Prelude to Real Education Ch. 3
Last night I was sitting down to (finally) pen my comments on chapter three of Charles Murray’s Real Education – “Too many people are going to college” – when i found out that President Obama had upped the ante. I heard patches of the speech on the radio, but I didn’t watch it, so I only took in parts at a time, and there were other parts getting significantly more attention.
In the education section of his speech he goes way off the realistic and pragmatic approach he’s been praised for, and into a realm of idealism best left to teenagers.
It is our responsibility as lawmakers and educators to make this system work. But it is the responsibility of every citizen to participate in it. And so tonight, I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training. This can be community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship. But whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma. And dropping out of high school is no longer an option. It’s not just quitting on yourself, it’s quitting on your country – and this country needs and values the talents of every American. That is why we will provide the support necessary for you to complete college and meet a new goal: by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.
One year of higher education or career training for every American
If career training is treated as an honorable and legitimate avenue, rather than the second-class option that it tends to be viewed now, this could be a good thing. But pushing for everyone to go on to post-secondary education is far from realistic.
The first major problem is that so few people are able to complete high school as it is. Whatever graduation requirements may be, the practice of social promotion ensures that there will be high school students who can’t hack it. The problem may be in the educational system, or the student may just not be intelligent enough to handle the work, but the fact remains that they are unlikely to finish high school, let alone a year of college.
A solution would be to offer career training for 10th-12th graders who aren’t going to be qualified for college. Students can learn to be mechanics, electricians, plumbers, and carpenters (jobs which will never be “sent overseas”) at no extra cost to the state, and no cost to themselves. Then they can enter the workforce as skilled labor at 18. They’ll have more training, and get started earning sooner.
And rather than encouraging such large swaths of people to take just one year of college – which will probably only serve to delay maturity and waste taxpayer money – teach them more in high school. There are enough high school graduates arriving on college campuses completely unprepared for the work that it’s obvious there’s something missing in their k-12 experience.
Many high schools have three tracks available to their students: College Prep, General, and Vocational. They should make better use of them. The college prep track should be academically rigorous, one where they are not only required to take more classes in a particular subject, but classes that are more challenging. They might then be actually prepared when they get to college. The General track should be preparing students for associate’s degrees and jobs as real estate agents, dental hygenists, bookkeepers, etc. Vocational track students should begin their vocational training in 10th grade, so that when they graduate they can start work in their trade.
The most troubling statement in this section of the President’s speech was that “dropping out of high school is no longer an option.” I think that high school dropout rates are a tragedy, mainly because the students dropping out are most in need of guidance and training. But the President can’t mandate this. And if he succeeded in it, it would only increase problems in schools already troubled, and would probably not increase graduation rates, except for the effect of social promotion.
This is a social problem, and the social structures that are perpetuating it cannot be affected positively by government intervention. In some ways, the intervention into poor families caused much of the problem (e.g. laws that denied welfare payments when both parents live in the home). Social leaders are needed to convince people that the only thing that will get them out of their poverty is their own hard work, and that staying in school is the first step.
In the end, the President’s visionary approach amounts to putting more money into the same system, then expanding it so that it starts earlier, and lasts longer. And it just makes sure that too many people will keep going to college.