Thursday, June 30, 2011

Unrealistic Expectations: the Uncertain Promise of College

Dana Goldstein has an excellent article on vocational education appearing in next week’s issue of The Nation. (You can read it online currently, and I recommend it). Before delving into some interesting modern incarnations of vocational ed, Ms. Goldstein discusses a recent study by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, which found that only about 30% of new jobs in America, over the next seven years, would require a four-year college degree. The study serves as a jumping off point for a critical reexamining of the contemporary reformist rhetoric that every student in America can and should attend a four-year liberal arts college. Not surprisingly, challenging that rhetoric generated some vitriol in the online comments on The Nation’s website, but Ms. Goldstein is right to take on these questions; thorny though they may be, they are pressing ones.

"Long Odds"
Original artwork created for Dewey to Delpit.
Line Drawing: Paris Mancini. Color & Texture: Tavet Rubel
I’ve been concerned about the implications of “college for all” since my first experience working at an inner-city No-Excuses charter school. The school had a motto, which the students were made to memorize and chant often: “Work hard, go to college, change the world.” The first two items in that list formed the driving axiom of the school. What do you need to do? Work hard. Why? So you can go to college. College was presented as the ultimate motivation and reason behind everything we did at the school.

The effort to inculcate in students the bourgeois value of college-attendance was everywhere visible. Each classroom was named after and decorated with the colors and emblems of a different college, and the students in a given homeroom were addressed collectively by the name of the corresponding college. “Wisconsin, I need your eyes on me,” a teacher might say to a class of eighth graders. Teachers went out of their way to refer to their own college experience whenever possible in classroom discussions, and hallway bulletin-boards were often decorated with photographs of faculty alma-maters and accompanying testimonials. Whenever possible, school trips included a visit to a college campus. Students were never referred to as students; they were called “scholars.”

My experience was hardly unusual. The obsessive emphasis on college—and, in fact, most of the specific details described above—is common among No-Excuses schools, of which there are hundreds currently operating in America’s inner cities and dozens more opening every year.[1] As a symbol for faculty and students to rally around, the goal of 100% college attendance provides a strong foundation for school culture and represents an honest and valiant commitment to high expectations. At the school where I worked, the administration’s focus on that goal was genuine and well-intended, but as my first year there progressed, I became increasingly concerned about the long-term consequences of that focus.

The school began in sixth grade. Most incoming students came out of underperforming local elementary schools, and arrived, on average, a year or two behind grade-level in mathematics and reading. By the end of seventh grade, over 90% of the students were scoring in the “proficient” range on the state math and lit exams, a fact of which the school was justly proud, but the gains were insufficient. In an average year, less than 10% of the students in any grade received a 4 (“mastery”) on either state exam; this was before the 2010 test recalibration and it was widely acknowledged, even within the school, that students scoring 3s were not on track to perform well on the high school Regents Exams. What’s more, the instruction, particularly in mathematics and writing, focused heavily on state-test content and memorized rules. Many students could simplify algebraic expressions and solve linear equations, but few of them could solve even a simple application problem or adapt their knowledge to an unfamiliar context. Several of the weakest ones could not tell you what number comes below a hundred (see my post on this problem).

Under such conditions, the relentless focus on college created a divergence between the way we talked inside the school and the external reality. Material that was slightly more challenging than the norm—stuff that, at the private school where I had worked previously, would have been considered standard grade-level material—was referred to as “collegiate.” One day, I sat in on a lesson on basic logical operators used in database searches;  at the end of the lesson, another teacher who had also been sitting in, told the students that the subject they were learning, formal logic, was one that she hadn’t studied until college. No doubt, that was technically true, but the level of rigor of the lesson was hardly collegiate; by the standards of an affluent private-school, it was remedial. The importance of making students feel proud of their achievements cannot be overstated, and these white lies (no pun intended!) are told with the best of intentions; but repeated too often, they fostered dangerously inaccurate self-perceptions.

The impact of all this came home to me one afternoon that spring, as I watched the director of the school address an eighth grade homeroom after a day of bad behavior (in my own as well as other teachers’ classes). “What college do you want to go to?” she asked the students. Hands went up—some of the biggest instigators were the quickest to reply: “Harvard,” they said. “Brown,” “Yale,” “Princeton.”

If they wanted to go to good colleges, the director explained, they would need to nail the regents tests, master their course material, stop messing around, etc. The director was a veteran teacher, and she was great with kids; working within the paradigm of the school, she was doing her best to improve the class’s behavior, and, because they respected her, they listened and believed what she told them. But as I watched the scene, I could not help but think: we’ve told these kids lies. We’ve given them a skewed sense of reality and of their own position in it, and we’re setting them up for frustration and failure.

