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Posted at 5:00 AM ET, 02/18/2011

Smart people + big report = dreamy nonsense

By Jay Mathews

I had high hopes for the latest high-profile plan to save our schools. "Pathways To Prosperity: Meeting the Challenge of Preparing Young Americans for the 21st Century" has 63 contributors, including some of the smartest people in education. The project that produced the report is based at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and led by two of its brightest luminaries, academic dean Robert B. Schwartz and senior lecturer Ronald Ferguson.

Those familiar with the sad history of similarly ambitious reports have already detected the signs of impending disappointment. The reference to 2lst-century education is troubling. People who use that term tend to start talking gibberish, without intending to. The large number of contributors is also a problem. Reports that attempt to meld the diverse thoughts of so many people usually winds up with deep contradictions.

The report, written by Schwartz, Ferguson and its principal author, former Business Week journalist Bill Symonds, starts well. But eventually, as I feared, it wanders into fantasyland. I knew it had gotten there when the authors said the country needed a new social compact committed to preparing every young person for college or a good job. I wondered: Was that possible? Had it ever happened before?

Sure, the report said: "A social compact with our youth is hardly unprecedented in America." Then it gave its only example of the sort of event that could get us all together to fix our education system---World War II. That horrid episode in our history "was in effect an extraordinary youth development program," the report said. It will be interesting to see what happens when the Harvard professors run their idea for the equivalent of a major world conflict past the House Budget Committee.

The report's authors just got too excited. Blue ribbon commissions and other prestigious panels often do that when given a chance to tell the country what to do. The report is well-written and well-footnoted. It identifies a major problem in our education system -- that the movement to get high schools to prepare all students for college has not worked. Only about 40 percent of our high school graduates earn college degrees. The ones that don't go to college often have trouble finding jobs.

The authors present a three-part solution: (1) Create new paths in high school course offerings that better prepare students not interested in college for the workplace, (2) expand the role of employers in this effort, and (3) create a social compact so the changes will work politically and financially. I liked the first suggestion. I thought the second suggestion ignored a huge political and administrative problem. I wrote off the third as beyond any chance of attainment.

I am a frequent cheerleader for high school programs that try to prepare all students for college. I think their failure so far is a matter of poor execution and attitude. "Pathway To Prosperity" suggests useful ways to fix that. The authors do not want to abandon preparing students for college. They do not want to stick the restless ones on a vocational track that will never take them to higher education. Instead, they want to juice up high school with compelling vocational courses that will persuade academically unmotivated students to stay in school and get their reading, writing and math up to speed.

The authors say they wouldn't start kids on the new vocational pathways until 11th grade. "We do not mean to downplay efforts to improve academic instruction in our schools," they say. They do not, however, acknowledge that once you create such a track, administrators will be tempted to shove kids into it much earlier. They are also too confident that better counselor training will keep the new tracks from becoming a dumping ground for low-income students, as vocational ed has been for several generations.

They cite vocational programs that have been successful mixing job training and college prep. The nonprofit Big Picture Learning organization (whose leaders contributed to the report) makes extensive use of internships to prepare high school students for jobs and college. They also have several examples of European countries that have opened non-college pathways, and might work in the United States.

It is when the authors of "Pathways To Prosperity" urge a bigger role for employers that they lose sight of reality. Programs like Big Picture Learning are relatively small and don't overload the capacity of local businesses to let young people into their shops, offices and factories. A program of the grand scale imagined by "Pathways To Prosperity" would drown businesses in high school interns and create much resentment about the public schools dumping their problems on private enterprise.

The system they envision, the authors say, would require employers (and also probably labor unions) "to become deeply engaged in multiple ways at an earlier stage--in helping set standards and design programs of study; in advising young people; and most importantly, in providing greatly expanded opportunities for work-linked learning, In the process, employers would become full partners in the national effort to prepare young adults for success."

