I am going to say it loud and proud: as a teacher of young people who come out of disadvantaged neighborhoods, I am Pro-Choice and Pro-Life, but not in the way these terms usually get thrown around.
Yesterday, I read an article in Slate by an ed policy expert named Michael J. Petrilli. It’s called “College Isn’t for Everyone“, and the premise of the piece is that there should be a viable option for students who decide college is not for them and who instead want technical training of some kind. Allowing for this choice, as Mr. Petrilli points out, is a “sin” for those of us who side with the “reform” movement because it smacks of tracking students the way other countries do. In other words, it separates people into categories: college-bound on the one hand, vocational school on the other, which translates to richer (and usually whiter) on one track and poorer on the other. I will admit that the first time I read the article, as is true whenever I hear or read Mr. Petrilli on education, I felt my pulse start to rise. If you stop to think that vocational school grads will almost assuredly make less than college grads, you can see how this ends up: the poor stay poor and the rich get richer. It’s an even harder pill to swallow when you add race into it since many of our poorest are also people of color.
And yet I keep reading the article over and again.
I don’t agree with a lot of Mr. Petrilli’s assumptions because he does not see the problem from the bottom up. I don’t know if he has ever taught, but his point of view makes me think he’s a career policy person first and foremost. Nothing wrong with that. I think he is thinking hard about a very hard topic, and he is trying to be fair. For example, he thinks that Pell money should be allowed to go toward work training programs, and not just to schools. You could say that when it comes to education, Mr. Petrilli, Conservative that he seems to be, is Pro-Choice in educational terms. He really wants vocational training to be an option for the student who just does not want to go to college.
He’s got a point. I am a big fan of community colleges–public community colleges to be clear–but they should not be the only places where training happens. I live in California, a state that has some incredible CC’s, but I also have students who don’t and won’t go to them because they are schools, and for these students and others like them, school is awful and a waste of time. Also, they can’t get paid for taking classes. So, yes, Mr. Petriilli, I agree that getting training at a real work place and getting a check for it would be incredible for a lot of young people, and if we can get some federal money to make this happen, why not? Perhaps, somewhat ironically, this may provide some young people with more incentive to go to school later because with some money in their pockets and some skills in their person, they might come to realize that they can do even more with their lives. Success begets success.
One of the things you learn fast when you work with students who did not get through high school is that many were not supported in the process. I am not blaming parents here. Nor am I blaming schools. Let’s try something novel and not blame anyone. Let’s be pragmatic and just fix the problem. What is the fix for people who were not supported in their young lives? You ask. Simple: give them support as young adults. A paycheck, some training, and most importantly, a mentor, can and will make a lot of these young people feel good about themselves–maybe for the first time. That good feeling, I would argue, will make many of these students feel like they can take on more challenges. What kind of challenges? You ask.
I could get behind this Pro-Choice thing that Mr. Petriili is pushing in his article as long as it is a choice. Yes, I want to get young people into college one way or another, I will admit it. I am a teacher. It is in my DNA. But Mr. Petrilli is right. Not everyone will go there. Still, it needs to be a choice, a true and informed choice. Not a default response by a 17 year-old who thinks he hates school because he had a crap time there, because the school he went to was overcrowded and because no one paid him enough attention. But by a young person in his 20s who has gained some skills through a work program and has some money in his pocket. If, at that point, this student decides it’s a no-go on the college thing, fine. Vaya con Dios.
But before we get that student to that point in which he is ready to make this decision, we need to face a reality about the nature of education. What I am about to say, I know, will bar me from ever going for public office, but here it goes. Ready? Education is not and SHOULD NOT be efficient–at least not in the way industry should be. It should not strive for ROI (returns on investment). It should not strive for metrics. This does not mean I think we should have a free-for-all in our classrooms. This means that there is no one solution to this problem. Or, to put it more accurately: there are as many solutions as there are students, and it is up to educators to keep beating our heads against a wall to find that solution for each of the students we encounter. We know this and we do this for some in our society. Wealthy students who go to good schools have armies of specialists who help them make their decisions about their futures after high school. Poor kids get one over-worked counselor–maybe. So, fine, let students decide to get training and work experience before college, but let’s also get some mentoring going at these work programs to make sure that this is the right choice.
I’m sure that Liberals will agree with my Pro-Choice stance, but Conservative readers (do I have any?) listen up. This might interest you. When educating our poor, we also need to be Pro-Life, as well. And this is where I fundamentally disagree with Mr. Petrilli. It’s not just that students should be given the opportunity to be fully informed in their decisions for post-high school life, we need to push them beyond what they think they can do, and we need to keep pushing and keep pushing and not give up until we know the student.
I tend to think of education as being in line with service, a “calling” to put in traditionally religious terms. And we teachers, whether we use these terms or not, need to think of young people as our flock. Now, can you imagine a pastor who looks at his church and says, yeah, that Joe-guy, he wants to sin. I’ll let him. Because what can I do?That would be one loser of a pastor.
I think it’s interesting that Mr. Petrilli uses religious language when describing how “reformers” of education think giving up on a student is a sin. I tend to agree, but the question is why. If you are a teacher, you are not supposed to give up on your students. Not ever. That’s the gig, because even the best of student needs to be pushed.
I don’t know about you, but I’d call this a genuine Pro-Life position. We must be for giving our poor students lives that are just as full of opportunity as those of our well-off students. In his article, Mr. Petrilli points out a statistic: “10 percent of poor children now graduate with a four-year college degree.” He goes on to say that we should work to remedy this problem. I agree. He says that even if we triple the number of graduates, “two-thirds or more of low-income youngsters [are left] needing another path if they’re truly going to access the middle class.” He thinks this is not a good return, and I get the point. 33% is not great on the face of it. But here’s the thing: that’s a heck of a lot better than you would get if you just went along the easy path and let those students go the vocational route without a fight. The goal of the educator must not be perfection. It must be to push students to do what they thought impossible before they entered your class. This is, yes I will use the F-word here–faith in things unseen, which my people, is the definition of faith itself. And guess what? The odds are against success.
But then again, who is to say that among that 33% of the population we won’t have leaders who will model behavior for up-and-coming generations, which could then, make for more successes. Who is to say that that that one-third of the population won’t help the other two-thirds because they know first-hand what it is like to get a boost? And even if none of that happens? Who thinks it’s a good idea to tell our poor (and more often than not, our minority) students that it’s cool if they pick a path for themselves that will most assuredly keep them poorer than white counterparts. Even if you don’t buy that accepting this is not Pro-Life, then think of it this way: it’s anti-American.
Let me be clear: I want to restate my agreement with Mr. Petrilli that we need to make vocational school an option for people. Remember, I am Pro-Choice about education, just like Mr. Petrilli is. The problem is that what Mr. Petrilli argues for does not really provide a choice for a lot of students of color. Let’s not lose track of the fact that many of our poor are also black and Latino. It is vital that we not throw in the towel and give in to the allure of the easier fix. The fight is enormous, and teachers have and always will lose the battle, but they will not lose the war if they keep pushing our under-served black and brown students towards more than just the minimum, even if that means that only 33% get over the hump.
Mr. Petrilli, I agree with you that we need to be Pro-Choice. But let’s also be Pro-Life and make sure that all of our young people are pushed and pushed until we can push them no more. Let’s not create a system that allows (and vaguely encourages) poor students (many of color) to opt out of a path that puts them on equal footing with their wealthy (mainly white) counterparts. This is the only way we can make sure that we are creating social equity in education.