Could being on the high school football team prepare you just as well for the workplace as taking an advanced placement class? By forcing all students onto a college-bound track, we ignore the fact that there are other trajectories towards success and gainful employment, according to Russell Rumberger, who currently serves as provost in the Office of the President at the University of California, and director of the California Dropout Research Project.
Rumberger recently published a book called, Dropping Out: Why Students Drop Out of High School and What Can be Done About It. According to Rumberger, roughly 25 percent of U.S. high school students do not graduate. And he says that our country is only making the problem worse by trying to prepare everyone for college.
Turnstyle spoke with Rumberger about how to re-define success in high school by creating multiple pathways for students to achieve inside and outside of school.
Turnstyle: In a nutshell, tell us about your argument that when academia focuses solely on getting kids to college, it can lead to more high school dropouts?
Rumberger: I do believe everybody who wants to go to college, has the inclination to go to college, should be able to. Even if they may not have the initial ability, they should still be encouraged and supported to go. It may be harder for them, it may take them longer to finish, but that’s okay. But for students who don’t want to [go to college], they should have an option as well; the opportunity to develop skills that are valued in the job market and take that pathway.
What would serve students better in the long run is if we had a broader definition of success in high school to include more things that people can master that we know are important. Some of those things can be best acquired in the classroom, but many can be acquired outside the classroom.
Underlying my assertion is that we want to try to make every kid successful in something. If we define success narrowly by saying how well can you do on an AP test, or a math test, or some other kind of academic test, and that’s the only way we judge success, then the students that have the ability to work with others, the ones that can design things, the ones that know how to cook or fix cars, none of those skills are valued. But if we say, everyone should have something that they can master, and demonstrate mastery of, then there’s this notion that students will develop a sense of competence.
Turnstyle: Can you explain the tension between college-readiness programs and vocational education programs?
Rumberger: Historically, the academic programs and college preparatory program, were really designed to prepare students for college, and that was seen as a viable path in and of itself. When [high schools] were not very common, [college prep] was the only thing that high schools needed to do because everyone else went straight to work.
In the early part of the 1900’s, when high schools became universal, [this tension arose] between selectivity and universality… Once they introduced more people, then not everyone wants to go to college, or has the ability to go to college, and that’s when vocational courses were introduced into the high school curriculum. Then the tension became, which pathway serves which students? …
The criticism of this dual system, was that the wealthier smarter kids got to go to college track, the dumber, not wealthy kids went to the lower track, and they got two kinds of education — one better than the other.
Turnstyle: The Department of Labor Statistics projects that more than one-third of all job openings in the US economy between 2008 and 2018 will not require a college degree. In a country that is often criticized for teaching to the test, do you think high schools should be doing more to teach to the job?
Rumberger: I think there’s value in strengthening the academic curriculum, but we don’t want to do so at the expense of the vocational or career and technical program. In fact, one of the interesting developments we’re supporting at the University of California are integrated courses that can teach both academic and career and technical skills in the same course.
They could often be taught by two kinds of instructors, because we have different requirements for instructors in the two areas. We want academic instructors to have academic competence in the subject matter such as math or science, but the state requires that career and technical instructors have industry experience, so they know what work is like in industry. Ideally you have two kinds of teachers with two kinds of backgrounds.
In academic areas you might want to teach someone how to problem-solve to do something — let’s say, create a robot. But to actually build a robot you have to have other kinds of skills. You have to know how to work with materials. You might have to use a lathe, or use wood-working tools… Why have those skills separate? Why not have them do both, so that students are actually developing practical skills, like how to work with their hands and how to actually make something?
Turnstyle: To what extent should businesses and trade unions be involved in informing what gets taught at schools? Do you think these types of public / private partnerships are important?
Rumberger: [I think businesses and trade unions] should be very involved because they’re the ones that say, ‘These are the things our workers need to have to be successful in the workplace.’ Sometimes they’ll do surveys of employers and ask, what are the skills you really need to have?
There’s one survey that I cited from the National Association of Manufacturers, and they talked about punctuality, dependability, and perseverance as being qualities they looked for in employees… You think about some of those skills, and you might develop them very well by being on a football team, or being in a responsible position in a student organization in high school… there are many different ways of acquiring those skills, so the input from industry would help shape that discussion about what it is that is important to be teaching and rewarding in high school.
Turnstyle: The Obama administration is very focused on being academically competitive with the rest of the world, and set a goal to be number one in college graduates by the year 2020. Is that the right focus for our country?
Rumberger: It makes me uncomfortable. I submit that we’ll never be number one in the world in college graduates, without being much higher in high school graduation rates than we are now. We’re roughly 20th in the world in high school graduation rates… We still have so many kids that are not graduating, roughly 25 percent of our high school students.
It’s related to conditions outside of school. There are some international studies that show how the United States ranks in terms of child well-being and child welfare in terms of health and family conditions. In one survey, we were about 20th. I think it’s correlated, the fact that if we’re 20th in high school graduation rates and 20th in the sense of child welfare — those are related phenomena.
This story was originally published on TurnstyleNews.com on January 13, 2012.