Americans are becoming acutely aware of our high schools' failings. Recent media exposure and fresh data (see here) have shown almost 30 percent of students leave high school without a diploma. To put it bluntly, one third of American students drop out.
Nobody disputes that the situation is untenable. (Well, except for these folks.) Yet, the dismal dropout percentage has remained relatively steady since the 1970s. That 30 percent of students don't receive high school diplomas is unacceptable, but it's even worse that education leaders have been unable, or unwilling, to do much about it. Many school reformers say that every child in America's schools can and should go to college, and that American K-12 education should focus exclusively on pushing students toward the university. To their credit, others have embraced initiatives such as the American Diploma Project, which strives to prepare graduates for college and work (and which the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation helped to launch; see here). But initiatives such as ADP do not go far enough to keep high-risk American students in school.
To be clear, the push toward college should indeed be the major force in American public education. Higher education is worthwhile on many levels. Those who undertake post-secondary education, besides gaining unquantifiable satisfaction and benefits, also open for themselves a wider spectrum of career options.
But it's not enough. When 30 percent of young adults choose to drop out, is it fair to stay firmly entrenched in this College-or-Bust mindset?
No, it isn't. One way to emerge from such stasis is by embracing school choice systems in which parents and students can select from a wide variety of high schools that offer a range of curriculum options (see here, for example). Meanwhile, we should concentrate on offering programs within the traditional high schools that educate the vast majority of America's students, including approaches to learning that tap the world of work. College-prep is not the only worthwhile track.
Yes, it's increasingly difficult to land a good job without a college diploma. But that's not because college is an educational panacea; it's because high schools are such educational wastelands. Almost anyone has the academic ability to graduate high school with ease. A recent Gates Foundation report that surveyed dropouts found 88 percent of them had passing grades before they quit. These dropouts didn't stop attending class because they struggled with coursework. Most stopped attending class because they were bored with their default high school curricula.
One can easily understand why, when confronted with a daily routine both insufferable and irrelevant, so many students decide to stop attending school. We can solve this problem partly by making courses more academically challenging, starting in the elementary grades. But increased rigor by itself is not enough; it must be coupled with increased relevance, and that means allowing a new kind of vocational education to play a prominent role in today's American high schools.
These programs-now known as career and technical education (CTE)-already exist, although they are not nearly as wide spread as they should be. They have a variety of critics, too, ranging from those who believe CTE will dissuade minority students from college, to those who think tough academics will be sacrificed for quick jobs. But when run well, CTE has demonstrated an ability to keep young men and women from dropping out by providing in their educations relevance, ownership, and purpose that would not otherwise exist, while still building key academic skills.
Take, for example, the Career Academies-small schools, generally housed within larger schools, that teach traditional academics as well as career-oriented skills. The Academies give their students significant work experience and maintain strong ties to outside employers. A recent evaluation found that Career Academies students did no better or worse academically than a control group, but over a four-year follow up period, the students from the Academies earned 10 percent-higher post-school wages. Students with a high-risk of dropping out who enrolled in the Academies were more likely to finish school, too. Another study, this one by James Kulik, found that high-risk students are 8 to 10 times less likely to drop out of high school in the eleventh and twelfth grades if they enroll in a CTE program instead of a general curriculum.
The worry remains, though, that lower-performing and minority students will be ignored by their teachers and tracked for CTE. But by maintaining rigorous coursework, and by not beginning CTE tracking until the tenth or eleventh grade, this fear is alleviated. Students will have to perform academically, regardless of their personal tracking choices. But high-quality CTE imbues that hard coursework with a purpose, and it gives students a practical reason to buckle down in math, science, and history class. And recent research shows that CTE students are just as likely to go on to college as those who enroll in regular curricula.
Perhaps CTE's most important contribution is that it teaches students the character lessons that K-12 education should, but doesn't. By allowing young men and women to exercise some choice in their public school education, and by giving them a clear and demanding plan for success, CTE can instill personal responsibility and personal pride-values sorely missing in the hallways of most American high schools-in its students.
The key to our nation's success won't come from channeling an indiscriminate mass of students along one track toward college, especially when we lose 30 percent of them along the way. It will come by combining demanding academics with other educational opportunities, and by creating a class of high school graduates who leave with skills to succeed both in a technical job and in the realm of higher education. It will come by graduating classes of students who have something invested in their own success, and who arrive in the world with a vision and the know-how to achieve it.