Tunnel Vision: How a “College for All” Philosophy Leaves Everyone Behind

BACK IN 2004, when I was a twenty-three-year-old newbie teacher at one of the most dangerous public schools in the Bronx, I taught a sixteen-year-old named Chris. Chris had spiky hair, conical studs in his ears and eyebrows, and a pointy goatee. During class, he never spoke; instead, he would stare menacingly around the classroom, as though issuing some unspoken challenge to his classmates.

The only time Chris ever showed enthusiasm was when he and his classmates were writing in the journals I had them keep that year. Chris’s journal entries were comprised entirely of simple, declarative sentences, and they were always about one thing: cars—how to fix cars, how to race cars, what types of cars he wanted to own when he was older, or what types of cars he knew how to drive. Best of all, the margins of his notebook were filled with tiny, intricately detailed drawings of cars.

In one of our rare conversations, I asked Chris if he had any college plans, and he responded, “The only job I want is to work with cars.” He mentioned that somewhere in Brooklyn there was a vocational high school wherein students could acquire a certificate in automotive mechanics. He wanted to transfer to a school like that, he said.

Somehow, the transfer never happened, and Chris lost interest in school. He started cutting regularly. I learned—both from the graffiti tags on his journal and from the other students—that he had joined the Bloods, one of the gangs that recruited in our hallways. Gradually, Chris stopped coming to class all together. His little journal sat unfinished in our classroom closet, collecting dust. Save for a brief run-in on the subway some months later, where I ascertained that he had dropped out of school and was living with his girlfriend, I never saw him again.

LAST MONTH, the College Board, the ubiquitous arbiter of educational achievement, announced that the United States now ranks twelfth among thirty-six developed nations in its percentage of young adults who have a traditional college degree. According to a 2007 study, only 40 percent of young adults in the United States had obtained even an associate’s degree; by comparison, 56 percent of young adults had done so in Canada, making it the world leader in educational attainment.

Statistics like those put out by the College Board are misleading: they promote a foolish sense of tunnel vision, leading students to believe that the only possible way of obtaining even a middle-wage job is through the traditional, four-year college route. Reliance on the standard liberal arts degree as a benchmark for competence belies not only the fact that many jobs simply don’t require such an education, but also that middle-wage jobs are going unfilled due to a lack of applicants with the necessary specialized skills.

This fallacy is particularly evident when looking at Labor Department data, which shows that despite all-time highs in unemployment, certain industries—business services, health care, education, and particularly manufacturing—have had record increases in middle-wage job openings, with not nearly enough qualified applicants to fill the positions. These are not jobs that will be filled simply by increasing the output of bachelor’s degree holders nationwide; instead, these jobs require specific types of skilled labor that are, problematically, not taught in any conventional school setting.

Companies manufacturing high-precision products—car and aircraft parts, large-scale construction equipment—encounter a dearth of workers with the mathematical and technical skills necessary to operate computer-controlled machines; these companies face lagging sales as a result. In some cases, these companies set up their own training programs to teach potential workers the skills necessary for high-tech manufacturing, but the length of time required to complete these training programs—time away from lower-paying but already extant jobs—renders them infeasible for some prospective applicants. Thus, the positions remain unfilled, because the American educational system does not currently produce enough job candidates with the technical expertise to perform in the “blue-collar” jobs of the twenty-first century.

With this problem in mind, the City University of New York created ASAP (Accelerated Study in Associate Programs), a program whose goal is to enable students from disadvantaged backgrounds—who often balance work and familial responsibilities along with their studies—to earn their associate’s degrees within three years. First piloted in 2007 with over $6 million in funding from organizations including the Mayor’s Center for Economic Opportunity (CEO) and the Helmsley Charitable Trust, ASAP provides material and educational support to motivated community college students in the form of free subway fares, small class sizes, a comprehensive advising system, tuition waivers, and even free textbooks and laptops. The CEO purports that graduates of the program “are qualified for positions in health, hospitality, early childhood education, and retail professionals, as well as legal assistants,” areas that have “very favorable or favorable employment prospects” and require “no more than an Associate’s degree.” Though some of ASAP’s participants go on to four-year colleges, the goal is to provide students with means of gainful employment as soon as possible.

Yet programs like ASAP are not a panacea for the American educational system. First, the program is too costly to be widely replicated. Second, though the program is considered a success—its goal at the outset was for 50 percent of its participants to earn their associate’s degrees in three years time, and 53 percent met the mark—the fact that nearly half of its participants failed to complete their degrees in the allotted time (despite incalculable advantages over their peers outside the program) indicates that such intervention is only moderately effective. These numbers illustrate a third issue: the American education system needs to begin training students for twenty-first-century career pathways before they reach college age.

