More Than One Path To Success

It's Time For Our Schools To Move Beyond A Focus On College Preparation, Which Drives Many Black And Hispanic Youths To Drop Out

April 23, 2009|By Walter A. Gill

There is a disconnect in the American education system. Blacks and Hispanics drop out of school in huge numbers, leading to high incarceration rates. Meanwhile, the schools impose a one-size-fits-all curriculum that envisions four-year college as a universal goal and marginalizes and minimizes alternative career paths.

It's time to connect the dots. Real reform, especially in large urban school districts, cannot occur until we recognize the reality that many students will not attend a four-year college - and provide alternative avenues to success for those students.

In his speech to Congress in February, President Barack Obama correctly noted, "The U.S. has one of the highest dropout rates of any industrialized nation," and said, "Our children will compete for jobs in a global economy that too many of our schools do not prepare them for." He recommended that students must "commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training."

Noble goals indeed - but first things first. Students need to graduate from high school before than can aspire to anything grander.

Barely 50 percent of African-American and Hispanic students earn a high school diploma. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, 75 percent of state prisoners and 59 percent of federal prisoners are dropouts. Harry Holzer, an economist at Georgetown University, believes that joblessness is largely a result of weak schooling; a lack of reading skills at a time when such skills are increasingly required, even for blue-collar jobs; and the poverty of many black neighborhoods. And Hispanics are even more likely to drop out than African-Americans, according to the NCES.

School districts in the U.S. generally have a uniform curriculum and a one-size-fits-all attitude whereby students are not treated as individuals. Urban education is doomed unless it can adapt to the needs of children in cities. The adaptation must take place by professionalizing the curriculum and allowing urban students to succeed by offering them a choice of career paths.

All students do not have the same aspirations, nor do they learn the same materials in the same way or at the same pace. Educators should consider exposing students to career options as early as first grade, and giving them career-interest surveys in the fifth or sixth grade to ascertain their interest and how they relate to academic subjects. Vocational classes need to be restored in middle schools, and technical and health-career classes must be offered. Many high schools should ensure training in alternative careers for the global economy in addition to preparing students for careers requiring a four-year college degree.

Although a four-year college education increases a person's earning potential, it is not the only reliable path to well-paid and rewarding work. Michael Farr and Laurence Shatkin's 300 Best Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree and Harlow G. Unger's But What If I Don't Want to Go to College? offer advice on careers ranging from air traffic controller and radiation therapist to surveying technician and dental hygienist. These books should not be unknown reference materials in urban school libraries and guidance offices.

Finally, all urban teachers must be trained to teach and raise urban students through multifaceted curricula that lead to employment and responsible citizenship - defined as respect for humankind, legal employment, family values and charity.

Booker T. Washington said it most appropriately for President Obama, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and other reformers of urban education: "Call education what you will; unless it benefits the masses, it falls short of its highest end."

Walter A. Gill, author of "Teaching in Urban America: A Formula for Change," is a teacher, author, artist, actor and former university professor. He was the first African-American to graduate from Baltimore City College High School. His e-mail is

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