The Inadvertent Bigotry of Inappropriate Expectations (Chris Myers Asch)

Chris Myers Asch teaches history at the University of the District of Columbia and coordinates UDC’s National Center for Urban Education. This commentary appeared in Education Week, June 16, 2010.

  Several years ago, I took a group of low-income middle school students to a motivational talk at a local university. A dynamic young professor encouraged them not to settle for anything but the best. After the presentation, he asked the students what they wanted to be when they grew up. One of our girls (I will call her Shanika) answered excitedly, “Nurse!”

“Nurse?” the professor asked, disappointed. “How about doctor? Don’t you want to shoot high?”

Shanika’s face fell. Though I sympathized with the professor’s intended message, I was incensed. Not only was he wrong on a practical level—this country faces a serious nurse shortage—but he exemplified the haughty disdain with which many educators and policymakers view careers that do not require a bachelor’s or advanced degree. Shanika did not need to hear that her dreams were not up to snuff. Unfortunately, that is a message students hear all too often in our college-obsessed culture.

I thought of Shanika as I read about President Barack Obama’s new plan to overhaul the No Child Left Behind law—the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—that has driven school reform for the past eight years. Dismissing as “utopian” the Bush administration’s goal of having all students be “proficient” by 2014, the Obama “blueprint for reform” advocates an ostensibly more realistic goal of having every high school graduate be “college- and career-ready.”

The blueprint represents an important revision of current law. As someone who founded and ran a college-prep enrichment program for at-risk secondary school students, I appreciate and applaud the administration’s effort to raise expectations and encourage students to go to college. But I also recognize the potentially distorting effects that our college obsession can create, and the blueprint only feeds this obsession. “College- and career-ready” may be the new catchphrase, but the emphasis is all on the “college” part—the proposal all but ignores alternatives to college.

This is shortsighted because, simply put, some students should not go to college, or at least not a four-year college.

‘College- and career-ready’ may be the new catchphrase, but the emphasis is all on the ‘college’ part.

I know, I know. Writing that sentence can incite the wrath of the “achievement police,” the legions of self-appointed guardians of high expectations (and, I confess, I have at times been an officer in this force myself). To even broach the idea that some students may not be suited for a four-year college degree can invite scornful accusations that one is perpetuating, in George W. Bush’s memorable phrase, “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

We have so effectively pushed the notion that “success equals college” that other options, such as vocational education, seem horribly limiting and even discriminatory. But college prep has become a one-size-fits-all approach to secondary education, and some students simply do not fit. Though it may be difficult to conceive for the highly educated professionals who devise curricula and policies, college is not always the best choice for students whose interests and skills lend themselves to trades rather than a college degree.

Frustrated or bored within a college-prep curriculum, many of these kids may wind up dropping out of school, contributing to a dropout crisis that has claimed more than 6 million young people ages 16 to 24. Once they drop out, their chances of future economic stability decrease markedly. The Center for Labor Market Studies estimates that dropouts earn less than half as much annually as high school graduates do. Lacking real skills and the confidence that accompanies them, these young people often turn later to trade schools and for-profit colleges, racking up extraordinary debt in order to compensate for their lack of preparation for the real world.

Young people should have a variety of good options. Alongside a challenging college-prep curriculum, our schools should offer more rigorous and relevant vocational education programs and apprenticeships that build on students’ interests and help them develop real-world skills that will give them an economic foothold after graduation. We should bolster partnerships with nonprofit organizations and businesses that agree to provide training and development while students earn their high school diplomas. And we should not, as many educators do, discourage students from pursuing military careers.

As a nation, we need young people to become skilled carpenters, electricians, lab technicians, nurse practitioners, and drill sergeants—certainly more than we need the corporate lawyers, policy analysts, and consultants that our universities pump out each year.

By pushing college to the exclusion of other options, we indulge in what might be called “the inadvertent bigotry of inappropriate expectations.” If we are not careful, we can send a subtle message to students who fail to live up to those expectations: “You’re not good enough.” And that can be as dispiriting and discouraging as “You’re no good.”