It is in this respect that the prevailing “college for all” philosophy is most misguided: not only does it fail to address the need for a workforce with specialized technical skills, but it has spawned a steep decline of “shop” and vocational programs at the high school level, which should ideally be the training ground for work in twenty-first-century industries. In 1990, 58 percent of New York City high school students were enrolled in some sort of vocational class, whether in a designated Career and Technical Education (CTE) school or a standard high school offering “CTE pathways”; by 2007, that number had shrunk to 38 percent, with many of the vocational high schools underperforming in key achievement measures.

Currently only 30,000 of nearly 300,000 NYC high school students are enrolled in CTE schools; of the 429 high school options available for these students, only 125 schools offer any kind of CTE training, and only twenty-six of those are designated CTE schools. Only thirty-five schools have programs approved by the state. Broadening the availability and raising the quality of technical high schools throughout the five boroughs would offer career paths for students who are poorly served by being directed toward the traditional college route. With the demise of Rust Belt industry jobs, school systems nationwide need to catch up with the times; instead of eliminating shop and mechanical classes, they must offer students the opportunity to learn the skills necessary for success in the rapidly evolving job market.

OPPONENTS OF CTE-type schooling argue that it creates an intractable caste system, limiting students’ opportunities for social mobility by funneling children of working-class parents straight into vocational programs. Vocational schooling is ubiquitous throughout Europe, and the German model provides a striking—and oft-criticized—example of this phenomenon. Starting as early as age ten, students are sorted into a tripartite educational system. The Gymnasium, viewed to be the most prestigious type of school, tracks students for university education (concluding with twelfth and thirteenth year students taking the Arbitur, a test that gains them entrance into university). The second-tier Realschule and the “lowest” tier, the Hauptschule, are less academic and more vocationally oriented, with students graduating as early as ninth grade into apprenticeships within organized trade unions.

Though most schools are state-run, the overwhelming majority of Gymnasium students are from affluent families, while students from lower-income backgrounds populate the Realschulen and Hauptschulen. In recent years it has become possible for Realschule students to take the Arbitur or even transfer to a Gymnasium, but doing so is difficult, and detractors argue that the system is biased against the working class.

Another problem with rigid educational “tracking” is the difficulty of changing direction in accordance with changing interests. In England, students take a general equivalency test, the GCSE, at the age of sixteen and then proceed to “A-level” classes that will either prepare them for study at university or give them vocational training in a trade of their choosing. The course of a student’s university studies and profession are determined by the A-level exams. In the absence of the American liberal arts degree, students have limited flexibility to take classes outside of their chosen concentrations, making a switch in disciplines—say, from physics to medicine—particularly onerous and time-consuming, let alone a shift from vocational pathway to an academic one.

Offering a wide-range of CTE options and promoting social mobility do not need to be mutually exclusive goals. A model similar to the British system, but with more flexibility, would be ideal. Around age sixteen, students would meet with guidance counselors and parents to determine which educational pathway to follow. They could opt to pursue CTE paths of their choosing, in which case they would begin taking vocational classes and serving apprenticeships. They would simultaneously complete general education requirements to gain proficiency in math and literacy (making a late-stage shift to the college-bound track more feasible.) Alternately, students could choose to continue an academic course of study geared towards a four-year university education.

At the administrative level, the quality of CTE classes and apprenticeships would be based on government-mandated standards, the same as general education classes. Additionally, collaboration between the Department of Labor and the Department of Education could ensure that the skills being taught in high school CTE programs would match up with the most in-demand areas of the twenty-first century workforce. Ultimately, students would gain skills that would afford them job opportunities and stability.

Looking back on my own experience with Chris, I have often felt that I let him down by not trying harder to get him into the automotive mechanic program. In truth, I had no idea what channels to try, what paperwork to file, or even whether the school he wanted to attend actually existed. I had never heard of CTE programs; my number one priority, according to our school administration, was to get the kids’ scores on the Regents exams (tests mandated by the state of New York) high enough that they could get local diplomas and attend community colleges.

Chris was a casualty of a system that did not serve his needs, and the problem wasn’t the rigor of his classes, or his lack of preparation for standardized tests. Rather, it was the lack of options that Chris was given in choosing an educational path to suit his interests and skills. In its effort to “railroad” kids toward universities, without consideration of student interests, skills, or even available job opportunities, our education system has failed and continues to fail every kid like him.

Ilana Garon is a ninth through twelfth grade English teacher in the New York City public school system. This article is adapted from a story in her upcoming book, tentatively titled “Why Do Only White People Get Abducted By Aliens?”: Teaching Lessons from the Bronx.

Homepage image: Mouleesha/Wikimedia Commons/2009