Riffing off my Nation piece on the "college for all" debate, Max Bean has written a really thoughtful series of posts about his time teaching math in a "no excuses" charter school, and the way in which the entire school culture was built around the expectation–an unrealistic expectation–that every child would attend and graduate from a four-year liberal arts college.
Max's school began in sixth grade, and most students arrived several grade-levels behind in reading and math. Though standardized test scores jumped by the end of seventh grade, less than 10 percent of students had achieved "mastery" in any given subject. As Max writes, few of his students were on-track to perform in college alongside peers who had attended suburban public schools, urban test schools, or private prep schools:
…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.
In his next post, Max acknowledges that teachers and administrators within the no-excuses charter movement worry, sometimes strenuously, about this disconnect between rhetoric and reality. He offers a brief intellectual history of "college for all:"
Indeed we must, but we should think carefully about what exactly those expectations are. “High expectations” is not a single idea; it’s a broad principle that can mean different things in different contexts. When we boil it down to the simple, concrete goal of universal college attendance, we lose more than we retain. As always, in the field of education, the attempt to expand and replicate a good idea has produced a codification that retains the veneer of the organic original, but little of its genius.
This is all a great argument, I think, for mixed academic/vocational courses of study like the ones I reported on in The Nation, at Aviation High School in Queens and Tech Valley High outside Albany. These programs connect high school students with the world of work though internships and skills classes, and put some of them on track to earn an occupational certificate straight out of high school. But they also require students to complete the core classes required for admission to a four-year college. This kind of high school curriculum is based on a realistic assessment of the American economy–including the fact that middle-class jobs in many growing industries, from health services to hospitality, do not require a four-year degree.