A schism on college readiness

Robert Schwartz, academic dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, are allies on most aspects of school reform, but fundamentally disagree on whether the mission of high school ought to be to prepare all students for college. Haycock says that’s an absolute; Schwartz says it’s too narrow.

“The mantra of ‘college for all’ needs to be much broader; kids need more chances for learning that are tied to careers,” said Schwartz during a debate with Haycock at the National Education Writers Association conference in “The Big Easy.”   Schwartz and his colleagues at Harvard touched a nerve with some civil rights groups like Haycock’s with a report last February that questioned the wisdom of putting so much emphasis on trying to get every student into college when at most a third of U.S. jobs will require a bachelor’s degree over the next decade.

Robert Schwartz, Academic Dean of Harvard Graduate School of Education
Robert Schwartz, Academic Dean of Harvard Graduate School of Education

“Four-year colleges have undue influence over what is required for all kids,” said Schwartz.  “Institutions that serve less than a third should not be calling the shots for all students.” Schwartz agrees with President Obama that the emphasis for high school graduates should include boosting the number of students who earn occupational certificates and two-year community college degrees and raising completion rates for four-year colleges.

He says the way to do this is to offer more career–focused courses and programs in high schools, as many California schools already do. For students who don’t see themselves sitting through four more years of classes, these programs provide training for well-paying skilled jobs like commercial construction, nursing, and manufacturing.

Kati Haycock, President of Education Trust
Kati Haycock, President of Education Trust

Haycock says to do so would be to give up before the nation has even committed the resources, including quality teachers and preschool, that low-income and minority kids need to succeed in school. “The wonderful examples of programs in California serving poor kids are the exception, not the rule,” said Haycock. She chastised Schwartz for a double standard: “There’s always a reason to worry when prescriptions for other peoples’ children differ from prescriptions for our own children.”

They did find some common ground, agreeing that the new Common Core standards that California and 42 other states adopted will raise expectations of what students are supposed to learn. They disagree, however, on the definition of career and college readiness. Schwartz says that college readiness should be defined as preparing students for post-secondary education without the need for remediation. Expectations for all students should be the same through 10th grade – “a critical checkpoint” – after which students can pursue individualized career and college goals. He disagrees that there should be one set of classes that every student has to take, and specifically mentioned California’s A-G courses required for admission to the University of California and California State University.

Haycock insists that the core curriculum should be the same for all students for all four years of high school. “To do anything short of that is fundamentally destructive,” she said. “The goal should be to articulate a set of common standards for what all kids need to do so that they can make the choice after high school instead of us making the choice for them.”

John Fensterwald stepped away from the French Quarter to co-author this blog.

Author: Kathryn Baron

Kathryn Baron, co-writer of TOP-Ed (Thoughts On Public Education in California), has been covering education in California for about 15 years; most of that time at KQED Public Radio where her reports aired on The California Report as well as various National Public Radio programs. She also wrote for magazines and newspapers before going virtual as producer and editor at The George Lucas Educational Foundation. Kathy grew up in New York in a family of teachers. She moved to California for graduate school and after spending one sunny New Year’s Day riding her bicycle in the foothills, decided to stay. She and her husband live in Belmont. They have two children, one in college and one in high school.

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