Monday, April 29, 2013

Why People Underestimate The Educational Attainment Crisis

It is a testament to how bad I am at keeping up with articles that I intend to read that I am just getting around to Dana Goldstein's Atlantic piece on David Coleman, a major force behind the Common Core standards. It's an interesting read and sheds a lot of light on one of the individuals quietly having a great deal of influence on contemporary American education. Coleman, Goldstein reveals, is a deep believer in the value of a rigorous curriculum rooted in the liberal-arts. As she explains,
Coleman was a lead architect of the Common Core standards, which emphasize canonical literature—think Shakespeare, Toni Morrison, Pablo Neruda—and serious nonfiction texts across all subjects, from math (Euclid’s Elements), to science (medical articles by The New Yorker’s Atul Gawande), to social studies (the Declaration of Sentiments from the feminist Seneca Falls Convention of 1848).
All implementation hiccups aside, it's an appealing vision of a rigorous curriculum that would provide a strong backbone for the kind of work that might prevent the high remediation rates (Goldstein notes: "20 percent of incoming freshmen at four-year colleges, and about half at community colleges, are assigned to non-credit-bearing remedial courses.") that currently exist at the college level.

However, Goldstein slips into a bit of sloppy editorializing as she starts to assess Coleman's vision. She remarks, with respect to the notion that all students ought to be prepared for a college level curriculum: 
The problem is that by waiting until college to begin tracking students according to their career interests, the American education system may be consigning more and more young people to poverty. Youth unemployment is at a staggering 17.1 percent in the U.S., compared with less than 8 percent in Germany and Switzerland. These nations link high-school curriculum directly to the world of work, placing students in private-sector internships that typically lead to full-time, paying jobs. The Common Core, on the other hand, has a blanket definition of “college and career ready,” which, according to Carnevale, ignores the reality that each student has different strengths and weaknesses, and that every job requires a specific set of skills—some of which are best taught in the workplace, not in the classroom. Not to mention that with almost 54 percent of recent college graduates jobless or underemployed, and with total student debt surpassing $1 trillion, college has become a much riskier investment than it once was.
Where to start? First, we might hope for a bit more tight of a correlation between youth unemployment and tracking students based on career interest. You know, just in case there might be a few confounds driving the international differences between youth unemployment rates, like, say, just shooting in the dark here, a global financial crisis that has affected different countries (and their respective employment rates) to varying extents.

But putting that to one side, let's look at the crux of the argument, the idea that because students have "different strengths and weaknesses, and that every job requires a specific set of skills" means that students should enter different tracks in high school, some with a rigorous Common Core-esque curriculum and others which are more focused on technical skills and career preparation. It seems that the different strengths and weakness of students are pretty much irrelevant from a policy perspective. That's a question relevant to how you teach, not what you teach. But as for the "specific set of skills - some of which are best taught in the workplace, not in the classroom," I just don't see how this is a persuasive argument against giving every student the Common Core.

Is it true that some non-zero number of students won't (and shouldn't) go to college because their specific skill set will allow them to be more successful as an electrician or some other venture? Of course. But that doesn't mean that those students should be exempted from the rigor of a high quality curriculum. And not because they've made some mistake and should actually value college more, but because (1) without traversing a rigorous curriculum that would allow them to go to college, they won't even have the option to go to college if they change their minds or find they have misjudged their talents or the job market and (2) the rigor provided by a robust curriculum provides important soft skills that are crucial for succeeding in a career.

Goldstein waves at this second point a bit when she explains Coleman's response to Carnevale's criticism: "Coleman counters this critique with the classic case for a liberal-arts education: that it teaches students how to think, providing a powerful intellectual foundation for any line of work." While Coleman certainly has point that such an intellectual foundation is important, I think he undersells the true value of such studies. Because the demands of rigorous curriculum are quite large, students have to learn precisely the types of skills, from patience to organization to emotional control, that are so crucial to persisting in a job of any sort. (James Heckman's research on the economic value of such skills has been highlighted in lots of places of late, most notably in Paul Tough's recent work.) But on top of all that, because these career-prep skills are allegedly not best taught in school, they can easily be learned after a student finishes their high-school education, on the job somewhere.

But for me the really frustrating thing about the general tone of this critique of Coleman's work is that it so blithely accepts that huge swathes of our population aren't college ready based on some vague notion that "College just isn't for everyone." As I've already said, of course no one expects absolutely everyone to go to college. But we can and should expect way more people to not only go to college, but to go to college prepared for the work they will do there.

Probably the most largely underemphasized statistic in all discussions of education in this country is the fact that in 2011 of those adults aged 25-29, just 32% had Bachelor's degrees. I think that if those people who run around saying "College just isn't for everyone" had to say instead "College just isn't for 68% of the population" they would get much funnier looks. So why don't we question such assertions? Because in the mind of many Americans (especially the well-educated, well-off types who tend to spend their time writing or thinking about education policy), lots of people already go to college, and so some people choosing another path isn't such a bad thing.  But because of huge disparities in educational attainment by income level, the gut estimate of many American's about what percentage of the population already attends college can be way off. (If you want to see this in action, 12PLUS has a great video that demonstrates it pretty well. Availability heuristic strikes again!)

To get a sense of just what that means, Andrew Rotherham provides a useful stat: "In 1972 thirty-eight percent of high-income Americans earned a bachelor's degree by age 24. Now, 82 percent do. Among low-income students, however, that figure was 7 percent in 1972 and it's 8 percent now." It's an astounding gap; while 82% of high-income Americans will graduate from college, just 8% of low income students will. Now if you're a high-income American, your sense of how dire the educational attainment crisis is will likely be skewed by the fact that so many people around you are getting degrees. And that makes it much easier to stomach the idea that some for some people the most successful path might not include college. But that's only because you think "some people" means 15% and not 68% of the population. 

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