I have been watching school-business partnerships for 29 years. In most cases they don't work for reasons that the report ignores. Educators and business people have very different perspectives and needs. The teachers are less knowledgeable about which skills to focus on. The business people are far less patient with and far less responsive to the schools' budget and personnel issues.

In my experience the best vocational programs for high school age students are those controlled by the businesses, not the schools. A private company can select just those applicants most likely to survive a difficult course. It can give instructors good pay and technical support. A private company doesn't have to deal with the school board chairman's out-of-date notion of what makes a good job preparation course. Its instructors can teach what they know their business needs, since they plan to hire the best graduates.

To work, the Pathways To Prosperity plan would have to cede control of the new courses to the businesses doing the hiring, assuming they are willing to train that many students. But schools would never give private enterprise that power because it would threaten the jobs of thousands of vocational teachers.

That leaves us with the idea of a new social contract to make this all work. It is a lovely thought. We can dream. But it isn't going to happen. Their European examples sound good, but they don't address negative trends like the demonstrations in France last fall.

It is right, as the authors say, to keep improving high school instruction in reading, writing and math. Those skills help graduates get jobs or college entrance. Teaching those disciplines in job-related courses to motivate the less academically oriented students has worked some places.

But if the Harvard Graduate School of Education is committed to the grand scheme it outlines in this report, it ought to open a few charter schools, as other Boston area organizations have done. It needs to see if the ideas have a chance of working, even on a small scale. After a few years dealing with real students and real businesses, their next report could be much more instructive, and maybe get us somewhere.

Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education Web page.

By Jay Mathews  | February 18, 2011; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  Trends  | Tags:  Pathways To Prosperity,, places too much confidence in a new social compact, unrealistic view of business's role in education  
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Jay is touting his extensive experience, as a WaPo employee, I guess, with private business' superior student selection process for job training. He writes:

"In my experience the best vocational programs for high school age students are those controlled by the businesses, not the schools. A private company can select just those applicants most likely to survive a difficult course..."

"But schools would never give private enterprise that power because it would threaten the jobs of thousands of vocational teachers."

There are us teachers, with our evil teacher jobs again, standing in the way of the Washington Post Corporation's Kaplan subsidiary. You could be bleeding billions more out of our public budgets if not for us selfish, short-sighted teachers.

No, Jay, don't you have Google news alerts up for Washington Post Kaplan? Every few days somebody turns over a new rock about the real selection process your bosses engage in.

This is beyond shame, because you know exactly what you're really promoting. YOU charged $50,000 for the culinary certificate a community college could provide for $8000. YOU used a recruiting manual that targeted fear and insecurity in poor students, who signed for government-backed loans they couldn't repay. YOU sentenced tens of thousands to debt, and forfeiture of their opportunity for training or college, so your employer could suck billions in unearned profits out of our public resources for education.

Yes, I know about Kaplan's new contracts with businesses to train their workers. You want to divert our public money to those programs. You support the political machinations of two Republican governors who cut community college spending in their states, and every policy that attacks democratic governance in education. I have 1317 characters remaining, but no time.

I'm going to go teach the students you claim to be so concerned for. That's what I am: a teacher.

Posted by: mport84 | February 18, 2011 6:15 AM | Report abuse

Jay, you state for 29 years you have followed vocational programs in schools? Really? You have been so dismissive of them that that is hard to fathom.

You fear schools will be "dumping their problems" on private businesses??? What about schools being dumped on for society's ills like poverty? You have consistently blamed teachers for that initially totally on Rhee's bandwagon that only scores should be looked at (made up or not).

I am amazed that you believe businesses should lead this instruction, so they don't have to deal with school boards and bureaucracy; but non-business teachers, well they can and should deal with others impeding what they think should be taught within their curriculum? Why the difference?

By the way, job coaching is the ideal solution and one schools and businesses have utilized for years...thought you would understand that. If you had followed vocational programs for 29 years you would know that. Vocational teachers typically come from the business world, and were often truly the first career changers prior to retired military and TFA programs.

