Why college and career readiness is overrated

Why college and career readiness is overrated

This notion that the primary function of school is to prepare youths for making solid incomes is a relatively new concept–and maybe, in spite of mass acceptance–it’s not the central idea behind public education after all.

Early next month, the California State Board of Education will be convening and a major topic on its agenda will be determining, once and for all, how to go about measuring college and career readiness as one of the statewide accountability indicators for school effeteness.

Nationwide, the Every Student Succeeds Act suggests “postsecondary readiness” as one variable that can be included to assess student performance. 

With educational trends, it is difficult to trace the origins of particular movements, but this one was certainly boosted by President Obama in his 2013 state of the union address when he proclaimed “Tonight, I’m announcing a new challenge to redesign America’s high schools so they better equip graduates for the demands of a high-tech economy.” Now everybody is on board with it and the topic is hotter in educational circles than a discussion about a campus dress code at a PTA meeting.

Like the unachievable goals of No Child Left Behind and high stakes testing, setting up schools to be fountainheads of a flourishing economy is a fool’s–or maybe a dunce’s–errand. Success in adult life is contingent on too many complex factors that have little to do with preparation and, the fact is, we have not developed a cogent, comprehensive method for measuring CCR in the first place.

Analogous to every major educational reform movement in the past, an over-emphasis on post- secondary material success belittles the primary aim of schooling in a democracy–namely, to develop thoughtful citizens who will proactively contribute to public discourse, not to mention civility, in our society. And heaven knows, the shrill antagonism of our recent presidential election demonstrates that higher standards for public debate and conduct would definitely be in order. 

John Dewey, the acknowledged grandfather of today’s system for schooling, summarized purposeful pedagogy in this way: “A society that makes provision for the participation in its good of all its members on equal terms and which secures flexible readjustment of its institutions through interactions of the different forms of associated life is in so far democratic. Such a society must have a type of education which gives individuals a personal interest in social relationships and control, and the habits of mind which secure social changes without introducing disorder.”

More succinctly, in terms of educational outcomes, Einstein advised, “Try not to become a man of success, but to become a man of value.”

It is not an overstatement to insist that re-institutionalizing civic and social awareness is a national imperative. A little over two years ago, a survey of 1,416 adults conducted by the Annenburg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania revealed that only 36 percent could name all three branches of the U.S. government. Almost as few, 35 percent, could not name a single one.

Practically three quarters surveyed did not know that it takes a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate to override a presidential veto, and almost 1 in 5 incorrectly thought that a 5-4 decision by the Supreme Court needs to be sent back to Congress for reconsideration. (Who knows how they would respond to the fact that the high court now stands essentially pat with eight justices because of an impasse between the executive and legislative branches?)

Even more disconcerting, though, is the degree of conceptual misunderstanding. According to an essay published by the Hoover Institution at Stanford in 2011, almost half of Americans think the phrase from the Communist Manifesto, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” appears in the United States Constitution and the same percentage believe a communist cannot run for the presidency.

These statistics demonstrate a greater problem than mere ignorance. Rather, they are evidence of a frightening detachment from principles and practices that uphold our society in the most fundamental way.

Famously, as he was leaving the constitutional convention, a woman asked Benjamin Franklin, “Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?” He replied, “A Republic, if you can keep it.”

If we wish to maintain the vibrancy of our institutions, we need to place at least as much emphasis in our schools on citizenship and character as eventual economic productivity.

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