Zooming Out, Part 2

A bit more from Fordham Foundation conference. 

Bob Schwartz is a Harvard professor and former dean.  Took his class back in 1997, loved it.  Since then he's been kind and encouraged my efforts, including introducing me to Match's first board member, Denise Blumenthal.  (And even just now, he gave me an amateur jazz lover's tip: you can stream live performance from Smalls)

Bob wrote a paper in 2011 with Ron Ferguson.  Pathways to Prosperity.  It was controversial.  Bob explains:

First, if less than one young person in three is successfully completing a four-year college degree by age twenty-five, does it really make sense to organize high schools as if this should be the goal for all students?

Second, if respected economists are now telling us that at least 30 percent of the jobs projected over the next decade will be in the “middle skills” category—technician-level jobs requiring some education beyond high school but not necessarily a four-year degree—shouldn’t we start building more pathways from high school to community colleges to prepare students to fill the best of those jobs, especially in high-growth, high-demand fields such as information technology and health care?

And third, if countries like Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, and Switzerland have built vocational systems that prepare between 40 and 70
percent of young people to enter the workforce by age twenty with skills and credentials valued by employers—and if these countries have healthy economies and much lower youth unemployment rates than the United States—shouldn’t we study their vocational policies and practices to see if there are lessons we can adapt to our own setting?

Those were good questions.  Over coffee this morning, I asked Bob what response was to his report. 

He said that in Washington DC, enthusiasm was muted. (Michael Petrilli observed a bit later that a common response was to challenge the motives of voc ed advocates.  "Would you want your own child to do vocational education?  If not, why are you pushing others to do it?") 

But outside the Beltway, lots of folks were interested.  Bob and Ron were saying college is not for everyone.  Others were saying that quietly.  So they were glad some scholars had spoken up.  Bob ended up creating the Pathways to Prosperity Network which now works with states on this issue. 

My own thoughts on this topic are here.

1. Mostly I agree with (Sarah Carr).  College For All does not make sense as a policy objective, for many reasons.  

Bob Schwartz's paper, in my view, was right on target.  Moreover, I share the fear that in some cases, college is a bad economic bet.

Read by my blog called College: a Lifetime of Debt with Diminishing ROI.

And read this one, too.  College For All?  For Real?

Finally, Dai Ellis here: Rethinking the Charter Mission.

While I agree with her that College For All is not a smart state or national education policy, there's a very different question of whether College For All makes sense as the mission of a single school.  There I strongly believe yes.

In Boston, many traditional high schools describe themselves as college prep, but they're sort of half-hearted about it.  Few alums actually graduate from college.  College rah-rah is absent.  But so is career rah-rah.  There is no rah-rah at those schools.  I'm not sure how Carr thinks about such schools.

2. Does a typical parent in an urban school district -- a single mom who is not a college grad, is poor, and is black or Hispanic -- want college for her kid?

In Boston, I think so.  I don't think college prep charter schools are "imperialist."  They're precisely what more parents want. 

3. ...There's a perception that the vo-tech offerings themselves are terrible, with really bad track record of actually connecting kids to the right jobs, the air-conditioning repair jobs that Carr writes about.  

Boston's vo-tech high school is considered by far the worst public school in the city.  We'd love to send kids to good career and technical programs.  We actively encourage it among some of our alums.  But they're often hard to find. 


I ran into Andy Rotherham in the hall.  We talked about the challenges of ed policy (when we should have talked about the Red Sox offseason). 

One thing we mused about is that "everything works if and only if execution is really good."  Charters, pre-K, vocational, restorative justice, remedial math, tracking or detracking, small high schools, turnarounds, whatever.  The problem is, typically in K-12,  not good.  All these strategies require elite-caliber execution.  Elite. 

Anything less doesn't seem to work. 

It's why the tagline for this blog is:

Wondering what works, what doesn't, and what sort of does, but only if you do it a certain way (plus occasional basketball references and wedding announcements). 

There's not much in K-12 which actually helps kids with decent-but-not-elite execution.  And there's not an orientation in policy towards generating the capacity needed -- to assume almost nothing works unless you hit a really high bar.