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How to Commit Educational Suicide

No matter how compelling the evidence to the contrary, reformers persist in the fiction that a college-preparatory curriculum is the best way to prepare students for the future. By refusing to acknowledge reality, they are doing a terrible disservice to countless students whose talents and interests lie elsewhere. In the process, they're aiding and abetting educational suicide.

The Los Angeles Unified School District is the prime offender in this regard. Beginning in the fall, all students will be required to take and pass a college-prep course of study designed for admission to a four-year state university ("All L.A. Unified students must pass college-prep courses," Los Angeles Times, May 9). The rationale for the change was Supt. John Deasy's remarks: "This is all about a kid's civil rights. This is responding to the demands of the community for a meaningful, robust diploma. This is about making sure kids are competitive in the workforce. What does it say about us if we don't attempt to do this for all students?"

I'm all for creating community confidence in the value of a high school diploma. But why does it have to be based only on an academic curriculum? Why can't it also be based on a vocational curriculum? The truth is that thousands of graduates from four-year colleges and universities are not only unemployed but also likely unemployable. As Bret Stephens of The Wall Street Journal wrote in an acerbic essay: "Through exertions that - let's be honest - were probably less than heroic, most of you have spent the last few years getting inflated grades in useless subjects in order to obtain a debased degree" ("Stephens: To the Class of 2012," The Wall Street Journal, May 7).

What Stephens is saying in his hyperbolic way is that a four-year degree is no assurance that students have developed critical thinking skills, which are the sine qua non of a college education. I've seen this often enough myself in discussions with recent college graduates. In contrast, I've been extremely impressed by the ability of tradesmen to analyze a problem and take the necessary steps to correct it in the most efficient way. If the goal of tertiary education is to develop the wherewithal for success in the real world, then the latter win hands down over the former.

You'd think the LAUSD would have learned from its own experience about the harm of forcing all students into a college-track curriculum. In 2003, the LAUSD Board of Education approved tougher graduation requirements. The single requirement that was an unmitigated fiasco was algebra. According to then Supt. Roy Romer, it triggered more dropouts than any other subject. Nevertheless, oblivious lawmakers in Sacramento made algebra a statewide graduation requirement beginning in 2004. The rationale was that algebra can mean the difference between menial work and high-level careers.

I don't doubt that algebra is useful for non-academic careers. But the way it is taught in high schools is far more abstract than is necessary for success in those fields. In 2006, the Los Angeles Times decided to look into the impact that the new graduation requirements had on students. It focused on what it considered a typical high school in the suburban San Fernando Valley ("Back to Basics: Why Does High School Fail So Many?" Jan. 29, 2006). The Times reported that the high school had lost more than half of the students in the Class of 2005 who should have graduated.

We can continue in the delusion that college is for everyone and that without a four-year degree students have a bleak future. But we better be ready to accept the consequences. Not only have too many students majored in subjects of no importance to employers, but they have also saddled themselves with debt that cannot be discharged even through personal bankruptcy. That's what I call committing educational suicide.

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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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