The Opportunity Movement

Devoted to closing the Opportunity Divide

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?…

One response to “What’s Wrong With This Picture?

  1. Sangit Tamang April 15, 2011 at 3:23 am

    Hi Gerald – I felt that you are writing about my situation and my brother, when I first came to US. It is true that I was thinking of working in a restaurant 80 hours perhaps more if we could accomodate more hours in a week. I can’t think of you more for giving me the opportunity and still supporting me with the college. Please write more – Thank you for inspiring us!!!

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