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Should we let students reject college prep?

USA Today has a long and interesting story today on, as its headline says, "What if a college education just isn't for everyone?" It is a good question. I don't think college is for everyone. But I also don't think we should let 15 or 16 year olds take themselves out of English and math courses that will prepare them for college--and for good jobs or trade schools, according to some of the research I have seen.

After they have walked across the auditorium stage and received their high school diplomas, they can decide what they want to do next, knowing they are equipped for any number of choices. Dumping the college option in sophomore year makes no sense. High schools that allow that are taking us back to the bad old days when kids from some families were told, in sometimes subtle and sometimes less subtle ways, that college was not for them and the metal shop teacher would love to have them.

My only exception to this rule: If I were a high school counselor and had a sophomore who had, on her own, researched the auto mechanic schools, obtained the applications, and filled them out and could tell me precisely which high school courses they required and her game plan for launching her career. I would congratulate her on her initiative and let her do what she wanted.

Some kids mature early and know where they're going. But the vast majority who don't should not be allowed to wander into a non-college track because some adult thought it would be good for them.

Am I wrong?

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By Jay Mathews  | March 17, 2010; 5:54 AM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  college not for everyone, non-college options, students who mature early, too young to decide on college  
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Agreed, Jay -- students should not be able to ditch English and Math as sophomores. But let me play the devil's advocate here: how wise is it to tell all students that if they don't have a 4-year degree they are losers? that's what it is coming down to these days, and to my mind it's the height of arrogance to be that prescriptive about an attainment that a)only about a third of current high school students are likely to have in ten years. And b) doesn't even remotely reflect the demands of our economy. Our concern that we remove barriers to college for all students has somehow morphed into college being the new high school. Not a good thing.

Posted by: jane100000 | March 17, 2010 9:11 AM | Report abuse

You are correct. High schools should be required to prepare students for college and career - which these days requires the same types of skills that college readiness does. In a global economy where high school and college graduates are likely to change jobs multiple times in their lives, well paying jobs with prospects for advancement require good math and writing skills, analytical and critical thinking skills. The school system, from pre-K on, should focus on college and career readiness. The new core standards do just this, which is why states should be encouraged to adopt them. They are focused on the right accountability goals.

Posted by: emilymb1 | March 17, 2010 9:31 AM | Report abuse

Why not offer some different courses? I think many students have a hard time with the idea that the 7 years of middle and high school will "pay off someday". Training in careers might help kids see why math, science or writing is important. Telling kids for 5-10 years that "you are going to need this information later" doesn't work with all kids. Some trade prep classes might help students stay in school. Maybe when they are done, the kids will be able to fix their own car.

Posted by: celestun100 | March 17, 2010 9:55 AM | Report abuse

In Germany students decide at the end of fourth grade whether to attend a college prep school (Gymnasium) or another form of schooling. Of course 10 year olds cannot make that decision, but their parents do and parents tend to chose what they know. 15 year olds are not ready to make such decisions. And what are the consequences if ever they would decide to attend college?

Considering that in some high schools, only one out of four students graduate wouldn't it better to aim at keeping students in school and having high expectations. By offering and delivering all students a solid education schools should guarantee that students are able to make decisions regarding their future when they graduate. And obviously it can be done if you look at what some public, private and charter schools are doing.

Companies do a great job of training students for specific jobs after graduation while colleges offer other options. Both want students who realize the value of learning. Parents and schools need to help prepare students to make sound choices.

Posted by: susanjomu | March 17, 2010 10:25 AM | Report abuse

Jay Matthews says: "My only exception to this rule: If I were a high school counselor and had a sophomore who had, on her own, researched the auto mechanic schools, obtained the applications, and filled them out and could tell me precisely which high school courses they required and her game plan for launching her career. I would congratulate her on her initiative and let her do what she wanted. "

If only that really happened! As a teacher in Montgomery County, I'm seeing a one-size-fits all approach to preparing kids for college. Sometimes a college program has different requirements. I'm fortunate that when my youngest was in school in Howard County, guidance was willing to work with him, allowing him to take classes that truly helped prepare him to get into college as a music major. Junior year he took music theory instead of science and senior year he took physics instead of chemistry. Both of those courses did not fit with the basic college prep track yet as a sound recording major, he needed both to gain admission to the schools to which he applied. I chuckle when I think of the push for all kids to be in AP classes as the only way to get into college. My oldest met all of what MCPS considers to be the 7 keys to college readiness and she lasted one semester in college. My youngest met only 1 (550 or more in each section of the SAT) and he was accepted at 4 of the 5 schools he applied to and offered scholarship money at several of them as well. He graduated college with above a 3.0 average as well.

The difference between the two kids--a difference that is often the biggest determining factor in college success--was that the youngest one knew what he wanted to do, had worked toward that goal for years and he understood what was required to achieve the goal. The oldest one had no clue as to what she wanted to do with her life and at 26 years old, still doesn't know. I told her all along that she wasn't "required" to go to college, but she told me years later that she had the feeling that she would be a failure if she didn't. That is the message that our high school students are getting these days. Kids need to know that they have other choices and it is okay to make those choices.