I haven't looked at the report but am thrilled that they are looking at offering juniors this option. That students who aren't at all interested in going to college (and kids with nearly perfect SATs do fall into this category)will have true options after high school.

Initially AP only catered to juniors and above, but you are all for even younger students being offered this option via open enrollment.

Students conceivably will have choices now, I trust them to make choices that suit them best. I trust vocational teachers to understand what businesses need. I trust changing our current system, which disillusions many and ill prepares students for work, if they don't choose the college path, is needed; and this paper, as briefly outlined by you, seems like a good start. (I will read it when I have time, and am glad you actually linked it).

Posted by: researcher2 | February 18, 2011 8:06 AM | Report abuse

p.s even students on the college path need classes that will prepare them for the world of work, which is very different from the academic world.

Posted by: researcher2 | February 18, 2011 8:09 AM | Report abuse

Jay's link isn't direct, here is the actual report:

Posted by: researcher2 | February 18, 2011 8:17 AM | Report abuse

There will always be a need for some in-school voc ed, because (especially here in the US) distances between schools/homes and potential employers are often great.

Posted by: jane100000 | February 18, 2011 8:41 AM | Report abuse

could it be possible that people with little classroom experience are in a delusional state of mind when they try to do the critical work of envisioning meaningful learning experiences? Could it be that I, with my pretty good educational experiences at pretty good state universities, can figure out how to move the students in my class forward? Or, should I rely on the luminaries at Harvard and Princeton to do the serious thinking? Worded differently, I was encouraged as a youngster to develop my own mind and capacities to make a difference in the world when I grew older. Should I throw all of that away and become the automaton that Jason Kamras and Kaya Henderson want in DCPS classrooms?

Posted by: thetensionmakesitwork | February 18, 2011 8:57 AM | Report abuse

@thetension..... I hear your pain, so whom do you blame? Denouncing the swells at places like Harvard is easy (especially popular on these blogues), but in the case of the District, what about: the generations of supts who presided over decline, under the fine stewardship of the negligent B of E, the city council and mayor, and last but not least, the subset of teachers who had marginal skills and showed little or no commitment and drive, but high interest in job sec. and pay hikes? Don't bother with the "media." WaPo's influence is highly over-rated, and the decline in DCPS is almost forty years old.

Posted by: axolotl | February 18, 2011 9:23 AM | Report abuse

"WaPo's influence is highly over-rated, and the decline in DCPS is almost forty years old."

In my experience, "decline" is codespeak for "influx of poor minorities." In that sense, DCPS's (or any district's) actual ability to prevent or overcome those problems is the part that is highly overrated.

Posted by: joshofstl1 | February 18, 2011 12:50 PM | Report abuse

Hi Jay,

Think is one of your more thoughtful articles, with a lot of issues to chew on. I am particularly interested in the question of how to offer other paths for students who are not sure they are interested in college and/or do not have the capacity to attend.

I've seen several ideas that have worked on a small scale to help teens make a transition to a situation that MIGHT include college, but that will sustain them if they don't, or give them ideas to put on the back perhaps be used at a later date.

The first was an apprentice-style program, which exists in some schools, of a counselor carefully matching a student with an auto-maintenance facility or beautician's shop; these students would go to school in the morning and attend their apprentice ship in the afternoon. A similar approach was one in which interested students in our school (I was in alternative schools for students with various learning styles) would hook up with a year long build-a-house-endeavor that was run, I think, by Montgomery county. That was very exciting; the students worked in teams in areas of design, observation and actual construction work. This process opened the students to considerations of architecture, draftsmanship, carpentry, etc.

The last issue I'd life to reference is that of elective courses run much more creatively than your typical stick-to-the-objectives/syllabus that our current testing mania is threatening to further inhibit. Examples:

1. Building & art - team-taught:
students have a chance to design
their own prototypes of cars,
buildings, what-have-you that have
to meet both mechanical, practical
and creative criteria.

