What Policies Will Help At-Risk Adolescents?

The Glenn Show, Glenn Loury’s semi-monthly discussion show on blogging heads, is always outstanding and I watch most of them if I don’t discuss it here. Happily, a good chunk of his recent discussion* with Robert Cherry of Brooklyn College involved vocational education and at-risk student populations.

I’m going to criticize some points below, but the conversation is excellent. Cherry speaks passionately about his topic, and  Loury comes through every so often to summarize with an elegant clarity that’s one of his great strengths. If you don’t have the time to listen, here’s a transcript of the vocational education section, which I created to be sure I didn’t misrepresent anything.

One small point regarding the section on at-risk youth: Cherry goes on at some length about how at risk kids coming from weak, dysfunctional families experience violence, hunger, lack of love. This disruption and chaos profoundly affects their ability to perform academically and increases the likelihood they’ll act out, even strike out. He thinks high schools should spend resources and time understanding and assisting the stressed, traumatized youth come from, give them support, help them work through their trauma instead of merely disciplining them.

On behalf of Title I schools everywhere:  Um, dude, what the hell do you think we’re about? High schools spend as much time as they can understanding and getting help for their kids. We have psychologists at our school. Kids who feel stressed can go see their counsellors.  Teachers often know what’s going on with their kids, and we email key info to colleagues with the same students. Administrators do a lot of listening, a lot of bringing families in to discuss issues, a lot of calling in secondary support services.  Could we use more resources?  Sure. Would more resources improve outcomes?  I don’t know. But Cherry seems utterly clueless as to the vast array of substantial support high schools give now, which calls into question his certainty that such services would help.

Cherry then argues that at-risk students who struggle in school should be given short-term career training to immediately prepare them for jobs and income that will alleviate their stress. In this section he makes three points:

  1. “High school jobs are a thing of the past.” Teenagers don’t work anymore: only one in seven black teens has a job, just 2 in 7 white teens do.
  2. The reason teens don’t work anymore is because of the view that everyone must go to college.
  3. Colleges are inundated with unqualified or remedial students, but they have thus far been more likely to lower standards than discourage people from going to college, thus further discouraging any other development paths.

The first is a fact. The third is also true,  as I wrote in my last piece. But the second point is way off, and in important ways.

Cherry doesn’t mention relevant research on teen unemployment, although he often supports his comments elsewhere in the discussion with studies or data. But the employment drop  has been discussed  at some length for a number of years, with debates on whether the primary cause is supply or demand. Supply: teens aren’t working because they are taking summer school enrichment classes, working at museum internships,  jaunting off to Europe or maybe just doing homework imposed by teachers trying to get them to college.  Demand: teens face competition from other workers. So Cherry’s only proffered reason is supply-related. He thinks teen employment is down because academic activities are becoming more important to high school students, thanks to societal demands and pressures to go to college.

I’m deeply skeptical. First, on a purely anecdotal basis, the teens I know are eager to work, whether it’s full-time over the summer or part-time during the year. But employment requires a work permit, and permits often require acceptable GPAs**. I have had more than one student beg me to boost their grade so they can keep a  job or get a permit for a job offer.

Of course, the same students ineligible to work during the school year are then stuck in  summer school, retaking courses they still don’t care about.  Summer employment is a particular challenge for the same students who can’t get work permits during the year, for the same reason.

As I wrote earlier, high school students are failing classes at epic rates, and graduate requirements have increased. In our district, I see a disproportionately black and Hispanic summer school population repeating geometry, algebra, US History, English–and every August, they have a summer school graduation ceremony for the seniors who couldn’t walk in June because they hadn’t passed all their required courses.(Remember Michael Brown of Ferguson had just graduated a day or two before he was shot in August? That’s why.)

Rich kids of all races might be going off to Haiti to build houses instead of working. Asian kids, particularly Chinese and Koreans, are almost certainly not working because their parents won’t allow it. The days of supporting mom and dad in the business are mostly over, at least where I live. Chinese and Korean parents, particularly those who just got here, go  into debt, borrow money from back home, and send their kids to hundreds of hours a year in private instruction. But it’s not schools pushing them into this activity. (Schools, if anything, try to discourage this obsessive devotion to academics.)

