Press Release

WASHINGTON (February 2, 2011) – The authors of “Pathways to Prosperity” have long track records of caring a lot about our kids and our future. They are right to be concerned – as I am – about high dropout rates and low student achievement in our nation’s schools. With results as awful as they are in far too many high schools, we certainly ought to be encouraging innovative approaches to improving student learning, ensuring that all students are well prepared for college and the workplace.

That said, while I agree that all students could benefit from more exposure to the world of work, I vehemently disagree with the authors’ main argument: that we already tried preparing all students for college and it didn’t work.

Nobody who spends much time in America’s high schools could possibly argue that they are focused on “college for all,” or that they ever have been. Most schools still resist the idea that all kids can and should be college-ready. By continuing long-standing, unfair practices of sorting and selecting, they create what is essentially an educational caste system – directing countless young people, especially low-income students and students of color, away from college-prep courses and from seeing themselves as “college material.” As a result, minority high schoolers are half as likely to have been enrolled in a full college-ready curriculum as have their white classmates.

And now – just when state leaders are finally poised to confront that resistance head-on with their new college and career-ready common standards and assessments – here comes a report that wrongly suggests to them that all of the work they’ve put into this effort has been for naught.

If we were teaching all of our kids to the levels reached by 10th-graders in Finland, students and their parents might have a base of knowledge and skills strong enough to make informed choices of the sort imagined in this report – real choices, rather than those forced on students who weren’t prepared for much of anything.

But we are far from that point, in part because of the serious academic tracking that goes on in our educational system long before high school. This report rightly acknowledges the damage done by these practices in the early grades and calls for an end to that kind of destructive sorting. But one has to wonder how the cause of de-tracking in early grades will be furthered by what amounts to opening up new tracks in our high schools.

Unfortunately, the authors fail to address, openly and honestly, our nation’s horrible history with tracking at every level of education – a history that shows how every single time we offer separate paths or want to provide “some” students with an out, we send disproportionate numbers of poor and minority students down the lesser road.

Indeed, in the German system the authors hold up as an example of success, the three high school tracks have been deeply segregated by income and ethnicity, with mainly affluent Germans attending the college-prep schools while low-income and immigrant students are assigned to the two lower options. Despite some effort to improve equity, the results speak for themselves: Germany is the only country in the world – other than the United States – in which today’s young people are no more likely than their parents to be college-educated.

Americans have always valued education as “the great equalizer.” To truly live up to those ideals, we should be moving away from – not toward – a school system that automatically consigns certain groups to life on the margins.

If we are going to advance achievement, however – especially for the students whose needs are most urgent – those of us who have been focused on opening up more college opportunities for poor kids and those exploring the potential of work-based learning must stop talking past each other. We decided as an organization to set out on that path two years ago. Working with ConnectEd California and several school districts around the state, we are examining the potential of linking career-oriented learning with completion of the coursework necessary to enter college without remediation.

Frankly, we’re not sure yet. But honest explorations of this sort are what our kids need from us. And they aren’t helped by “we tried ‘college for all’ and it didn’t work” rhetoric. Instead, how about a truce – and some serious joint work?