2. "Living History" - dramatizing
various historical events through
short skits in which students have
to research events, characters, etc.
May be videotaped or presented live;
Good if team-taught. Much more
interesting and thought provoking
for young people than just plowing
through dry texts.

Closing thought is that to young human beings, regardless of the century, the WORLD IS STILL NEW; young students deserve to not be stifled, nor to be ignorant of what has gone before.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | February 18, 2011 1:02 PM | Report abuse

Excellent piece! It's time we look critically at these nonsense studies produced by our universities schools of education. Even the Harvard imprimatur does not overshadow the department.

Posted by: Jennifer88 | February 18, 2011 1:36 PM | Report abuse

The key here, it seems, is to ensure that the people who have the most at stake in career preparation -- the students and parents -- have choices about the best coursework to pursue. Too many high schools have focused on college prep to the exclusion of other career prep courses that might allow students to consider more appealing alternatives. Our high college non-completion rate in the U.S. may be an indicator that all those drop-outs need more "preparation" for college -- or it may mean that the system funnels too many young people into an option that just isn't suitable. I see, among many of my son's high school peers, kids who have some amazing talents and aptitudes that don't clearly fit into a college path. They may fit someday, but for now, it would be great if schools offered students more chances to pursue their interests in dance, welding, automotive systems, painting, or whatever. We shouldn't underestimate the confidence-building and the positive habits that can come from mastering a skill -- almost any skill. Instead, the message too many students get from the "credential factory" is to bang their heads against their college prep courses, and that they will be doomed, economically, if they don't go to college. The fact is that the young people who are suffering the most in this economy are those with minimal or no skills -- including many who went to college with no clear goals in mind. People who have honed skills in a field they like appear to fare much better, and it's a shame that so few educators recognize that difference.

Posted by: k12reboot_com | February 18, 2011 2:18 PM | Report abuse

The reality of it is that until you and others stop rating schools on how many AP courses are offered, what schools students get into and how students do on state assessment tests nothing will change. Vocational education teachers know the value and worth in what they teach, unfortunately principals, superintendents and others do not.

Posted by: 398North | February 18, 2011 2:49 PM | Report abuse

I'm starting to despair of the US being able to solve its k-12 education problem anytime soon. You don't need an advanced degree to know that most kids who drop out do that when they reach 16, or shortly after that, and that many of these kids have already been kept back one or more grades, so waiting until the 11th grade to offer them career related opportunities doesn't really add up. These clowns are from Harvard? Then you STILL get a lot of “teachers” continuing to act like the rest of society should just haNd the nation's kids and a bunch of cash over to them then go away and leave them alone until the kids graduate or drops out. Good Grief!!

Posted by: david_r_fry | February 18, 2011 7:06 PM | Report abuse

I have several advanced degrees. Make median salary for the region, but hardly feel like I am making it. However when I look at what I pay for in my life the only people that are making decent salaries are those with vocational skills my mechanic, plumber, the guy that fixed my furnace. All those fancy degrees and I find that I am basically clueless when it comes to little things like fixing a fuse in my car, changing the heating element in my stove. We underrate these skills at our own peril.

Posted by: Brooklander | February 19, 2011 8:29 AM | Report abuse

For researcher2---I am not saying that businesses should run these programs. I am saying that it is unlikely that they will be able to run these programs because of their limited capacity, despite the report's optimism on this issue. I respect your trust in vocational teachers to understand what businesses need, but there has so far been little evidence of them being able to turn that understanding into effective programs. Why do you think the disconnect between what high schools are doing and what businesses say they need is so frequently mentioned in all of these reports? I don't blame the vocational teachers. They are not allowed to get the training or business contacts they need. We don't pay them enough to attract enough people with up-to-date experience in fields that are hiring. But if you have any evidence that high school vocational teachers ARE meeting these needs, please share it with us. That would be a great contrarian story at odds with what just about everyone I have ever interviewed on this subject says.

