Larry Cuban‘s post, Schools, Degrees, and Jobs, touches upon the dilemma faced by advocates of progressive education reform today. Essentially, those that proclaim that “College for All” is the best and surest path to success for all students do not speak the truth, or perhaps more precisely, the facts do not support their proclamations.
I could not agree more with Professor Cuban. Does this make me a defender of the status quo? No, for it is the status quo, which evolved over the past decade, that is the problem. Not everyone wishes to attend college. Not everyone will succeed in college. So why is it improper to say so? Worse, why force students to follow a one-track system that derails most?
Social Justice Subverted
Ironically, many that advocate for social justice unwittingly ally themselves with forces that impede progress. Social justice advocates do so when they support the “one size fits all” approach implicit in a “College for All” mantra. This support obfuscates realistic approaches, such as the development of trade skills or other non-college-track offerings, rendering them unpalatable when they offer the greatest hope for a diverse student population. Worse, a generation of students, now adults numbering in the millions, lay strewn across America deceived by the very system that promised them a path to success.
Progressive Marketing Myopia
Life’s complexities complicate communicating the truth. As advertisers, marketers, and politicians know, capturing the hearts and minds of the masses requires simple messaging imbued with symbolism. “No Child Left Behind,” “College for All,” “Race to the Top,” and “No Excuses” serve this purpose well. Who would want to leave a child behind? Or who would oppose any student from attending college? Whether any of the legislation, policies, or mandates that flow from these tag lines effectively achieves the end goal is nearly irrelevant once they become part of the vernacular. Worse, the altruistic nature of these sound bites serves the purpose of opposing sides leaving the audience confused as to the true intent of each.
Hence, in a twisted turn of fate, many who advocate for social justice, equity, and access inadvertently support solutions that impede more effective approaches to public education. Rather than fighting for the diverse student population, these advocates for underserved populations find themselves co-opted into supporting ineffective public education offerings. Subsequently, students struggle to obtain needed knowledge to graduate high school and to enter college only to dropout once they must stand alone with minimal supports. Meanwhile, investors in higher education continue to count their profits as wave upon wave of recent high school graduates commit themselves to financial burdens they trust will be repayable, but soon realize the deceptive design delivers lifelong debt and not a path to financial freedom.
What should be done? Easy; straightforward – at least on one hand. Offer families a choice for their children’s education. No, not a voucher based system where they choose which school their children attend, as the “free-market” camp proposes. Instead, establish curricular choice in public schools where families have more of a direct say in their child’s future. Parents know their children best, after a child’s teachers, so empower them to decide if taking algebra 1 for the third year in a row makes sense; effective empowerment entails education by the way.
But that will prevent a child from entering college! Perhaps, but doubtfully. The odds of a child passing with a grade acceptable to most colleges diminishes rapidly if they have not yet learned a subject after two or more years of instruction; while I do not presently have a citation for this assertion, I task anyone who doubts it to spend a month or so in the classrooms of a Title 1 school and then ask themselves if they still disagree. More importantly, having the choice to select an alternative does not mean a student MUST switch. Students can always stay on the same path. However, it does offer a lifeline to both the student and his/her family who struggle with no hopeful end in sight. The student is not destined to be a high school dropout, or holder of a high school diploma in name only since they struggled through their courses barely understanding the content; better still, they are not stuck in a situation where they are unable to apply much of their college-track education in any revenue producing fashion.
What prevents curricular choice? Multiple factors come to mind to include: 1) an aversion to multiple pathways for fear of a return to discriminatory practices, or just the insinuation thereof; 2) an ingrained resistance to change of a century-old institution: public education; and 3) diminishing public funds for education as we know it today, much less one that might incur greater up-front costs for lower overall costs to our country.
Discrimination is a shameful practice that left an indelible scar on our nation’s history. However, conflating a multiple pathway approach with discrimination erroneously assumes causality. In the past, students had limited to no choice in their assigned educational track; racism ran rampant. Today, while the potential exists, overt discrimination stands little to no chance, as society is no longer as homogeneous, and thankfully more enlightened. Additionally, in our data driven world today, it is much easier to get access to information that would expose such practice, leading to criminal and civil liabilities. More importantly, and sadly, forcing all students onto a single path, with minimal alternatives, if any, results in a significant mismatch in expectations, abilities, interests, and ultimately creates an ever-growing population of the disenfranchised. Perpetuating this arcane approach hurts underserved student populations more than any multiple pathway approach.
Institutions resist change. It is their very nature. Unless, and until, society forces change, public education in the U.S. will stay stuck in a 19th century model, albeit with iPads scattered among students. Technology benefits notwithstanding, the curricular, pedagogical, structural, and other attributes of public education today, especially at the secondary level, perpetuates a post-industrial revolution model for education when the benefits of the information revolution of the past two decades offer many more opportunities for individually crafted learning experiences, better matching a students needs, abilities, and interests with a vast array of knowledge and skills that our society values. This knowledge and skill is not limited to diagramming sentences, solving systems of equations, or determining the pros and cons of the New Deal, although it does not prohibit them either. A truly, individualized education is not as far-fetched as it may seem; however, time, effort, and money are required to model a successful multiple pathway program for secondary students that meets the needs of students and society alike.
Speaking of money, I suggest that net costs to our society will lessen over time as a more educated and employed population rids itself of the vestiges of urban plight associated with rampant crime. This will take a decade or two to come to fruition. Yet, it will not without providing students choice in their secondary education. Fortunately, in a virtuous cycle, this trend will lessen the numbers in our society who must turn to social welfare programs, and other social entitlement programs, simply to survive. Thus, so many more can control their own destiny and contribute positively to our society.
Where do we go from here?
Holding us back from significant improvement in public education, the false belief that everyone should attend college paralyzes a nation, spurning students and not empowering them. A mantra that everyone deserves the opportunity to go to college is more realistic, and proper. Access to a high-quality, public education must be available to all. However, forcing everyone to comply with a myopic view of education limits our great nation’s longevity; a simple change extends it by centuries, if not millennia.