But rich kids and certain Asian demographics aside, the average teen, particularly those from disadvantaged families, cares considerably more about financial remuneration than academic enrichment.  If teen employment has decreased dramatically and academic activities are taking up any bit of that time, the first thought should not be “Oh, they’re just being encouraged to value academics so they can go to college” but “Oh, they aren’t being allowed to work because they’re failing required classes.”

Teen employment is not a “thing of the past” because teens have decided not to bother with it. They face significant, intentional policy barriers that preclude employment. Most students want jobs.  Cherry implied that teens considered employment passé. That’ s not my experience and the data doesn’t support that interpretation.

Surprisingly, Cherry doesn’t even mention the possibility of demand-related drops. If you could CTRL-F the conversation, as Steve Sailer says, “immigra” would return a “not found”.  Neither Loury or Cherry mention that constant increases in low-skilled immigration would present competition for teenage workers.***

Which is odd, because there’s all sorts of research on plummeting teen employment, and  immigration is often identified as the culprit.   Christopher Smith, on the Federal Reserve Board of Governers, has two papers precisely on point.

The first,  The Impact of Low-Skilled Immigration on the Youth Employment Market has this conclusion:


The second, written a year later, examines the degree to which the decline might be to other factors–was it immigration, or the displacement of adults from better paying jobs, or is it the push for college? From Polarization, immigration, education:

Notice it’s 3.5 or more for demand issues–immigration, increasing competition in low-skill market (which is just another way of saying increased  immigration)–and 3 at most for supply factors–things like summer school or other educational opportunities.

Remember, too, that if employers have a choice, they prefer adults devoted to working as many hours as possible with no parents or schools hovering in the background. So  teens  are competing against ever increasing supplies of low-skilled immigrants–and thus more adult low-skilled workers generally–and competing from the bottom of the desirability index, too.

Cherry talks about the “current push” to send everyone to college, suggesting the push is a recent development. As Kevin Carey pointed out a few years ago, people have been questioning the value of college since at least the seventies, when Richard Freeman wrote The Overeducated American. (If the Harvard Crimson isn’t pulling my chain, college journalists were complaining about wasted degrees back in 1883.)

But Freeman’s book didn’t have the impact of  A Nation at Risk. The 1983 education treatise didn’t list “Everyone must go to college” as a recommendation. It did suggest that if all high school kids didn’t take four years of English,  three years each of advanced math and science, and resolutely study a foreign language for two years, Japan would bomb us back into the Stone Age.

I’ve written before that Nation At Risk killed high school vocational education. In that same piece, I point out that  2001’s No Child Left Behind did much to redefine vocational ed as highly competitive career technical education (CTE). Both changes made non-college paths practically unreachable for the average schlub uninterested in college and belatedly trying to get some career options going.

Since the rise of education reform in the 1990s, low test scores have been the club used to beat up public schools in favor of charters using the  KIPP “no excuses” model.  Low test scores aren’t really important unless used as a club to argue that those scores keep students from college.

All of these things have increased the demands on high school. But it’s not new.  The first push to send everyone to college began back in the 70s, before escalating immigration and while teens were still working.  For many years, sending more students to college didn’t conflict with teenage employment. So I don’t see how it could suddenly be a big cause of the change now.

Cherry is dead on the money regarding public universities’ response to unqualified students. After decades of losing borderline or weaker students to the quagmire of remediation, colleges are simply ending the struggle by reducing already lowered standards even further.

Cherry: So CUNY is just dumbing down the assessment exam, the math assessment exam that has mostly arithmetic but some algebra. They’ve just decided they are taking out the algebra, make it just arithmetic. So at Brooklyn College we’re already seeing that, the provost has just sent out a notice that he’s worried, too many people are transfer students…that 500 people are going on probation, 200 are being expelled. He thinks it’s more tutoring, more support services, when we’re just taking in people who don’t have the skills….

Well, yeah.  That sounds familiar, as I just recently wrote that California’s largest university system, and the largest in the country  has gone even further, simply ending the remedial category altogether.

