The Opportunity Movement

Devoted to closing the Opportunity Divide

Monthly Archives: March 2011

Bending Towards Justice

As some of you may know, each year thousands of young adults from across the country apply for one of the most competitive and coveted internship programs in the nation – a White House internship.  There are only 140 spots available and each applicant goes through a rigorous application process that makes getting into an Ivy League college seem like a piece of cake.   I am told that the essays are judged for grammar, and that each applicant is assessed against their commitment to public service and their leadership potential.  Most of the applicants come from elite academic institutions and my guess is that they are not short on support to help raise their profiles amidst the fray.  I could imagine helping my own son or daughter find just the right adjective to spice up their essay to differentiate it from the rest.  I could also imagine combing through my contacts file to see if I knew anyone who could advise us on the best way to win this brass ring for the little Chertavians.  Well, I am pleased to say that two of Year Up’s students stepped up to the plate and grabbed that brass ring for themselves.   They competed and beat thousands of other applicants on their merit, and earned the opportunity to serve their country as White House interns.   Like all of the young adults that we have had the honor to serve over the past decade, we know that they are the true assets in our society, and our goal must be to provide them with the access and opportunity that they deserve.  It is ultimately a self-motivated goal, for we need their talent and leadership to ensure that our country remains competitive and our standard of living continues to rise.

Last week, Year Up had its Board meeting in the nation’s capital at the Year Up National Capital Region (NCR) site.  We were honored to receive a tour of the White House by…..drum roll please….these two Year Up students.   What an inspiration!  With security badges fluttering in the breeze, our two students deftly guided us forward amidst the metal detectors and security officers.  Think of the circle that this represents.  From a founding class of twenty-two students on the 5th floor of a Boston brownstone to being hosted by two of our wonderful students as we walked through the rooms of the most influential building in the world.  Dr. King once said that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.  On this day, I could feel it bend….just a little, but it did bend.

As we walked through the rooms of the White House, I was reminded that until very recently all of the faces on the walls were of one color.  That is no longer the case, and whatever your politics may be, we are a better nation as a result.  I wondered how our two interns – both African American, both from very low-income backgrounds – felt as they walked alongside our Board members, and listened with us to the stories of our nation’s founders.  I am hopeful that they felt that the American Dream was not a dream but a reality; a reality for them to grasp and to enjoy.  I wholly recognize that two students do not change a country, and this small bend in the “arc of the moral universe” may well be imperceptible, although as long as we keep walking, as long as we keep bending, we have hope, and with hope we have a future.

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

How could we design, fund, and promote an educational system where the standards to graduate from high school are significantly less than the standards needed to succeed in a career or college?  If you explained this situation to a foreign visitor who had stepped for the first time into the American higher education system, they would look at you as if you had two heads.

Foreign visitor: Let me understand this correctly….your educational system is divided into two separate educational systems where the exit gates for one don’t align with the entry gates for the next?  And if you don’t want to go to college, you really aren’t prepared to do anything other than work 80 hours a week at minimum wage just to feed yourself and your family.  Come on– you can’t tell me that with a straight face.   Was it always like this in America?

US host: Well, for a whole bunch of years – centuries, in fact – our high school system did just what it was supposed to do: send about 20% of its students to college so that they could become professionals, businessmen, thinkers and the like.  Everyone else did just fine working with their hands, and working for the folks who did go to college.  Everyone was kind of happy, I guess.  But, this darn economy changed so fast.  Now, everyone – and I mean everyone – needs to get an education beyond high school.  And the jobs that pay decent money all require a set of pretty complex skills that our young people just aren’t learning in high school.   Our educational system just hasn’t kept pace and, in fact, other countries are starting to better prepare their young people for this new reality.

Foreign visitor: So what are you folks going to do?

US host:  Well, the first thing we have to do is to confront the cold hard facts: The average age of a Bachelors of Arts degree is 28 years old, and only 8 out of 100 American adults have a college degree that they received between the ages of 18 and 22.  Quite simply, we have to stop thinking that going to college at 18, graduating at 22 and then going to work – in a linear, monolithic fashion – is the only way that our citizens will get into the economic mainstream of our country.

Foreign visitor: OK, OK.  I get the basic argument.  So, what are you going to do?

US host: Well, there really are three things we have to do: 1) High schools need to better prepare our youth for both college and 21st century careers, period.  We can’t continue to graduate students from high school and not have them be ready to succeed in either post-secondary education or a livable wage job.  Traditional high schools need to take a good long look at how they provide work readiness skills, career exploration and career guidance; 2) everyone needs to get a post-secondary education, and there needs to be multiple pathways to get this education.  The end goals have not changed (i.e. a college degree,) although there needs to be new pathways to accommodate a much wider set of educational and economic needs.  Finally, 3) we have to better connect our educational system with the skills that our employers need, both today and tomorrow.   If employers don’t do this, they will have to start taking on the job of educating their future employees themselves.  Community colleges and employers should be walking in lockstep and four-year colleges should get off their academic high horses and recognize that the new liberal arts involve technical and financial literacy as well as teamwork, complex communications and cultural competency.

Foreign visitor: Last question.  Can you do it?

US host: Well, the stakes are low….just little things like our global competitiveness and our overall standard of living.   Hmmm… Did I just say that?…

Knowledge Based Vocational Education….it ain’t your Mother’s Voc Ed!

After ten years of trying my best to articulate the changes that are needed in our nation’s educational system, I could not be more excited to read the excellent report (Pathways to Prosperity) that was just published by Bob Schwartz and Ron Ferguson, both of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. I almost strained my neck nodding to their arguments as I read, wondering when this point of view will become more mainstream…which it will. Just you wait. The tectonic plates have shifted, and to deny the new reality of what our labor market needs (and how we can accommodate those needs) is to hurt our nation’s young adults and consign our country to a position of decreased competitiveness. Sound alarmist? It ain’t!

“Pathways” goes to the heart of the changes that are needed in our post-secondary educational system – to create more opportunities for young adults to gain the skills, experiences and support that they need to obtain livable wage jobs in the 21st century economy. The authors not only present a compelling set of facts, but they also look abroad to those places that don’t ascribe a lower societal value to vocational education. They also address the very real concerns that many have about introducing any battle cry other than “4 year college for all”.

It sounds like heresy, I know, that not everyone needs to get a 4 year college degree and maybe, just maybe, there is real value in occupational certificates, apprenticeships, work-based learning and career-linked associates degrees. Worse, critics will tell you that such efforts will lead us down a path of tracking students into those who are college material and those who are not. However, here’s the reality: In today’s labor market, everyone has to be college…or rather, post-secondary…material. There is no other option. But, we have to let go of the idea that there is one- and only one- acceptable, valuable, indeed honorable, concept of what college is. College is not a fixed idea, much as the traditional camps would love to think. Nor is our current view of college the right one for today’s economy and labor market. We have to shift our thinking to a broader view of post-secondary education. One which does not close options but expands them. One which does not track students, but enables many with an unprecedented level of access, opportunity and upward mobility.

Although for many years I have felt like that lone tree in the woods falling on deaf ears, it is heartening to see the well argued and presented words of our friends in Cambridge. Somehow I think more people will now be listening….

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