Tuesday, January 12, 2010

What's Wrong With Education Today?

I was looking at this graphic in this census bureau document when something occurred to me. In 1947, about 33% of the population over 25 had graduated from high school. That most likely means that the smartest third of the U.S. worked hard and stayed in school long enough to graduate.

So, let's say we want to improve the graduation rate to 50%. That means we are picking from the 2/3 of the population that couldn't do it before. So let's say we do it. We improve our graduation rate to 50% like we did in 1970. Maybe some of the kids had potential and we just didn't see it before. Be that as it may, we did it. The first third of the population was the low hanging fruit. Now we have reached the upper half--we have graduated the people who are above average.

Now let's say we want to improve our graduation rate to 67%, as we did about 1980. That means the next group of people contains the people who weren't capable in the first two rounds. These ones will be tougher. They will come to school with problems--problems at home, learning disabilities, you name it. Do you think there is a possibility that the last person in this group--the lowest person in the 67%--will realistically be able to complete the same graduation requirements the first third was able to complete in 1947? I doubt it. So how do we get them to graduate? We lower the standards.

Now let's say we want to improve the graduation rate to about 80%, as it is today. We now have to include all of the people who couldn't even make it in to the first three groups. Now we are dealing with even more serious problems. But we need to get them to graduate. So what do we do? We lower the standards some more.

Think about it. If 80% of the population is graduating, that means the standard can't be very high. Look around you. Look in traffic. If 80% of the population is graduating, the standard can't be very high. Now we have the feds talking about raising standards. This sounds great, but the reason we are graduating so many people is that we have lowered the standards. If we raise standards, we must be prepared to graduate fewer people. Right?

According to a NY Times article, that's not so. It says, "the real revolution, tucked away in the Race to the Top guidelines released by the Department of Education last month, is that high school has a new mission. No longer is it enough just to graduate students, or even prepare them for college. Schools must now show how they increase both college enrollment and the number of students who complete at least a year of college. In other words, high schools must now focus on grade 13."

Now we need to increase college enrollment? That sounds fine, until you look at that data. In 1950, 6% of the population had graduated from college. Now let's look at the modern rate. If college graduation rose at the same rate high school graduation had over the same period, then the current college graduation rate would be about 15%, reflecting that high school graduation had risen about two and a half times, from 33% to 80%. But, according to this census publication, college graduation rates are almost at 25% now. That's right--one in four people you meet over 25 has graduated from college.

Let me put it another way. In 1940, 24.5% of the population had graduated from high school. In 2000, 24.4% of the population had graduated from college.

What that says to me is that a high school diploma in 1940 is roughly the equivalent, difficulty wise, of a bachelor's degree in 2000.

Should we raise standards? Damn right we should! But we'd better be prepared for a plunge in the graduation rate. Maybe then we could get some real education reform. We could stop pretending that every student is cut out for middle management, and start preparing more of our students for the REAL good paying jobs. What are those jobs? Anybody paid a plumber lately? An electrician? A roofer? And don't forget, these are jobs that can't be outsourced. Nobody in India is going to unplug my toilet.

Really, the issue is that our schools now emphasize only one type of intelligence: verbal/mathematical. We make kids feel dumb if they can't do algebra or write an essay. Hell, my stepdad couldn't do either of those things, but he could fix anything--ANYTHING. Does that mean he's not intelligent? Nope. Did four years of high school do him any good? Not really. Could he have spent those four years learning how to be employable in a trade instead of trying to solve differential equations? Yes, and I can't wait for the day when young men like him get that chance.


Anonymous said...

I 100% agree. Do we not have a vocational high school in spokane?

I remember growing up we had one. you could choose which high school to go to as both were public schools. I had a few friends that went to the vocational high school. Still keep in touch with them via facebook. Neither of them went to college. One installs lights in high end homes and the other one is a builder.

The light fixture guy makes about 80,000 a year but now owns 25% of the store he works out of... he will someday own 100% of the store that downs 1.8 million in annual sales.

My builder friend assuming he didnt loss his shirt during this bubble is worth millions. He simply bought a beat up building in south boston for 275,000. Fixed it up and made it into 3 condos. Each sold for 1.5 mil.

I wonder what would have happened if either guy went to my high school.


Moe said...

I'm a little slow getting around to reading this. You make some very valid points that I totally agree with. However, one thing I didn't see you take into account was the much higher number of people in farm labor in the 40s. I believe part of the reason the grad rate was so much lower back then was because people quit school to work on the family farm. I'm sure not all of them were capable of graduating, but I bet many more were quite capable. Thoughts?

Eric said...

Maybe that would bump it up a bit, but let's even consider the GI Bill. After the war, soldiers were going back to school at an unprecedented rate. So, by, say, 1955, we might have maxed out most of the people who wanted to our could go to school. In 1955, the grad rate was still at about 40%.

Also, according to agclassroom.org, in 1950, 12% of the workforce was farm labor, whereas it's about 2% now. So maybe farm labor might have brought the percentage down 10%. Significant, but not TOO significant.

Chris said...

Another reason for the general rise in these graduation rates is the types of good paying jobs that are now available. A much higher percentage of them require education beyond high school. The working world is a much different place than it was 50 years ago.

Anonymous said...

Great article and I agree with most of it. Maybe I'm in the minority here, and perhaps I could even be considered prejudice, but I wouldn't hire a plumber, electrician, roofer, etc. if he did not possess decent verbal communication skills. Does this mean a student has to master a 10 page research paper? No, but it does require some mastery over the English language that a pure vocational school might not provide. Just a thought.