This commentary appeared in Education Week's "Diplomas Count", June 9, 2011. For a commentary on it, see Jay Mathews' column "Class Struggle" in the Washington Post, June 16, 2011.
Preparing all students for some form of post-secondary training or education is a hugely important issue, but I worry that—as is the case with so much education policy—it will devolve to a binary polemic. The predictable result will be stalemate or a partial and inadequate solution that will not address the web of concerns that underlie this debate or honor the lives of the young people at the heart of it.
As a person who has worked for many years with students who have not been well served by our schools, I am sympathetic to the push to prepare as many as possible for a college degree. Those who advocate an occupational education on strictly economic terms don’t fully appreciate tracking’s material as well as symbolic damage. And right at the point when college is being encouraged for a wide sweep of our population, we have this policy counterforce, which is seen by some parents and civil rights groups as an attempt to protect privilege.
Yet it would be foolhardy to dismiss labor market realities, for many low-income students are in immediate financial need. These students can afford post-secondary education only if it leads to a decent wage and benefits. Furthermore, the record of post-secondary success is not a good one. Many students leave college without a certificate or degree that can help them in the job market, and, in many cases, they incur significant debt.
There is also the pure and simple fact of human variability. Some students of all economic backgrounds are not drawn to the kinds of activities that make up the traditional academic course of study, no matter how well executed. It is true that better teaching and a more engaging curriculum would make a difference for a percentage of disaffected students—but not all.
In a community college fashion program I’ve been studying, I see students with average to poor high school records deeply involved in their work, learning techniques and design principles, solving problems, building a knowledge base. Yet they resist, often with strong emotion, anything smacking of the traditional classroom, including the very structure of the classroom itself. This resistance holds even when the subject (textiles, history of fashion) relates to their interests.
The college-for-all versus pathways debate is typically focused on structural features of the curriculum and on economic outcomes, and not much attention is paid to the intellectual and emotional lives of the young people involved: their interests, what has meaning for them, what they want to do with their lives. A student in a welding program gave succinct expression to all this: “I love welding. This is the first time school has meant anything to me.”
But goals, expectations, and what one imagines for oneself are deeply affected by information and experience. For a pathway approach to be effective and not rigidify into tracking, students will need a lot of information about college and careers and multiple opportunities to visit colleges, work sites, hospitals and courts and laboratories. The differences in cultural and social capital between my UCLA students and the students I work with at that inner-city community college are profound and widening as inequality widens in our country. Pathways advocates will have to confront this inequality head on, for it is as important as the construction of curriculum.
The fundamental issue underlying the debate, and one I don’t hear addressed, is the very divide between the academic and vocational course of study. This distinction emerged out of a cluster of troubling beliefs about knowledge, education, and the social order, and these beliefs continue to blinker our educational imagination.
The comprehensive high school and curriculum tracking was an early twentieth century response to the rapid increase of working class and immigrant children in urban centers, and separate academic, general, and vocational courses of study seemed an efficient way to address their wide range of educational preparation and ability. But conceptions of ability were made amidst the emergence of I.Q. testing and a full-blown eugenics movement. So there was much talk about the limited mental capacity of various immigrant and working-class groups and the distinct ways their brains functioned. As opposed to college-bound students (overwhelmingly white and middle to upper class) who were “abstract minded”, working-class and immigrant students were “manually minded.” We don’t use these phrases today, but there are echoes of them in loose talk about “learning styles,” “kinesthetic learners,” and other terms that reduce and reify cognition—terms heard in contemporary educational discourse.
Sadly such distinctions about cognition reflect broader social biases about kinds o f work (blue collar vs. white collar, hand vs. brain work) and the intelligence of the people in these different occupational categories. Though we are a country built on egalitarian principles, we also hold a number of anti-egalitarian beliefs about cognition, education, and work. We also make weighty status-laden distinctions among levels of post-secondary education—research university to community college—and these distinctions play into the college-occupation debate.
The academic-vocational divide affects both sides of the debate. It limited the practice of vocational education itself. Surveying the history of VocEd, the authors of a report from the National Center for Research in Vocational Education concluded “[V]ocational teachers emphasized job-specific skills to the almost complete exclusion of theoretical content. One result was that the intellectual development of vocational students tended to be limited at a relatively early age.” No wonder that the mere mention of an “occupational pathway” sparks fears of a return to tracking and a watered-down curriculum.
But the divide also has a negative effect on those advocating a college-for-all approach, for it can blind them to the significant intellectual content of occupations and the many ways that occupational study, as John Dewey saw, can give rise to the study of the arts and sciences.
My hope is that keeping the totality of these issues in mind will bring the discussion of post-secondary education close to the complex needs and circumstances of young people as they find their way into the world beyond high school.