Posted by: musiclady | March 17, 2010 10:47 AM | Report abuse

What wise comments. thank you. In response to Jane100000, you are right. We don't want to tell everyone they have to go to college, that is just as bad as telling everyone they don't really need college. When you get down to cases, and interview recent college graduates with doubts about college, you get a sense that they are not feeling under that much pressure. All the people they talk to say, well, why don't you check out this trade school, or that community college program, or this internship. This is a country that worships individual choice, and so the college pressure at the individual level is not overwhelming. One of the reasons why vocational ed in high schools has fallen off is because a lot of smart educators concluded it was restricting free choice, putting kids on a track that they had not really chosen after careful reflection.
I have only one qualm about what you said. I don't think it is wise to assume that only a third of high school grads in the future will be getting college degrees, and that will be all that we need. The world dynamic seems to be that as more human beings get more education, living standards rise and that creates more demand for products and services that require the workers to have college educations. There will always be a need for skilled artisans and unskilled laborers, but their percentage of the population seems to be in decline, if you look at long term trends. If we continue to support free choice, on which you and I both agree, I think we will move forward in the right direction for both our country and our kids.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | March 17, 2010 11:23 AM | Report abuse

College is being seriously oversold and overused. Too many - un/underprepared and/or unwilling - kids drop out because they can't/won't handle it. Even among college grads, many end up in jobs that don't require a college degree.
Not everyone's interest and/or aptitude is for college. Good vocational prep is valuable and can't be outsourced. Everyone needs a good mechanic, hairdresser, plumber, electrician etc. I like the NH idea; during sophomore year, choose either two years of real vocational ed or two years of intensive college prep. If the voc ed types wish to go to college later, that option still exists,starting at the CC level. Unlike most of the rest of the world, in the US college can come later. My first ophthalmologist started as an optician (makes glasses); he didn't start medical school until he was 30 years old.

Posted by: momof4md | March 17, 2010 1:29 PM | Report abuse

I think that one driving fact of the college-for-all mantra is that an ed world that insisted on mastery of knowledge and skills before advancing to the next grade would have insufficient "diversity" at the top levels. Isn't that the real (but unstated) reason for mainstreaming, full-inclusion, differentiated instruction, peer tutoring and groupwork? The home environment is pretty determinative; it's why poor Asian kids who arrive here speaking no English do well in the same urban schools where so many fail. Several generations of poorly-educated, never-married young teenage mothers (and often uninvolved "fathers") have caused lots of problems: does anyone know a young teenage girl who is really prepared to be a good parent?

Posted by: momof4md | March 17, 2010 2:42 PM | Report abuse

The majority of low income urban students don't arrive in high school ready for college prep. The options seem to be "dumb down" the courses or something other than college prep. Unfortunately many children start school years behind and never catch up. Clearly, the way we organize our educational system leaves a lot of children behind.

Posted by: Susan50 | March 17, 2010 3:16 PM | Report abuse

The majority of low-income urban students don't arrive in kindergarten ready, either, and the current curriculum and instruction doesn't help them to overcome the deficit. Explicit and efficient teacher-centered instruction, phonics, real math and a content-rich curriculum were shown to work in Project Follow-Through, using Direct Instruction. That approach is not congruent with the dominant ed school philosophy of child-centered discovery learning, so it's been ignored. More kids left behind... and now, their kids as well.

Posted by: momof4md | March 17, 2010 4:31 PM | Report abuse

Isn't one of the most effective progams ever evaluated by MDRC, in terms of social and economic success (stable marriage, income, educational attainment), one which provided teens extensive high-integrity information about and experience with real work leading to real careers?

1. My daughter was always bound for college, but she took an unusual track in a year sponsored by YfU, a gritty, serious,culinary trade school for 16-10 year olds, taught in the native language of the eastern european country. She was the only non-native. Most of the programs, which included class as well as intern /work settings, were two years long. Among the students she worked and learned with were a few who "matured late" (as moms, dads, and school marms say) or who discovered late that food prep and restaurant service and management was hard work and different than they expected or wanted. So a few were also enrolled in late high-school-level coursework to prepare them for entrance exams and a switch to university.
2. A nephew dropped out of serious religious studies before university, in favor of plumbing, starting as an unskilled helper who had never used his hands. Six years along, its always been evident to his bosses that he was smart and studious enough to benefit from classroom training, and he's been sponsored by them in coursework toward licensure. And, with fieldwork and those courses, he's developed interest in the technical and theoretical background of his work, which he knows can and will be satisfied only by enrollment in a civil engineering or engineering technology undergraduate degree program
None of this is unusual, though too many people have wasted time because they were denied the opportunity to discover from work what they were most interested in. That is part of why the age distribution of even first-time enrolled university students is shifted from what the liberal art college experience the blogger / columnist has in mind.

Posted by: incredulous | March 17, 2010 7:07 PM | Report abuse

A DC City Councilmember is currently bragging about his particiipation in a college admissions tour. Today at DC's Wilson HS, as at many others, college recruiters are aceepting applications and offering on-the-spot freshman class slots (which will be partially paid for by the DC CAP program).
Compare those practices with something like 5% 5-year college completion rate of DC graduates at State or traditionlly black colleges and universities.

Doesn't it make sense to learn whether in other advanced western democracies the opportunity to trades, avoiding this kind of induced failure, really undermines social mobility? I don't think they do.

momof4md has it so right. College-for-everyone policies and promotion permits liberals to feel they have supported equal opportunity.

Because life without college isn't taken seriously by K-12, a thieving private sector of for-profit trade schools has long been permitted to prey on students and public funding sources. High school guidance counselors are clueless. It would be great for Jay Matthews to write much more about public sector community colleges like MoCo and NOVA.

Posted by: incredulous | March 17, 2010 7:28 PM | Report abuse

Preparation for college or a career? That works if students are exposed to vocational opportunities starting in junior high/middle school. Plus, learning some skills such as carpentry/wood shop, electrical/electronics, welding/metal shop, engines, cooking, sewing, finance are LIFE LONG SKILLS.

In addition, learning these "vocational" skills reinforces reading and math skills.

More students would complete high school prepared for 'college or a career' if they experienced the practical applications of the academic skills that now seem so meaningless as teachers prep them to pass some test.

Posted by: bradh1 | March 17, 2010 8:49 PM | Report abuse

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