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Just about everyone knows someone who has been bullied, in ways big and small. Understandably, though, many victims are reluctant to speak about their experiences. We found some who aren't.
By Chris Myers Asch | Interim Director of General Education at the University of the District of Columbia
Several years ago, I took a group of low-income middle school students to a motivational talk at a local university. A dynamic young professor encouraged them not to settle for anything but the best. After the presentation, he asked the students what they wanted to be when they grew up. One of our girls — I will call her Shanika — answered excitedly, “Nurse!”
“Nurse?” the professor asked, disappointed. “How about doctor? Don’t you want to shoot high?”
Shanika’s face fell. Though I sympathized with the professor’s intended message, I was incensed. Not only was he wrong on a practical level — this country faces a serious nurse shortage — but he exemplified the haughty disdain with which many educators and policymakers view careers that do not require a bachelor’s or advanced degree. Shanika did not need to hear that her dreams were not up to snuff. Unfortunately, that is a message students hear all too often in our college-obsessed culture.
As someone who founded and ran a college-prep enrichment program for at-risk secondary school students, I appreciate efforts to raise expectations and encourage students to go to college.
But I also recognize the potentially distorting effects that our college obsession can create. “College- and career-ready” may be the new catch phrases, but the emphasis is all on the “college” part; most policymakers and educators seem to ignore alternatives to college.
This is shortsighted because, simply put, some students should not go to college, or at least not a four-year college.
I know, I know. Writing that sentence can incite the wrath of the “achievement police,” the legions of self-appointed guardians of high expectations (and, I confess I have at times been an officer in this force myself). To even broach the idea that some students may not be suited for a four-year college degree can invite scornful accusations that one is perpetuating, in former president George W. Bush’s memorable phrase, “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”
We have so effectively pushed the notion that “success equals college” that other options, such as vocational education, seem horribly limiting and even discriminatory. But college prep has become a one-size-fits-all approach to secondary education, and some students simply do not fit. Though it may be difficult to conceive for the highly educated professionals who devise curricula and policies, college is not always the best choice for students whose interests and skills lend themselves to trades rather than college degrees.
The emphasis on attending college leaves many high school students woefully unaware of how many alternatives to the four-year college degree there are. Some students may feel that college is the only “good” option and so they may enroll in a university or community college even though they are neither well prepared nor particularly interested in the subject matter.
Worse, some kids who are frustrated or bored within a college-prep curriculum may wind up dropping out of high school. Once they drop out, their chances of future economic stability decrease markedly. The Center for Labor Market Studies estimates that dropouts earn less than half as much annually as high school graduates do.
Young people should have a variety of good options. Alongside a challenging college-prep curriculum — and extensive information on what success in college requires — our schools should offer more rigorous and relevant vocational education programs and apprenticeships that build on students’ interests and help them develop real-world skills that will give them an economic foothold after graduation. We should bolster partnerships with nonprofit organizations and businesses that agree to provide training and development while students earn their high school diplomas. And we should not discourage students from pursuing military careers.
As a nation, we need young people to become skilled carpenters, electricians, lab technicians, nurse practitioners and drill sergeants. By pushing college to the exclusion of other options, we can send a subtle message to students who choose other goals for themselves: “You’re not good enough.” And that can be as dispiriting and discouraging as “You’re no good.”
Reprinted with permission from Chris Myers Asch, Interim Director of General Education at the University of the District of Columbia and coordinator of UDC’s National Center for Urban Education. Also reprinted with permission from the Fall 2010 issue of American Educator, the quarterly journal of the American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO. This article originally appeared as “The Inadvertent Bigotry of Inappropriate Expectations” in Education Week on June 16, 2010.