"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

College is not for Everyone

A few weeks ago, the NYT Book Review published a review (by Caleb Crain) of In the Basement of the Ivory Tower, by Professor X, a teacher at an unnamed college who wrote about his frustration with having to teach so many students who could not do college work.  His book is a treatise on how to better channel the abilities of graduating high school students away from college and into some other, more productive program.

He got completely hammered for saying that many of his students were unable to learn what he had been hired to teach.  “I do not teach remedial or developmental classes”, he explains, “and cannot transform my bona fide honest-to-God accredited class into one”.  He wonders about remediation – something he has been forced to do by college administrators – citing a study of Ohio community colleges that came to the tellingly modest conclusion that “remediation does not appear to have a negative effect”.

He goes on to cite figures confirming the high cost of education which, if it actually results in an education may be worth it, but when wasted on classes and courses which students cannot pass, it is a monumental waste.  The author of the book review cites from the book: A recent study of about 3000 graduates of Boston public high schools found that although two-thirds went on to college, only 675 earned a degree of any kind. Professor X worries about the waste of effort and the emotional toll of mass discouragement.

What the book does not do – at least as reported by the reviewer – is offer answers; so I have a two, neither one is particularly new but worth mentioning here:

Vocational or Technical Schools.  These schools used to be a staple of the American economy, providing a solid training in the skills required for the workplace.  They were the American version of apprenticeship programs in Europe which provided training for a particular trade.  There is no reason why the idea of these schools cannot be resuscitated, for the time seems right.  American enterprise has complained for years that they are getting unqualified applicants for jobs in the low-end of the high-tech industry; and a good vocational education, tailoring training to jobs – and having the flexibility to adjust to the changing job market – would be a boon for industry, enable capable students who have received a mediocre high school education to meet their potential, and surely be a cost-saving for students.

The problem with a vocational education is cultural – we have been convinced as a country that only a college education for all is just and equitable in a democratic society.  Yet the issue of equitability is more related to employment.  It is not that every student should have a college education; every student should have a real opportunity for a productive job which will meet his/her expectations.

Industry-based Training Programs.  This has been the default mode for years, since, as above, businesses cannot find qualified students and have to do their own remediation and preparation.  These programs should be formalized with the cost shared primarily by the employer and partly by the student.  The student should have to contribute because he/she can and probably take those learned skills to the next job.  There might be some conditions attached to training, whereby a student stays with an employer for a given number of years or at least stays within the industry.

The issue that remains, however, is reading and writing – skills which are not taught adequately in many high schools.  ‘Competent writing, X insists, requires a solid grounding in grammar and a long history of reading’ – something that is not accomplished today. Whereas in the past, vocations like plumbing, carpentry, electric needed little or no reading and writing ability, today’s software skills require them.  Professor X says that even with remediation, 15 weeks is not enough to bring his students up to speed, even to a basic level.  Solid reading, writing skills would have to be added to the vocational curriculum.

It is important to note that ‘reading and writing’ are just indicators of thinking ability.  It will always be a left-handed compliment, however, to say ‘You write well’ when the observer is basing his judgment on the final product rather than the rigorous and disciplined thought process it takes to get to the well-turned phrase.  That is, many high schools do not teach students how to think, so even if they can read and write, teachers have not honed their ability to think critically and rationally.  This critical skill will have to be incorporated within vocational education.

Of course the problem would be more easily solved if high schools could at least turn out critical thinkers, leaving the real technical education to follow; but this would mean addressing more systemic educational, social, and family issues that have been discussed and debated at length in many forums for many years, unfortunately without adequate answers.

One simple-to-implement reform in education would be to focus on the basics of reading and writing (and math), and to eliminate or find a better place for ‘multiple intelligences’.  This very politically correct theory, while it may have merits in encouraging certain students to pursue careers in the arts or sports, does little for promoting the essential and obvious fact – you have to be able to read, write, calculate, and think critically to succeed in the world.   All may not have the same capacity and abilities to do this, but everyone needs to fulfill whatever capabilities they have.

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