But  Cherry’s prescriptive tone has vanished. He certainly put the “everyone must go to college” rhetoric at high schools’ feet, and (wrongly) implied that high schools are more eager to discipline than support at risk students.  But here, when talking about colleges’ continual failure to enforce their own standards he merely sounds sad. Loury doesn’t follow up on the point, either.  The two men seem remarkably passive about post-secondary failings. I hope to say more about that in a subsequent piece.

My complaints notwithstanding, check out the conversation. I’m glad that our best intellectuals are seriously engaging with the problems presented by low-skilled students. But they still seem more likely to blame culture than look further afield–the culture not only of black families, but what they imagine to be the culture of high school education communities.

Our education policies certainly help to discourage low-achieving teens, making them feel like failures, taking up their spare time in joyless academics far beyond their capabilities and interests. I am certain we can do more to make education more accessible to this population, and believe the path involves more time to learn less demanding content. But ultimately, I continue to believe the most important factors affecting teen employment are demand-related. I hope Glenn Loury and Robert Cherry come down harder on this point in later discussions.

*Okay, a month ago. Hey, I have a day job.

**Work permits vary by state, but in most states the school, not the state, issues the permit. Age/Certification by State
*** Loury has previously acknowledged the impact of immigration on low-skilled employment.


About educationrealist

35 responses to “What Policies Will Help At-Risk Adolescents?

  • Jim

    Preventing adolescents who aren’t doing well in school from getting a job is probably one of the most crazy social policies any society has ever tried. What has happened to common sense in this country?

    • Roger Sweeny

      To be fair, I think people in favor of the policy actually have common sense. They think:

      1. Teenagers are stupid and ignorant. In particular, they care more about the present and less about the future than is good for them.

      2. Kids who aren’t doing well in school are especially stupid and ignorant.

      3. If given the opportunity, many of them will drop out and take jobs.

      4. Everyone knows that people with high school diplomas (and even more with college degrees) have better jobs, make more money, and generally have more opportunities than people who don’t.

      5a. If kids drop out, they are cutting themselves off from those opportunities.

      5b. They are condemning themselves to a life of failure and unhappiness.

      6. If they stay in school, they will be on the road to the good things in 4.

      7. Therefore, they should not be allowed to get a job.

      The problem is that common sense is wrong. For many kids who don’t do well in school, working at entry-level jobs will do more for their future prospects than staying in school. To a remarkable (and tragic) extent, 6 is a feel-good lie.

      And doing a job well, providing for yourself, may mean a lot more for lifetime happiness than struggling through years of academics that you have no interest in or obvious use for (5b is snobbish and wrong). Ed’s “Just a Job” post is eloquent here.


      • DensityDuck

        It’s also cargo-cult thinking. With a very few examples, the richest and most successful people in America all have college degrees. Therefore, goes the thinking, having a college degree means you’ll be rich and successful.

        That rich, successful people get college degrees because they are the sort of people who succeed is not something anyone can permit themselves to think, because that denies the truth of the Cathedral.

  • Alan Roebuck

    Minors need a “work permit” from a government bureaucrat in order to get a job? And they can’t get it unless they have a high enough GPA? What is this, the Soviet Union?

    Are you talking about the “undocumented,” or everybody?

    I suppose the craziness varies from state to state. I live in California; do you know what the law says there?

    I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. This is the Modern World, after all.

  • Mark Roulo

    “High school jobs are a thing of the past.” Teenagers don’t work anymore: only one in seven black teens has a job, just 2 in 7 white teens do.

    Do we know how “work” is defined here? My son occasionally gets paid for “work” that isn’t informal one-off (eg. Little League umpiring during spring). He’s not the only one. Is this “work” for purposes of this discussion?

  • Visitor

    The work permit thing really threw me for a loop. But then I am from one of the “no provision” states. It seems utterly bizarre to have anyone determine if you can work. If you are the appropriate age you just get a job.

  • Purple Tortoise

    Where I live, I haven’t seen teenagers working in fast food, lawn mowing, car wash, etc. for a couple of decades — it’s all adult immigrants. The only exception is In-N-Out.

