One School Does Not Fit All

Given its origins in the heyday of the Industrial Revolution, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that our Prussian-style school systems focus on a one-size-fits-all approach. The order of that day was to mass produce interchangeable cogs for factories, a job description that’s becoming less and less common as our economy focuses on more specialized labor. Unfortunately, our school system is dead-set on producing only a single class of specialized labor, robbing students of precious job skills and forcing them down career paths to which they may be ill-suited.

The evidence of our failure is repeated on an annual basis. As we continue to spend more and more per pupil, we fall further and further behind other OCED countries in student achievement. Japan, Singapore, Belgium and others seem to be able to do a lot more with a lot less. Looking at Sweden, we might get a glimpse as to why. Prior to the beginning of the 9th grade, students are tested to see where their aptitudes lie. Those who show proficiency at academics move onto a track leading to college and information-based jobs. Others are often steered towards vocational training for fields such as auto mechanics, electricians or plumbers. These vocational tracks guarantee that students who would otherwise fail in academics will be guaranteed job skills and a strong future earning potential.

So why is it that a system that seemingly makes so much sense can’t catch on in America? Blame our egalitarian roots. The United States was built upon the notion of equal opportunity for everyone, that everyone has the right to achieve their true potential. This noble ideal, however, has been perverted into meaning that everyone should have the same opportunity and outcome regardless of natural abilities. We now pretend that different people do not have different potentials or different strengths. No, all students must be pushed on an academic track with the goal of obtaining an advanced degree.

There is, however, no shame in learning a trade. A good painter can easily support a family on a single income. The same is true for a good landscaper, an excellent cook, or a skilled welder. Despite the strong earning potential of these blue-collar professions, the educational establishment seems to sneer at such jobs as demeaning or unworthy. Somehow, any profession that doesn’t require a college degree is substandard in the eyes of too many (nevermind that electricians go through 4-5 years of training to learn their trade). I fail to see, however, what could be of greater worth than a job that provides for posterity regardless of if your office is a cubicle or a greasy and dusty garage.

We need to stop cheating our children out of pursuing careers of worth that best suit their abilities. Our strategy of attempting to spend ever-increasing shares of education funding to try and suppress our children’s natural talents has failed for far too long for us to allow it to continue. This madness of our existing education system must be stopped. We must diversify our education system to institute new and exciting vocation programs to equip students with real job skills and thus substantially reduce our drop-out rates, I try to once in a while go on PowerfulPrep.com and help my kids learn new things at home. Educational excellence is much more than test scores; it’s equipping students with the skills to succeed once they have moved on from the K-12 system.

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13 Responses to One School Does Not Fit All

  1. Jeremy says:

    Great post. I tend to agree with your conclusions. Our education system would be more useful to more people than it is now if we adopted a similar approach to preparing our children for the workforce.

    One thing this post also helps illustrate is how pointless it is to compare educational outcomes in American student performance under our current structure with international student performance. We’re comparing all of our children, even those without scholastic aptitude, to the world’s most academically focused students.

  2. Shannon says:

    I agree with the fact that the school systems here in North America just aren’t set up to best serve children.
    I also wanted to point out that financially speaking trades are often the better way to go. Everyone I know in a trade up here makes more money than my friends who have degrees… who are also still in debt paying off loans. Granted, money is not everything but the overall idea is some food for thought. Afterall not everyone is meant to be a brain surgeon, right.

  3. Shannon says:

    One other thing. I think the most disappointing part of it all is that schools that are set up to direct kids down the path that is most suitable here in N.A are private schools that most families can’t afford. That needs to be changed.

  4. Tom says:

    Because I enjoy being contrary, I want to push back a little bit.

    I agree a skilled welder or excellent chef can support a family on a single income. That isn’t the point. Can a mediocre chef or an average welder do the same? It’s much more difficult, so the answer isn’t as clear.

    You’re correct that suggesting we are not created equal is directly contrary to what we accept as this country’s founding principles. It’s delicate to discuss, but many of the positive gains in the Civil Rights movement came from challenging our preconceptions that inequality is inherited and inescapable, and that race and economic status are not determinants of future success. If we allow ourselves to classify students are less capable, we establish a system where racism and inequality can be institutionalized, a repugnant thought. Rejecting equal opportunity reinforces a tiered class society. [Insert slippery slope argument here; reference American dream.]

    You’re right that the largest portion of future jobs will require trade schooling, several years of post-high school education. (Estimated 50%+ of future jobs will be between “white collar” and “blue collar”, dubbed “gold collar.”) Succeeding in post-high school training–even if it’s not college–requires a strong academic foundation in core subjects. We can and must do a better job of training our students to read, write, and understand mathematical concepts. These skills are an essential foundation, even for “trade” careers.

    Utah has a large CTE program, and it’s integrated with the high schools. The integration could be better (e.g. transferability of credit), and we are, I think, seeing less investment in trade programs (UVSC… er.. UVU’s protests to the contrary). Additional funding for school counselors (which the Board has requested for several years, but remains unfunded) would help. School districts could add counselors too, at the cost of other programs, but often choose not to.

    It’s a complicated issue, with strong ethical and social ramifications. You make some good points, but haven’t convinced me that the “school system is dead-set on producing only a single class of specialized labor.”

