a question of school work

Ignorant of yet increasingly interested in the politics of education, I’m more intrigued than ever after reading this conversation published in today’s Washington Post. In it, education columnist Jay Mathews and reader -slash- high-school program coordinator Chris Peters argue over the merits of vocational education in secondary schools. The debate touches on, among other points, the risk of vocational ed becoming a “dumping ground” for minority students due to racist counseling; the hypothetical role and actual effectiveness of community colleges (at least in California); and potential elitism in mandating college prep curricula. I don’t know whose arguments I agree with more, but most of the issues they address certainly resonate with my high school experience: I went to a large, ethnically and socio-economically diverse public school in California, and my school had majorly unsettling segregation of (mostly-minority) regular students and (mostly white and east-asian-american) advanced-placement kids.

Sorry I don’t have time to pull some of the most interesting quotes from the column (2 papers and an exam due tomorrow), but if you have a couple of minutes, I just wanted to share. Thoughts?


3 responses to “a question of school work

  1. Jamal Sprucewood


    Sounds like we went to a similar type of high school (mine was about 75% minority, with the bulk being Hispanic and African-American students with a sizable Vietnamese contingent) and I can’t say that I noticed the same type of segregation in Advanced Placement courses and we did offer Vo-Tech. It could be, of course, just the case of law of large numbers here, in that we were so heavily majority-minority that it made it likely that any class would also be majority-minority.

    I did notice, however, that it seemed like the kids who “didn’t care about school” as a type were more likely to participate in Vo-Tech or Co-Op (school in the morning, work in the afternoon and evening). There may have been a class dimension to that as well – students of especially poor parents may have been pressured into the Co-Op program to earn money (which additionally made it harder for them to pursue advanced curricula).

    As both a student and current teacher, however, it’s important to know what pundits and educators mean when they talk about “college-prep” curricula in their schools. College-prep normally does not mean that students are taking classes that actively push them to go to college or deeply engage them in advanced subjects. College-prep most likely is used to describe a course of study that places a heavier emphasis on “core subjects” (math, english/writing/literature, history, science, foreign language) rather than on “electives.” In many school districts today, “college-prep” is used to describe “recommended” graduation programs. Nothing stringent here at all, usually your basic 4 years of English and Math, 3 years of Science and Social Studies and 2 years of foreign language. It’s a matter of marketing – “OF COURSE our schools are preparing kids to go to college, it’s a COLLEGE-PREP course of study that their on!” Never mind that the actual percentage of kids going to college may be dismally low, the scores on AP tests in the 1-2 range, and the number of students who go to college who drop out be very high.

    I do, before I have to go back to monitoring my kids in a Saturday credit-recovery program (school on Saturday!), want to address the issue of elitism in assigning “college-prep” (assuming of course, that college-prep may mean what it sounds like). As both a minority (Mexican-American) and an educator teaching in an 100% Title I school, I think that heavy emphasis on real college-prep is exactly what our students need. Now, it has become in vogue of late to not pressure students too hard into going to college on the grounds that college may not be for everyone and that there are plenty of successful people who didn’t go to college or went to vocational training schools and got certificates. All well and good. But the evidence, from an economic standpoint, is overwhelming that a college education increases one’s future prospects for employment, income, social mobility, and social standing. As an economics teacher, I spend a great deal of time showing my students the correlation between educational attainment and income. Quite simply, for those with only a high school diploma or less, average income (adjusted, natch) has continued to decline compared to incomes for those with even a two-years Associates degree. I think that the data here is pretty clear and unassailable. Arguing that poor minority students may not be well-served by enrolling in college prep courses of study is elitist in the sense that it’s a sure way to, and I might sound like Jersey here, perpetuate the privileged position of those elites (who, it is true, tend to be white and wealthy). Now, some might argue that it’s this system of educational attainment=social standing/mobility that needs to be fixed (I would disagree here, but I digress), but my students simply can’t wait for that miracle transformation to occur.

    My hurried two cents. It’s possible as well that this is not what you meant by “elitism” but I’ve heard that mentioned in some contexts and so I ran with it.

    PS – to all you CC contributors and readers out there, I’ll be on campus on February 9 and 10 recruiting for Teach for America. If your interested, look for me in the Greenhouse on those dates.

  2. Hey Jamal,

    Thanks for your clarifications. Your high schools sounds like it had quite a bit going on!

