Sunday, January 21, 2007

What's Wrong With Vocational School?

With the central tenets of Murray's thinking so thoroughly discredited, I hesitate to make much effort to rebut his 2nd and 3rd Op Eds in last week's WSJ.  (What could the Journal have been thinking giving so much space for so much nonsense?)  That being said, here goes:
In the first Op Ed below, What's Wrong With Vocational School?, Murray immediately lays an egg with the silly assertion that, among the youth with above-average IQs, "far too many of them are going to four-year colleges."  This argument might make sense if you share Murray's belief that schools don't matter and that a person's intellectual capabilities are set in stone long before college. 
I believe otherwise.  I believe that, even among the young people who have fallen behind in life through 12th grade through some combination of bad luck, bad parenting, bad choices and bad schooling, most can still turn their lives around -- and good schools are critical to this.
I think that, to compete and succeed as a nation, we should set the goal that every child should get 17 years of education, not 13.  I'm willing to concede that perhaps the bottom 20% might be better off going to vocational or technical school after high school, but Murray seems to think the opposite: that only perhaps to top 20% should go on to real higher education.
The real tragedy here is that our K-12 public schools are failing so badly that, to some extent, Murray's argument seems reasonable.  Consider the following horrifying statistics:
  • Close to half of the students who enter college need remedial courses
  • At Cal State, the system admits only students with at least a B average in high school, yet 37 percent of the incoming class last year needed remedial math, and 45 percent needed remedial English
  • According to scores on the 2006 ACT college entrance exam, only 21% of students applying to four-year institutions are ready for college-level work in all four areas tested: reading, writing, math and biology
  • Lack of preparedness leads to nearly half of all students beginning higher education by attending a community college, which has negative consequences:
    • One study showed that 73% of students entering community college hoped to earn four-year degrees, but only 22% had done so after six years
    • The Pew Charitable Trusts recently found that three-quarters of community college graduates were not literate enough to handle everyday tasks like comparing viewpoints in newspaper editorials or calculating the cost of food items per ounce
In summary, millions of our children are suffering through 13 years of poor schools, resulting in stunted intellectual development.  Murray looks at this problem and, instead of addressing it, seeks to merely compensate for it by shunting millions of children away from college -- a system in which the U.S. probably is the best in the world! -- to a collection of often-lousy community colleges, vocational schools, etc.  What a totally lame answer!
In some cases, the only chance a young person has in life is given to them in college.  A good analogy is what KIPP does: it takes children who have been miseducated for five years (K-4), resulting in them being 2-3 years behind grade level, spends one year (5th grade) nearly entirely on remedial work, but then has three years to accelerate them toward higher learning and a better future.  It's often the same in college: nearly half of entering college students need remedial work thanks mainly to lousy K-12 public schools, but colleges are probably pretty good at bringing these students up to speed in the first year or two, and then students can really learn in their last couple of years.  Murray wants to eliminate this and send fewer kids to college?!

On Education
What's Wrong With Vocational School?

January 17, 2007; Page A19

The topic yesterday was education and children in the lower half of the intelligence distribution. Today I turn to the upper half, people with IQs of 100 or higher. Today's simple truth is that far too many of them are going to four-year colleges.

Begin with those barely into the top half, those with average intelligence. To have an IQ of 100 means that a tough high-school course pushes you about as far as your academic talents will take you. If you are average in math ability, you may struggle with algebra and probably fail a calculus course. If you are average in verbal skills, you often misinterpret complex text and make errors in logic.

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