  5. Cameron says:

    At first blush, the Swedish educational system sounds crummy to me. Aptitudes can change. Interest in school can and often does change. I know many people that were average – at best – students in high school, but went on to college and worked hard and even earned scholarships. In Sweden, they would have been steered towards something else.

  6. Reach Upward says:

    I lived in Europe for a while. The system tends to slot people into a profession for life fairly early on. This works for some people, but others end up locked into jobs that they find ill suit them.

    If I had been stuck with what my ninth-grade aptitude tests showed, my life would be a lot different today — and not in a good way. My performance wasn’t very good. Somehow I ended up in an accountant career, but later got more education, including a master degree, and shifted to software development.

    Many of the jobs of tomorrow don’t even exist right now. I have problems with slotting kids into a career type early on. I’d prefer that they determine that within the market themselves. Still, we could do a lot better helping kids get the skills they need to do that.

  7. David says:

    Great post Jeremy.

    You have done the very thing that we need more of in discussions about our educational system – consider approaches outside our current approach. It doesn’t matter how much we think about the issue, we won’t find answers by considering variations on the same antiquated theme.

    Reach is right about the danger of locking into a specific career direction too early, but the excessive focus of too many on college as the only legitimate path to success (something Reach is not personally guilty of) is as confining as the “make everyone purchase insurance” approach is bound to be as we deal with the health care issue.

    When we deal with major issue we need options, not variations. We need real choice to be able to find real solutions – especially real solutions to widely varied situations of individuals.

  8. Reach Upward says:

    In my defense, I’ve got to say that I do not believe that college is the only way to a good career. It very much depends on the type of work. I have a very successful brother that only made it through two terms of college.

    I started college when I was 17. When I was a junior, I decided on a career path that didn’t require college, so I opted for other types of training. Unfortunately, I found that I wasn’t very proficient in my chosen career. I gradually migrated to accounting, and later to computer programming.

    I didn’t need a degree to become a programmer. But I found that I had to check that degree box if I wanted a jump in income and job security. After finishing my bachelor degree, I earned a master degree mainly for my own fulfillment and because I was already in the school mode.

    Did earning these degrees better credentialize me for IT application development than just getting job experience and industry specific training? I’m not sure that’s the case. The market is willing to pay a bit more because I have degrees, but it’s a good question as to whether my employer is deriving greater value as the result of my degrees. In other words, it may be that I would be just as valuable to my employer sans degrees as I am with the degrees.

    There are a few professions where a degree essentially constitutes a license to practice, such as engineering. But I think our society needs a serious discussion about the best ways to credentialize workers for the jobs they do. For most types of well paying jobs, I do not believe that a college degree is the best way to do that.

  9. David says:

    Reach,

    I’m like you in that I have advanced degrees, but I am quite convinced that none of my employers have ever gained better work from me than OJT would have provided.

    I intended to make it clear that you were not among those with the view that college was the only legitimate path to success. Certainly no offense intended.

    With an advanced degree in education I have to say that you are correct that for most types of well-paying jobs a college degree is not the best way to credentialize for those jobs.

  10. Tom says:

    Having worked as a programmer, data analyst, and some other jobs, I’d have to agree that most of the value I’ve added has not come from college degrees. But neither has it come from OJT. The skills that I have that have added value have come primarily from self-directed reading and practice. I will, add two caveats: a university education (particularly the track I took through it) gave me the skills I needed to be successful at self-directed education, and thus formed the foundation of most of my value adding skills, even if the knowledge transfer from the degrees was itself less applicable. Second, as I’m currently pursuing an MBA from a nationally recognized school, I regularly feel that the concepts and activities I’m now learning will very directly add value to a future employer.

    In short, my value to an employer comes from a) being able to learn, and b) constantly seeking learning. Some degrees are simply evidence of these two attributes. Others, like an MBA, represent a directly applicable set of domain knowledge that also adds value. All of these reasons are important; although degrees can provide evidence of value, I agree they are not necessarily preconditions of value.

  11. Jesse says:

    In my own circle, I regularly earn more than friends who do have degrees despite only having some technical certifications. This could be dumb luck or an anomaly of the IT world (perhaps some of both), but it certainly underscores that far too much emphasis has been placed on using college to fulfill a need that used to be satisfied with high school. We’re getting about half-way there with the idea of concurrent enrollment, but we still need to better diversify offerings to include more vocational paths.

    As far as diluting the value of a college degree, it’s worth noting that the earnings difference between those with a high school diploma and those with a bachelor’s degree has been shrinking steadily as the market gets flooded with more and more graduates. The same thing pretty much destroyed the MSCE certification during the tech boom of the 90s when there were a lot of people who had the piece of paper and little-to-no knowledge to back it up.

  12. David says:

    Tom,

    You make some good points about how a college degree is generally worth more than the sum of what you studied for your degree. That has to be considered when weighing the value of those degrees.

  13. Reach Upward says:

    Objective studies have called into question the cost-benefit ratio of many types of college degrees. Money Magazine tried to make some sense of it in this article: http://articles.moneycentral.msn.com/CollegeAndFamily/SavingForCollege/IsYourDegreeWorth1million.aspx?page=all . You can also see my 1/22/08 post: http://reachupward.blogspot.com/2008/01/high-degree-of-value.html .

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