[1] ^ No-Excuses is not an official designation, and there is no official association of these schools, so it is difficult to even estimate the exact number of schools that follow it. Three large charter networks (KIPP, Uncommon, and Achievement First) follow this model, as well as several small networks (Harlem Success Academies, Democracy Prep Public Schools, etc.) and an undeterminable number of stand-alone charters. KIPP, the largest of the No-Excuses networks, operated 99 schools, serving 27,000 students, this past school year. Eleven new KIPPs will open this summer, and many of the existing ones are still adding a grade a year.


  1. The pressure to get into college, especially a "top" college, is a kind of hysteria shared by inner-city schools, private schools, teachers, students and parents alike. It's as if not attending college ( a top college, in fact ) consigns a young person to lifelong failure, deprivation and doom.

    As economic inequality grows in this country, the imperative to go to college becomes, in people's minds, a life or death proposition. But in fact, a college degree may be largely irrelevant in tomorrow's job market, according to some economists, labor analysts and job forecasters. So the hard won degree will be worth less and less in the job market even as the cost of going to college gets higher and higher.

    On the other hand, as many have pointed out, maybe kids should go to college because learning makes life richer, not because it will land them a better job. Maybe it will make a few richer, but most kids will be left with enormous debt, and stuck in the same jobs they would have had if they hadn't gone to college.
    And in the meantime, as colleges eliminate language studies, classics, philosophy and anything else that's perceived as irrelevant to one's job prospects, they become intellectually poorer, and less able to make anyone's life richer.

  2. Great one, Max! I've been thinking a lot about the college and degree/credential system. I sometimes wonder what people think the role of education is, and you're making a good point of it here.

  3. Leora asks the right question: what is education for? To the extent that it is for reading great books and asking big questions, not only should it be for everyone, it must be. It is hard to imagine that democracy will survive unless the average citizen knows how to think that way and enjoys it. But that is not something that only colleges can teach. High schools used to do it, and good ones still do. It may even be that it is more appropriate and effective to learn those skills from, say, 12 to 18 than from 18 to 22.

    And one has to admit that college has another function: providing economic and social opportunities as well as more sophisticated intellectual skills. But when Dana Goldstein says that technical jobs (dental hygienist, electrician) “can provide a path into the middle class,” it reminds us that for many Americans, the progress to affluence was not the work of an individual, but of a family. It was the work of generations, and to take a step or two along that path was a worthy accomplishment of which an individual could be proud and for which his descendents could be grateful. They stood on his shoulders (it was usually a he back then) and understood that they never would have gotten where they did without him. Our reach should exceed our grasp, but not by too much.

  4. Hey Max,

    If you haven't already read it, I think you would appreciate Richard Rothstein's piece for the 2002 Spencer Foundation Conference: "Out of Balance: Understanding of How Schools Affect Society and How Society Affects Schools." It also talks about the percentage of jobs that do not require college, and how more students attending college will not improve the economy. He does highlight benefits of college for individuals, regardless of job outcomes. You may also appreciate how he counters the notion of "no excuses."


  5. Thanks to everyone for their comments. I'm planning to address a lot of these broader questions about the purpose of education and the reasoning behind college for all in my next post. That post is actually already written, and I'll put it up in a couple days.

    If anyone knows where I can find a copy of the Richard Rothstein paper mentioned above, I'd love to read it, but Google has been unforthcoming. Thanks.

  6. discouraging college is risky; it assumes capacity for predictability which very few have. what is needed is counseling on a career w only high school. Advice on how to become a dental hygienist or an elevator technician, what it will cost in time and money, how difficult it will be to get a job, what earnings are likely, how late in life will employment be available. this advice should be backed up by people in the field. Many a successful college graduate was told he couldn't make it. Don't risk that.

  7. Donald,

    You’re absolutely right: any good vocational program must include honest, high-quality career counseling. Ideally, such a program would focus on career skills, but not in a reductive or anti-intellectual manner; rather it would teach academic and theoretical knowledge through practical, career-related skills, thus providing graduates with the necessary background to attend college at a later date, if they so chose.

    You're right that, in the past, low expectations, especially for minority students, have lead educators to counsel students away from ambitious, college-based career paths. (In his autobiography, Malcolm X theorizes that, had his eighth-grade math teacher not disuaded him from his ambition to be a lawyer, he might never have become the fire-brand civil-rights leader he became.)

    That kind of attitude is a lot harder to find in America, today. There’s certainly no danger, in the No-Excuses movement, of teachers telling anyone who wants to go to college that he or she won’t make it. The danger is of the opposite: telling students who will be poorly served by college—who will languish in remedial courses at low-end community (and even private, for profit) colleges—that that is the only route to success.