In a week I will be having a back and forth debate/dialogue with the Harvard study people on this important topic.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | February 19, 2011 10:23 AM | Report abuse

Where did you get the figure that 40% of high school grads get a degree? I've always heard much lower numbers, more like 25%.

Posted by: heverlyj | February 19, 2011 1:38 PM | Report abuse

for heverlyj---about 30 percent of the entire 20 something age cohort, including those who never went to college, get 4 year degrees. But of those who actually attend college, a little over 40 percent get degrees. I suspect you were seeing people cite the former figure.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | February 19, 2011 4:07 PM | Report abuse

Researcher2, Jay replies thusly to your excellent concern:
"I am not saying that businesses should run these programs."

No, Jay is saying businesses should hire his employer's wholly owned subsidiary, Kaplan Professional Education, to provide virtual on-the-job training at public expense. As a journalist, he should disclose this conflict, of course. Here is the real agenda behind Jay's disjointed public education bashing:

The really despicable thing is, he goes on to attack public school's vocational training programs again. Notice he has no suggestions as to how schools might better meet the needs of businesses, let alone prepare this generation for opportunities that may open for them when the current crisis abates. He attacks vocational "teaching jobs" in general - you know, like the excellent plumbing and electrician programs his hero, Jowl Klein, destroyed in New York City.

The worst problem with the dishonest opinioneering at the Post, is that WaPo feels it has to wreak catastrophic collateral damage on public education to open profit opportunities for itself.

I am not saying businesses shouldn't hire Kaplan to train their workers. I'm just saying they shouldn't be able to do it with our public money. And also, we don't need self-serving frauds and cheats at the Post undermining real education efforts at every turn, to promote Kaplan's business expansion.

Since you point out that Jay's claim to have been following vocational education is false, who do you suppose feeds him these timely talking points?

Posted by: mport84 | February 20, 2011 7:17 AM | Report abuse

I hope you don't mind my piggy-backing on your statistics to ask a question not related to your original column. I ask because I'm on my school's governance committee (called the Site Council: it includes parents, students, admin, teachers) and we are making financial decisions right now based on what I think are false assumptions, assumptions that originate from some of the numbers you cited.
First I'm told in these meetings that because a majority of our students drop out before getting a degree that we must spend money to hike up our college prep credentials. I believe the 40% completion rate reflects quite sensible cost-benefit calculations that young people make every day. {Insert stipulation here that some kids are ill prepared} Read David Labaree on 'credential inflation'. Read Marty Nemko on the inflated cost of a college degree.
Second, I'm told that only 13% of our juniors are 'college ready' as determined by a test originating with the California state universities. I believe there are very real budgetary motives for the CSU system to claim the vast majority of our students are deficient. I teach ninth grade English and I'm convinced that 13% of my frosh are already fit to survive in the CSU's (which are equivalent to the state teacher's colleges back East). Again, my school wants to spend big bucks on teacher training guru's who promise to teach us how to prep kids for the CSU test. I don't buy the assumption and don't want to waste the money. But I regularly get out voted.
The more I experience the world of public education the more I realize that numbers have consequences that IMHO squander real dollars based on facile readings of these statistics.

Posted by: heverlyj | February 20, 2011 12:52 PM | Report abuse

For heverlyj---Do you suppose we could put this up as a separate item and see what more people think? I don't need to identify you by anything bu your signon. You raise many intriguing issues. I think you could do something about a 60 percent dropout rate, but I would spend the money on more and better student advisors rather than raising the college prep profile, whatever that means. Paying high priced consultants for ANYTHING strikes me as a bad idea.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | February 20, 2011 5:11 PM | Report abuse

I confess I was secretly hoping you'd want to put it out as a separate item. And I always like seeing my name in print, even when commenters call me a fool.

Posted by: heverlyj | February 20, 2011 9:32 PM | Report abuse

okay. I will look for a spot.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | February 20, 2011 9:37 PM | Report abuse

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