17 February 2010


The Economist: Free Exchange | R.A. | Back on tracks

Tracking, the practice of testing students and directing them along different instructional paths based on performance, has long been a dirty word in America. This, despite generally good results from tracking-based educational systems in Europe and positive research results from breaking up students by ability in American experiments. But this seems to be changing, as a rather significant experiment with the structure of secondary education indicates:
In an experiment that could reshape American secondary education, high schools in eight states will introduce new courses next year, along with a battery of tests for sophomores, that will allow students who pass to get a diploma two years early and immediately enroll in community college.

Students who pass but aspire to attend a selective college may continue with college preparatory courses in their junior and senior years, organizers of the new effort said. Students who fail the 10th grade tests, known as board exams, can try again at the end of their 11th and 12th grades. The tests would cover not only English and math but other subjects like science and history.
Hmmm. Without having given it much thought I think this is worth trying.

I'm most interested because it has potential to cut down on wasted time. A lot of the focus when discussing higher education is student loan debt, but that ignores a much more serious problem: opportunity costs of lost wages from spending extra years pursuing a degree in field with minimal earnings benefits.

Another thing that isn't mentioned enough is that there's only a lifetime earning increase from college if you actually get that degree. Pursuing a degree and coming up short is a huge waste of students' time and resources. The fact is that most people in the bottom quartile of their high school classes who go to four year colleges won't have a degree within six years.*

(* It's actually worse than that, according to a Chronicle of Higher Education article by Marty Nemko: "Among college freshmen who graduated in the bottom 40 percent of their high school class, 76 of 100 won't earn a diploma, even if given 8½ years."  For that matter, only 54% of all matriculants have a diploma in hand six years after entering a "four year" school.)

By discussing education in a way that makes a four year liberal arts degree the be-all-and-end-all of education we're only setting those people up for failure. They should be welcome to give it a shot if they want, but I wish our society didn't put so much focus on getting bachelor's degrees.

If programs like the one mentioned above make it easier for kids to have an associates degree in hand when they're 18 or 19 years old we'll be a lot better off. Then they have an entire credential rather than years spent pursuing one in vain, they have a taste of college education so they know better if they can handle a bachelor's program at this point in their life, and if they decide that's not for them then they have extra years of earning potential at their disposal.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I always feels vaguely uncomfortable making arguments like this because I can always hear a voice in the back of my head saying "Oh sure, easy for you to say, guy who already got his bachelor's degree and is in grad school. Of course it doesn't matter to you whether poor kids get a chance to go to college."

First of all, try adressing my argument rather than questioning my motives, annoying guy in the back of my head.

Second, nothing could be further from the truth. I think the mind is the only real natural resource and I want as many of them developed as fully as possible.  Letting potentially productive minds lying fallow only makes me (and all of us) poorer.

Thirdly you'd be surprised how lucrative skilled-but-"uneducated" labor can be, and even more surprised how high job satisfaction can be.  That work definitely isn't for everyone, but compared to the multitudes of people who sleepwalk through generic majors they aren't particularly interested in and which don't confer great job opportunities, and then end up as cubicle farmers in Generic White Collar Job #17, learning high-pressure plumbing may be the better option.

Finally I have seen more than enough of my friends and family members falling into this trap of thinking that the BA is the only acceptable goal. I have one cousin who just turned 26, is still working on his bachelor's and has accumulated no real work experience. I have another who's 22 and only has a year of college credit to his name but also has no work experience because he's spent the last four years drifting in and out of school.  I could go on and on with other examples.

My cousins, and many like them, would have been better off without the societal pressure to go to college.  They'd be better off if they had started learning a skill when they were 18 or 19.

I don't want to prohibit or discourage kids from going to college, but the pendulum  has swung too far towards the supposition that everyone should go to college.  Pushing college enrollment is the new version of pushing people into buying homes.

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