Leave This Child Behind

W. H. Brady Scholar
Charles Murray
When it comes to thinking about our schools, politicians and educators recoil from a truth that the rest of us learned in first grade when we read Dick and Jane. That terrifying truth? Some kids just weren't very good at reading and math. In fact, some kids were pretty bad, and nothing the teacher did made them better. As our school years progressed, it became clear to us that some of the kids (maybe including ourselves) did okay at reading and math, but it wasn't their strong point, and they were more interested in other things. Add up the kids without the ability and the kids with the ability but without the interest, and we're talking about a majority of young people.

This is all pretty obvious to first graders and fifth graders and high school students. But not to politicians and educators. They are the people who gave us the No Child Left Behind Act, which wrote into law that all children--all--be proficient in reading and math by the year 2014, using standards of "proficient" that a substantial number of children do not have the intellectual ability to attain.

These are the people who insist that everyone should go to college. From kindergarten through high school, our children are indoctrinated to believe that the bachelor's degree represents the promised land. Get that college degree, because you'll make more money. Get that college degree, because all the jobs worth having require one. Get that college degree, because without one you are an educational failure. Never mind if academics are not what you're good at or what you like. Get that college degree no matter what.

In the quest to redefine educational success, we have a dragon to slay: The misbegotten, pernicious, wrongheaded idea that not going to college means you are a failure.

Recognizing the fact that most young people do not have ability and/or the interest to succeed on the conventional academic track does not mean spending less effort on the education of some children than of others. But it does mean that we must jettison glib, feel-good rhetoric. No more talk about leaving no child behind. No more accusations that to be realistic is "the soft bigotry of low expectations." No more celebrations of attempts to "challenge" students without regard to their ability or interests.

Instead, I want to institute a new definition of educational success. It is:

The goal of education is to bring children into adulthood having discovered things they enjoy doing and having learned to do them well. The goal applies equally to children who have the ability to be fine lawyers or physicians and children who have the ability to be fine machinists, cops, paramedics, computer programmers, waiters, or long-haul truckers. Educational success has been achieved when our children spend their working lives doing something that gives them satisfaction.

***

Let's put this new definition of educational success in terms of a young person thinking about whether to become an electrician or get a BA and try to become a business executive.

The first thing he is going to point out is that business executives make more money than electricians. True enough--on average. But the higher incomes that are supposed to go with a college degree depend on being good at the job. The skills needed for being an electrician and business executive are completely different. Someone who has the skills to become a top electrician but is poor in the skills needed to be a business executive should forget about average incomes. Top electricians make a lot more money than low-level managers.

The larger question that young person should be asking is this: Would I be happier as a business executive or as an electrician? The answer is not self-evident. Jobs that require a college degree are not intrinsically more interesting, fun, or satisfying than jobs that don't require a college degree.

That's not a controversial statement. No job is intrinsically interesting, fun, or satisfying--not even the most prestigious ones. Physician? Lawyer? I would hate doing a doctor's or lawyer's daily work. Others love it. I would love to be a cabinet-maker if I had the ability, but I'm not romanticizing manual labor--I would hate being a gardener, for example.

My own job has me sitting alone for 10 hours a day staring at a computer monitor and occasionally tapping a keyboard. Sound like fun? I can't wait to get started every morning. It's all a question of matching personal tastes and aptitudes with jobs. Prestige and money are nice, but they're not as important as the satisfaction of doing something we enjoy and are good at.

I'm sure that sounds like idealism to many high school students thinking about what to do with their lives. It's not. For those of us who love our work, it's just a statement of fact about the reality of our daily lives. It is a reality we must convey to our children.

For students who will go to college anyway, the glorification of the college degree in today's schools is not terminally harmful. If they end up as unhappy lawyers they can always stop and become happy cabinetmakers instead (and such things happen all the time). The real damage is inflicted on secondary school students who do not have the skills for succeeding on the academic track through college and who go directly from secondary school to a job, or perhaps get a job after spending a year in a community college. In the educational jargon, these are known as "work-bound" students as opposed to "college-bound" students.

Secondary schools should not prevent work-bound students from pursuing academic tracks if they wish, but neither should guidance counselors knowingly deceive them about their prospects. In too many of today's schools, that's exactly what counselors do. In one survey, 90% of all high school students reported that they were encouraged by their counselors to go to four-year colleges when, given the intellectual demands of college-level work, the percentage who should be encouraged is closer to twenty.

The reluctance of guidance counselors to be straightforward is understandable. Those who try to tell students that they aren't cut out for college must be prepared for many kinds of grief--from principals who tell them they should be more supportive of their students' aspirations, from angry parents, and from the students themselves. But even if understandable, their sweeping encouragement of college is irresponsible. The result is crazily unrealistic expectations, as students who are marginally literate in ninth grade tell interviewers that they expect to become lawyers. If "crazily unrealistic" seems too strong, consider that about 70% of high school students say that they expect to go into a handful of professions--law, medicine, engineering, the sciences, academia--when about 5% of them actually will.

Too few counselors tell work-bound high-school students how much money crane operators or master stonemasons make (a lot). Too few tell them about the well-paying technical specialties that are being produced by a changing job market. Too few assess the non-academic abilities of work-bound students and direct them toward occupations in which they can reasonably expect to succeed. Worst of all: As these students approach the age at which they can legally drop out of school, they are urged to take more courses in mathematics, literature, history and science so that they can pursue the college fantasy. Is it any wonder that so many of them drop out?

***

For once, we face an educational problem that we know how to fix and have the resources to fix. Most school systems around the country still maintain substantial programs and facilities for vocational education--no longer called that, of course, since "vocational education" is stigmatizing. The new label for such courses is CTE (career and technical education). The existing programs variously include classes within a comprehensive high school, special CTE schools, collaborative arrangements with local community colleges, and apprenticeship programs arranged with local employers.

The empirical evidence in favor of CTE is not in dispute: CTE works. Giving high-school students the option of taking technical courses increases the likelihood they will graduate from high school. High-school students who pursue the vocational track do better in the job market, in terms of both employment rates and wages, than those who stay in the academic track but don't belong there.

The problem in most school systems is not that resources are unavailable, but that they are radically underused. Large numbers of students who have neither the interest nor the ability to succeed in the academic track are in it anyway, sometimes dropping out, sometimes stumbling through to the high-school diploma, but never having achieved the goal of finding something they like to do and learning how to do it well.

It's not just work-bound students who need CTE courses. So do college-bound students, especially those attending school in upper-middle-class suburbs. A century ago, the parents of students in a typical high school worked at all sorts of trades, crafts and professions. Today, upper-middle-class children can graduate from high school isolated from any contact with a world in which people make their livings by working with their hands and without ever knowing the satisfactions that can come from non-academic forms of excellence. The argument for making a few CTE courses mandatory for all secondary students is as strong as the argument for making history courses mandatory.

***

In the quest to redefine educational success, we have a dragon to slay: The misbegotten, pernicious, wrongheaded idea that not going to college means you are a failure. It deforms the behavior of all the actors in America's secondary schools--principals, teachers, guidance counselors, parents and students.

Part of the solution is as simple as devoting the appropriate resources to non-college options. But the problems created by shortfalls in CTE funding and facilities are minor compared with the problems created by disdain. The high school student who sets out to become a machinist is making a choice as worthy as that of the student who is trying to get into Harvard. Such choices deserve our support and--this is imperative--our respect.

Charles Murray is the W. H. Brady Scholar at AEI.

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