As a veteran of three decades in higher education, with 22 years as a university president, I have long portrayed the U.S. record of failure in public education in our inner cities in terms of two choices.
Either the United States will resolve as a nation to tackle the worst dysfunctions of the public education system and salvage the futures of millions of children with no alternative to imposed failure, or the Department of Justice will need to increase continuously the number of state and federal prisons to handle the vast spectrum of human wreckage that will result within the next generation.
All U.S. primary and secondary education is essentially based on an anachronistic, suburban goal of college admissions. High schools define their success by college placements instead of employable skills. We have a one-size-fits-all mentality in high school education, which does not serve the educational needs of millions of high-risk children.
These are the fundamentals: Children cannot learn if they are hungry, fearful, molested, lack home support or know there is no hope of a job. School districts must have the budgets and personnel to deal with these vexing issues. Our national employment strategy must encourage companies to bring jobs near inner cities. The pressures on college-bound suburban students are AP courses and SAT/ACT scores. The pressure on inner city youth is survival. These two groups are worlds apart.
America must stand up to the dropout challenge now. There are no quick fixes. However, a long-term, well-executed plan to teach employable skills and link qualified youth to jobs will transform blighted inner-city and rural areas — laden with drugs, crime and desperation — into vibrant communities sharing the American dream of opportunity.
What is needed?
In addition to the traditional college-bound curriculum, high schools must offer programs that groom employable students, some of whom will go on to two years of public vocational schools to train for advanced technical sectors where there is employment.
For example, with communication skills and knowledge of basic math and data fundamentals, students can learn data analytics, where the International Data Corporation estimates 181,000 vacancies by 2018. A 2015 MIT Sloan School Study indicated that 40 percent of interviewed companies had shortages of individuals with data analytics skills, and the future looked bleaker for hiring talent. Two-year technical training, coupled with on-the-job learning, can help close the gap.
A 2016 op-ed in Forbes stated that openings for 3 million skilled workers in different fields required a rethinking of higher education. High-demand skill sets include welders, HVAC technicians, carpenters and licensed electricians and plumbers. Future skills for auto mechanics require specialized training with the advent of hybrid and self-driving vehicles already on the road.
How to proceed?
Solutions must be derived at local levels, as the necessary vocational training and job opportunities vary by region. Oversight and goals by region should be set at the state level. Federal funding to the states should be based on plans submitted with implementation milestones and goals for training and job placement. Experienced technicians, either employed or retired, can become qualified teachers as teacher-training programs are repurposed to reach non-college bound youth. Management oversight will need to come from business sectors, as high school principals do not have experience in learning for employable skills. Managers and teachers can be obtained regionally.
Katharine B. Stevens of the American Enterprise Institute, and her colleague, Diane Auer Jones argued brilliantly for such an approach in a 2016 report, especially in Jones’ essay, “Tearing Down Barriers to Expand Postsecondary Education Choices.”
“According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics,” Jones wrote, “over the next decade the occupations that will enjoy the largest growth are predominantly in areas that do not require a traditional four-year college degree.” She further notes that, “Despite $650 billion in annual spending on K–12, the public schools now seem to amplify, rather than diminish, early disadvantage.”
Stevens points out that only 20 percent of low-income eighth graders are proficient in both reading and math. Of African-American eighth graders, 17 percent are proficient in reading and 14 percent in math.
Imagine the transformation in inner-city areas such as in St. Louis, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and Newark, as thousands of youth gain employable skills and find jobs. This is not a pipe dream, but a national priority.
Stevens documents strong public support for early childhood care and education, quoting a 2014 poll from the First Five Years Fund showing 86 percent of respondents said that “ensuring that children get a strong start” is extremely or very important, second only to increasing jobs and economic growth.
“Ninety-seven percent of Democrats, 89 percent of independents, and 87 percent of Republicans said they favor government investments to make early education and child care more affordable.”
The acute severity of the national dropout dilemma requires effective federal, state and regional leadership.
Educational programs in Sweden, Germany and Singapore can serve as models of “trade-school-to-apprenticeship.” Job fairs and advanced co-op-based programs are very exciting concepts that merit large-scale pilot programs to bring employable skills to inner-city youth.
Except among certain entrenched interests who form a hardened “resistance” against any kind of change, it is impossible to argue that our most at-risk student populations are being well-served by the current traditional, college-bound system.
Clearly, there is no shortage of provocative ideas being floated to remedy the decline of inner-city and rural school districts. What is needed now is the will and the leadership to challenge and change the status quo.
If the constant refrain is “no money,” then the retort must be, “Gear up now to spend more money on prisons.”
Harold J. Raveché, Ph.D., is president of Innovation Strategies International and former president of the Stevens Institute of Technology.