Mr. Parello Sensei

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Aug 20 2013

Not Going to College Should Not and Does Not Equal Failure

Diane Ravitch is one of my favorite authors and thinkers on education.   In “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” she weaves rock-solid case against No Child Left Behind and the test-based accountability movement.  Unfortunately, the wisdom of her ideas are often drowned out by those who are more adept at speaking in sound bites.  I recently read an article in the New York Times where she was quoted in response to the recent common core tests administered in New York.

Some critics say the new standards are simply unrealistic. “We’re using a very inappropriate standard that’s way too high,” said Diane Ravitch, an education historian who served in President George W. Bush’s Education Department but has since become an outspoken critic of many education initiatives. “I think there are a lot of kids who are being told that if they don’t go to college that it will ruin their life,” she said. “But maybe they don’t need to go to college.”

Ravitch’s sentiment is then contrasted with the sentiment of a teacher who calls for higher expectations:

By contrast, Kristal Doolin, a middle school English teacher in Corbin, Ky., a rural area in the southeast corner of the state, said teachers should expect more of their students.

“I feel like if we lower our expectations, they will follow what we model,” said Ms. Doolin, who was selected Kentucky Teacher of the Year for 2013. “If you teach the way we’ve taught for years and years, basically we’re robbing our kids of the future.”

Critics of Ravitch were quick to pounce on the quotation, and Peter Cunningham, Arne Duncan’s former Assistant Director for Communications and Outreach responded with the following comment:

When Dr. Ravitch says, “But maybe they don’t need to go to college,” who exactly is she referring to? It’s certainly not rich white kids. It’s definitely not the children of middle class parents, who view college for the kids as one of the core pillars of the American Dream. That leaves low-income and minority children. It includes the children of immigrants who come here with an 8th grade education and desperately want their kids to do better than them — the kind of parents you meet at a graduation who speak little English and can’t stop crying for joy.

Ravitch responded here:

Who should go to college? Everyone who wants to.

What prevents them from doing so? The cost of college today puts it out of reach for many students, and those who get a degree spend years paying back their student loans…

In my professional life, everyone I interact with has one or several degrees. In my real life, where things break down and someone has to do work that is essential to my daily life, many–most–do not have a diploma. Should they? That should be their choice, not my compulsion.

Unfortunately, the journalist chose to use Ravitch’s quote as an example of someone who favors low expectations, and critics like Cunningham chose to use it to suggest that she doesn’t care about low-income minority children.  I think that she was quoted out of context, and I share what I consider to be her actual views.

I joined Teach for America because I saw a gross inequality of opportunity between wealthy and low income students in our nation, and I wanted to teach so that every child would be able to have the option to do whatever they wanted with their lives.  In my school, students were told that college was the ultimate goal of their studies.  In the years since 2007, more and more schools, and especially charter schools, have made a strong focus on college a centerpiece of their motivational strategy.  KIPP schools give every room a college theme.  The charter school where I worked last year as a substitute had college flags flying on the quads and took 8th graders on college trips.

I think that for the most part, this focus on college is a great thing.  Many students who would excel in college do not conceive of themselves as “college material,” and they need to be reminded constantly that they are.  Low-income Black and Latino students are the most likely to doubt their potential as future college graduates, and it is the responsibility of any good school system to help them become everything that they are capable of being.

There is one thing that troubles me though: in all of the talk about going to college, there is very little support given to those students who genuinely aren’t interested in college and for whom college does not fulfill any of their plans.  I feel that we have turned those students into black sheep.  They don’t help any school’s statistics, and they are basically told that college equals success and that the lack of college equals failure.  I feel that there is a special danger in a school that emphasizes college as the be-all and end-all, because students who don’t end up going to college will feel like they have nothing to offer or contribute.  Similarly, when we have a testing system that castigates anyone who doesn’t show “college readiness” as unsuccessful, we run the same risk of stigmatizing students whose passions may lie elsewhere.

As a nation, we have done a pretty good job ensuring that students who don’t go to college will indeed feel stigmatized throughout their lives.  For the most part, they will have low paying jobs with no possibility of advancement.  But for all those who say that only solution to this is college, consider this: blue collar work and service work still needs to be done, and a theoretical economy in which every single person has a college education will simply have highly educated people doing that work.  Just as a high school diploma has dropped in value enormously since my mother graduated in 1968, college degrees are already dropping in value today.  A college degree can provide an escape from poverty for some, but it can’t be an escape from poverty for everyone at the same time.  There is no such thing as an economy that runs entirely on white collar work.

Why then, do we stubbornly refuse to provide other pathways for success than college?  In our economy today, you can either go to college, or you can likely face economic hardship.  The problem is that as long as it is practically impossible to make a living wage at anything other than white collar work, there will be an underclass in our country, regardless of college attendance.  Many students today are not inclined towards college and feel less worthy because of it.  Many of the same students might make excellent auto mechanics, waiters, or construction workers.  Why shouldn’t they be proud of that and have those interests validated?

To clarify, I do not believe in holding low expectations for certain students.  My whole career to this point has been dedicated to working against that. I believe that educators need to do everything in their power to help every student realize their full potential and have options in life.  But there is no reason not to validate students who have interests that truly don’t include college and to help them excel at whatever they do.  And I believe that as a country we need to move towards an economy that rewards other forms of work besides college educated work.  Otherwise, poverty will persist, and college alone cannot change that.

3 Responses

  1. parus

    I’m not sure how these people think the higher ed system or the job market could possibly accommodate their magical world of 100% college graduation leading into college-grad careers. There’s idealism, and then there’s willful blindness.

  2. Jess Yarmosky

    I love this. I had dozens of passionate students for whom college would probably not be the best fit. Without access to quality career academies or advising, though, they had no opportunities to succeed. A coworker of mine was very passionate about joining and eventually starting successful career academies for the subset of students who chose that path.

    When I mentioned this to my TFA advisor as a positive, she “pushed back” on the idea and claimed that my coworker was lowering expectations for our kids.

    Sad, but true. More people should hear your thoughts on this.

    • Emmanuel Parello

      Thanks Jess, So TFA advisers were talking about “pushing back” in your region too. Ugh, some of their language choices are so annoying, especially when what you were bringing up was important.

      It’s unfortunate that some people see trying to provide greater opportunities to students who don’t want to go to college and won’t go as lowering expectations. Every teacher, including every miracle TFA teacher has had those students. We can pretend that they don’t exist, I suppose, but it’s a denial of reality.

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