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Evaluating High Schools Through One Lens Only

As pressure has mounted to hold public schools accountable for their performance, it was inevitable that traditional yardsticks would no longer be adequate to satisfy the demand. That's why it comes as no surprise what New York City is doing to hold its schools' feet to the fire ("Schools Are Given a Grade on How Graduates Do," Aug. 10).

Rather than rely almost exclusively on the percentage of students who earn a high school diploma as a sign of success, the New York City Department of Education now demands to know how many of these students are prepared for college. It is a totally predictable but absolutely wrongheaded strategy.

There are simply too many students who have neither the desire nor ability to continue their education beyond high school. As I've often written before, these students are not failures by any means. Many of them have unusual talents that manifest themselves in other than a school setting. By refusing to acknowledge their worth, we do them a terrible disservice. What we are saying to these students in effect is that they have no future.

Why New York City - with other districts likely to follow - refuses to get real is hard to understand. But the obsession with college is like a virus that indiscriminately infects. There are many jobs that pay well, cannot be offshored, and provide personal satisfaction without the need of a sheepskin. Moreover, students who opt for these jobs are not saddled with crushing debt - no small consideration these days.

Sue Shellenbarger, who writes The Work & Family column for the Wall Street Journal, answered a reader's question on Aug. 11 about careers that require only a two-year degree or apprenticeship to get started ("Careers That Require Only Two-Year Degrees"). She cited jobs that are expected to show the greatest growth in the next decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By doing so, Shellenbargar helped to challenge the mantra about the need for a four-year degree.

So I have a suggestion. Instead of focusing on whether high schools have prepared their graduates solely for college, why not broaden the inquiry into determining whether high schools have also prepared their graduates for the workplace? After all, if the latter is a choice that graduates willingly make, don't high schools deserve credit for their part in that arena as well?

To assure that non-college- bound students are well served, it's high time to look more closely at career and technical education. High schools could arrange apprenticeships with local employers, and then track the performance of their placements both before and after graduation to compile evidence to demonstrate accountability.

As Charles Murray wrote in Real Education (Crown Forum, 2008), more than 90 percent of high school students said that their guidance counselors encouraged them to go to college. But on what basis? Vocational education deserves the same respect and status that academic education reflexively receives. Instead, the U.S. stigmatizes it. The irony, of course, is that many of those with a four-year liberal arts degree in their hands will be standing on the unemployment line while their vocationally trained counterparts will be cashing their checks at the bank.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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