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Achievement Gap

A “College-Ready” Standard Lets Students and Families Decide

Thomas B. Fordham Institute President Mike Petrilli opened a conference yesterday on education and upward mobility with a speech about the challenges of educating poor children. He invited friends, colleagues and acquaintances to comment on the speech. His basic theme: Since we know that all young people are not going to college, we should steer more of them into career training programs. I’m all for vocational education for kids who want it but my problem is when Petrilli asserts that people who support college-ready standards for all students look at an 18-year-old who “grows up poor, graduates high school, and starts working full-time in a low-wage job as something of a failure.” That’s not really true. We might view an unemployed teen as “something of a failure,” but few view a teen who voluntarily decides to work rather than go to college as a failure. Nor is the teen who enlists in the military after high school a failure. Or one who decides to be an entrepreneur, even if his or her business fails. On the other hand, a school system unable to educate large numbers of low-income students to college-ready levels is a failure. The system’s job is to produce college-ready high school graduates. But the young person who chooses work instead of college is not a failure. The distinction is important. It’s about student and family choice. We also need to distinguish between goals and outcomes. Our goal should be that every child is college-ready even if he or she decides not to go. The child (and family) should make the choice, not a teacher or school counselor. The outcomes, on the other hand, will differ for different students. Having a goal for all kids to be “college-ready” does not mean they all will be college-ready by graduation. Some students will still be behind. Some might become college-ready only after taking remedial classes. Some might never be college-ready. Now, if by the end of 9th or 10th grade a student is three years behind and unlikely to be anywhere near college-ready by the end of 12th grade, the school owes it to the teen and parents to tell them the truth. They can share the facts on lifetime income for high school graduates compared to college graduates. Ideally, they would also offer programs to acquire skills in high school or in training programs that qualify them for better-paying jobs in fields that don’t require a college degree, such as advanced manufacturing. At that point, the students can still decide to pursue college, even if college seems beyond reach. Or they can choose to pursue a technical skill—but the point is that the student and parents make the choice, not the adults in the school. The only fair, honest and defensible solution is to have one single standard for all students as defined by each state: college-ready.
Peter Cunningham
Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with Whiteboard ...

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