6 Comments

Filed under Reforming schools

6 responses to “The Inadvertent Bigotry of Inappropriate Expectations (Chris Myers Asch)

  1. In my experience, this conversation usually leads down an unproductive path: should we *prepare* all students for college, even if they will not all attend college? It’s unproductive because the underlying question concerns the cognitive consequences of such preparation and the likely transfer of the knowledge and skills to other domains. I myself think it’s a good bet (or a better bet than the other options) but there’s not good evidence on either side of the question.

    • larrycuban

      For me, Dan, “the cognitive consequences of such preparation and the likely transfer of the knowledge and skills to other domains” may be the “underlying question” for psychologists but it is not the fundamental one that policymakers–whose eyes are fixed on short-term political ends not research findings or issues of transfer of learning–ask. Knowing that upward mobility is in the DNA of Americans, they ask: why shouldn’t “everyone goes to college?” Such a question with a self-evident answer has high octane appeal to middle-class and poor parents who want equitable treatment and are fed a steady diet of data about higher life-time earnings accruing to those with college degrees. As Chris Myers Asch, Mike Rose, Jim Kemble and many, many others (including myself) have pointed out there are viable alternatives to college prep that need not repeat the historical failures of conventional vocational education–ranging from career tech academies to Big Picture schools to in-school alternatives that have sprouted across the country. Is there solid evidence that these alternatives to “everyone goes to college” will overcome the “transfer” issue you raise? Nope. But recognizing that one-size-fits-all, i.e., everyone goes to college, can be as damaging to children and youth as was the “one best system” age-graded school of the 19th and 20th century is the first step.

  2. Cal

    Could someone give a good link on the “transfer” issue? I googled “transfer of learning” and if I understand it (and if that’s the right google), Dan is saying that if we don’t prepare everyone for college, then the students who aren’t prepared will have negative “cognitive consequences” and not be able to transfer that additional knowledge and skills to other domains? But Dan is also saying that there’s no real evidence either way, although he thinks it’s a good bet (that the knowledge does transfer, and thus we should prepare all kids for college). And I’m off on that, then I did the wrong google and I need a link. (And by the way, Larry, how come really excellent ed schools don’t have classes on this, rather than the largely pointless Adolescent Development–pace a certain faculty sponsor?)

    I thought that was an excellent essay. I would go even further, though, and point out that we need garbage collectors, hospital orderlies, hotel maids, janitors, and 7-11 store clerks. Is it belittling to say that some of our students are best suited for relatively low skilled jobs, and not necessarily the highly-skilled trade jobs?

    Many, many jobs need nothing more than 8th grade literacy and math skills, if that. But so what? There’s plenty of content we can teach at 8th grade level: interesting content that would make students feel they were learning something relevant and meaningful–or at the very least, manageable.

    But in the meanwhile, we’re just ignoring cognitive ability as a factor in the ability to learn college level material. And then, when we fail to prepare everyone for college, someone must be blamed–and for the past 10 years, we’ve blamed the teachers.

    • larrycuban

      Cal,
      I do not have a suggestion for an article on the age-old problem of “transfer of learning.” I bet if you emailed Dan Willingham at UVA, he might help out.

  3. @Larry: I think of it as a transfer issue because the argument I have hear in favor of college prep for all is this: we don’t expect that everyone will go to college, but a college prep curriculum is good for *all types* of careers, including janitors, et al. This is what I meant by transfer–that the assumption here is that students are learning very general skills & perhaps habits of mind that will put them in good stead in later life, no matter the career they pursue. And I have no idea whether that’s right. It feels like it might be, but it’s no more than a hunch on my part. Larry, I didn’t know you had written on alternatives–would be grateful for a link or two.
    @Cal: transfer covers most areas of basic and applied research: transfer of problem solving, perceptual learning, management training, motor skill, etc. So I don’t think there’s a comprehensive review. In the kind of stuff we care most about in schooling–critical thinking, problem solving–the literature tends to show a lot of specificity of learning, i.e., poor transfer. But there’s got to be *some* transfer of learning–we do get more resourceful in solving unfamiliar problems as we get older.

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