    As I understood it from the article, one of the debators was trying to emphasize is that it’s unfair to waste the time of non-college-bound students by forcing college prep requirements on them (the core classes, as you said), not because we wouldn’t ideally want all kids to go to college (and thereby expand their opportunities), but because, as he put it, it’s “mathematically impossible” for all students who complete college prep requirements to go on to higher education immediately after graduating high school. Even if all kids were totally motivated and improved their grades and scores, colleges would just keep raising the bar in order to admit only the top performers. He advocated reducing the English requirements from four years to two, and math/science from three years to two, freeing up two years for students who would rather take vocational courses. According to him, it’s cruel to force kids to jump through all these hoops and keep studying subjects that don’t interest them, only to leave them hanging with no marketable skill set after graduation. Their time, he says, would be better spent learning marketable skills, given that, realistically speaking, only a certain portion of students will get into college, even if we assumed that everyone wants to, given the more favorable economic opportunities associated with a college education.

    Is this your understanding of his argument from the article, too? What he’s saying seems very nuanced, and I can’t really do it justice in summary.

    I think he makes a strong case, but he glosses over one of the fundamental problems with vocational ed: how do you tell which students are “college-bound” and which aren’t? It may seem pretty clear when you’re looking at either end of the spectrum, as Peters notes, but in nebulous cases it’s a great concern that some students may be encouraged or discouraged from taking advanced academic classes simply because counselors and/or teachers are sexist and/or racist. And I’m not talking about oversimplified prejudice, like, ‘Black kids are dumb thugs and can’t learn,’ but more nuanced problems (as Bush might say, “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” one of his more eloquent and insightful points, even if I don’t agree with the policy he advocates to lessen it). For example, some counselors may respond differently to girls, believing they may not be emotionally stable enough to handle the challenge of difficult courses, than to boys. It’s not that they don’t think girls can succeed, it’s just that they’re more reluctant to place them in situations in which they might fail. Patronizing, prejudicial compassion, some might say.

    It sounds like you may not have had this problem at your school, if there was a fairly even distribution of minority kids in all kinds of classes, but it was definitely an issue at my school (we had terrible counseling in general), and I think it persists even here at Harvard. Have you encountered it at the school you work in now?

  3. Jamal Sprucewood

    I can’t say that I’ve seen it at my school now – it’s pushing 99% minority (and a single minority at that).

    I agree with you on the summarization of his arguments and they are nuanced. My problem with it was the same that Peters (?) had – namely, it doesn’t make sense to let a 15 year old decide whether or not they want to take “college-prep” or not. The counselor’s response to this was simply inadequate. His suggested solution, cutting core requirements, was even more baffling in that students could easily fit in a sold Vo-Tech program as electives and still take the recommended “college-prep” course of study. At least at my high school, it seems that the students have plenty of “slots” to plug in electives, it just seems that we don’t have all that many to offer (especially something like a HS Culinary Arts Institute!). In short, the counselor acts like “college-prep” and Vo-Tech are mutually exclusive – but they aren’t.

    Additionally, the counselor seemed to miss a point that Peters seemed to be implying – why not have the student shoot for college, and then, if it doesn’t work out, they could take Vo-Tech at a technical school or local community college. Course requirements for some certifications are as low as 15 semester hours, about a solid semester’s worth of classes or two part-time semesters. Most employers are not going to offer a high school graduate, even with solid Vo-Tech background, the $15-20 mentioned in the debate. The statistics on earning potential for students who obtain one of these certifications, or even an associates degree, are much greater than someone with a high school diploma – even those who are coming out of good Vo-Tech programs. That reflects the trend throughout the job market of requiring college degrees as pre-reqs for jobs that at one time did not require them. A good example would be police officers and firefighters. In many areas just 10 or 15 years ago, one need not have set foot in college to apply. Now, in most major cities you need a bachelors (or sometimes associates) just to apply. The problem with even solid Vo-Tech is that it presumes the student will learn a trade and stick with it, whereas a college degree allows mobility between jobs because it gets you past the “screening effect” (the idea that a college degree is a symbol to employers that your a solid bet).

    This leads to another problem with even an ideal Vo-Tech as described by the counselor – even if it’s not a dumping ground for minority students, it risks firmly setting simply apathetic, or even students unsure of what they want to do, into a single career track. Whether a student of culinary arts or auto-tech, future employers outside of either profession may not be willing to take on employees who have intense preparation in one area. It’s no different for a lawyer who decides to become an accountant. This doesn’t even touch on the economic argument that creating such programs in high school may increase the number of workers with Vo-Tech skills in the market and depress wages (which may happen given that public high schools wouldn’t have the resources to offer quality Vo-Tech in more than a few areas).

    Finally, his assertion that colleges will continue to “raise the bar” is only true for the more competitive colleges. Even my C students have the opportunity to attend local state and community colleges. They might get offered conditional admission (whereby you must maintain say, a 2.0) but they can go if they want to invest the time and money. And while the job market does distinguish between college degrees, a degree from “4th Tier State U” is still better than simply a HS diploma. Gotta run for now,

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