By Jay Mathews | Class Struggle in the Washington Post | http://wapo.st/hyD91E
02/18/2011 - 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.