academics and college preparatory programs. But the landmark legislation effectively decimated the state’s vocational offerings. Then, in 2001, the national No Child Left Behind law ushered in an unprecedented emphasis on standardized testing.

Since the financial crisis began affecting schools in 2008, annual state and federal funding for career technical education programs has dropped by approximately 40 percent, to about $500 million.

“We’ve lost auto shops, and we’ve lost building trades, construction programs, welding. As people have retired, it becomes convenient to close [the courses] instead of trying to find replacements,” says Valerie Vuicich, president of the California Association of Regional Occupational Centers and Programs, which allow students to take career training courses outside of their school district.

Finding and retaining quality teachers is one of the biggest funding difficulties in career education. Industry experts who have patience and motivation to educate teenagers usually must be willing to take a substantial pay cut and, in recent years, far less job security. Alternately, establishing a nonconventional education program requires significant spending by the school district for things such as new textbooks and teacher training.

“If you really believe in career technical education, then you want a teacher that has at least some industry experience,” says Russell Rumberger, director of the California Dropout Project and an education professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “And a CTE teacher may not be qualified to teach math or physics or English. One model is one where you have two teachers teaching this material — you have the CTE teacher and the academic teacher, but that’s a luxury.”

In recent years, researchers and academics have discovered they can motivate at-risk youth with hybrid programs that combine college with career preparation. Nearly 11,000 — about a third — of the state’s career education courses now meet admissions requirements for California State University and the University of California systems. These offerings would appear to appease both vocational proponents and civil rights advocates.

But the programs face funding difficulties and criticism over their application. A significant share — 40 percent — of UC-approved vocational courses are aligned with visual performing arts, which is not a sector that has economists worried about worker shortages. Vocational offerings that satisfy the math, English and history requirements for college admission make up less than 1 percent combined.

The UC Curriculum Integration Institute was launched in 2010 so the university system could bolster this work and design courses of its own. Since its inception, the UCCI Institute has approved 14 courses taught in 20 high schools.

It isn’t easy to organize teachers, UC lecturers and industry representatives to design a high school course in a short time span and then have it pass muster with university representatives, says Sarah Fidelibus, projects coordinator with UCCI. Finding a productive bureaucratic structure with limited funding has posed a significant challenge, she explains, offering a personal anecdote:

“The job that I was previously in when I was hired in March was a new position; we had no one who was overseeing the facilitators and helping them facilitate. And we also had no program manager, which is what I am now,” she says. “It was really this kind of collection of different people who would help out as they could. We finally have a real dedicated staff. That’s one of the things that speaks to the shortage of approved courses.”

Critics assert that the UC refuses courses too heavily focused on career-related skills rather than academics. Jim Aschwanden, who is also president of the California Agricultural Teachers’ Association, argues that once students are taught how to operate actual workplace machinery, the “UC is not interested anymore.”

“Find me the kid who can use tools,” he says. “Don’t tell me that teaching the kid the theory of mechanical propulsion is going to meet my needs. I don’t need a computer nerd to run my ag operation; I need a mechanic. And, you know what? Those are the people I can’t find right now.”

Interesting aside: both of Aschwanden’s children went to Chico State University. Aschwanden says he would have supported whatever career or academic path they chose, but encouraged college for his son in part because the boy needed to “get away from home and do something.”

Parental protection may be the central barrier to the expansion of workforce training in the schools. There is a natural tendency for parents — even parents who ardently promote career technical education — to push their own offspring into the most meaningful and well-compensated career possible and to help them develop an intellect that will steer them away from life’s many pitfalls.

Despite growing economic uncertainties, California’s public university system remains a solid means of increasing career options and gaining knowledge. Unfortunately, a quarter of the student population drops out largely as a result of policies intended to get them there. For those who do attend and graduate, like the recently credentialed teachers out of UC Davis, their honors mark the culmination of years of hard work and values instilled over a lifetime.

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