    But I wonder if you are being too hard on CSU and other colleges. There is tremendous pressure from the politicians and pundits to increase graduation rates and the number of graduates, especially from underrepresented minorities. It’s unacceptable to say that a large number of students are unprepared and in any case unable to succeed at college. Because if the politicians and pundits accepted those facts as true, they would be on the hook for figuring out how to fix our economy to deliver good jobs to all those people who aren’t going to go to college. Instead it’s easier say that if only those colleges would do a good job at teaching, then everyone could get a high-paying job at Google.

    • educationrealist

      Which part of that do you think I don’t know?

    • educationrealist

      That last part sounded dismissive, and I meant it to be sarcastic.

      Of course they’re under pressure. So what? So is everyone else. Everyone knows this. I certainly know this. So the only reason I can see for you trotting out what everyone knows is that you think making everything much, much worse than it already was is a reasonable response. I just don’t see that. This is catastrophically worse.

      • Purple Tortoise

        Is it worse? Yes. Is it catastophically worse? I’d say no. The catastrophe happened when high school was dumbed down. Once the logic of passing students who didn’t learn the material was introduced to the system, it became difficult to resist at all other levels.

        But I guess you’re right that CSU ought to have resisted the pressure. Too bad the administrators folded. I wonder what the rank-and-file faculty will do.

      • educationrealist

        High school hasn’t been dumbed down. Standards are higher than they’ve ever been. The problem is we stopped letting kids drop out, so that the diploma didn’t imply a certain intellect.

        No, this is catastrophically worse.

      • Purple Tortoise

        High school hasn’t been dumbed down? Back in the 1990s I taught my first lower-division general science class, at a top 20 public research university. Two years of algebra was an admissions requirement, yet many of the students were completely flummoxed by the idea of shifting variables from one side of the ideal gas law to the other, or using the equation to deduce that doubling the volume would halve the pressure (all else held constant). Fast forward to this year, in which I am teaching a lower-division science course at a different top 20 public university. I’ve learned to write equations with words rather than variables, and yet after writing “pressure = force / area” and doing a simple numerical problem, a student asks me after class if there is going to be “so much physics” in the rest of the course. Anecdotal of course, but I’d contend that high school students are getting high grades in math classes without mastering the material. My colleagues agree.

        I will note that those college students who are flummoxed by simple algebra are more likely to belong to underrepresented groups.

        Let me ask you an honest question, no snark intended. Do you give high grades to only those students who genuinely mastered the material, low grades to those who partially master the material, and fail those aren’t prepared for the next class? I think you’ve mentioned receiving students into your classes who aren’t prepared to be there. Do you ever pass them along, or is failing students who just didn’t learn it okay at your school?

      • educationrealist

        You don’t appear to realize what you’re saying. If you were teaching a class at a top-tier public university then all the kids in your class had SAT scores demonstrating more than enough algebra for your purposes.

        The kids getting into your college would be top-ranked kids, and they have to take much more math. Thirty years ago, you could get into a top-tier school with just algebra 2. Today, you need at least Calculus.

        See, up to now, high school grades are completely irrelevant to college admissions. That’s precisely why I’m bothered by this change.

        So if you genuinely have kids who got high 600s in the math section of the SAT and can’t do algebra…well. That’s not even believable. My guess is you’ve got kids who worked really hard and learned everything just to forget it. That’s a real problem, but it’s not caused by high schools having low standards. Quite the opposite.

      • anonymousskimmer

        “That’s a real problem, but it’s not caused by high schools having low standards. Quite the opposite.”

        I don’t know that it’s caused by standards at all. Personally I’d guess it’s caused at least by asking students to do a million and one things of any degree of difficulty.

        If knowledge isn’t reinforced through periodic testing (broad definition of “testing”), and kids know this is the case, they’ll do the sane thing and forget it as quickly as possible in order to stuff more information into short and medium term memory.

    • DensityDuck

      “There is tremendous pressure from the politicians and pundits to increase graduation rates and the number of graduates, especially from underrepresented minorities.”

      because the jobs that all those kids (or adults too dim to make it in a Bachelor’s program) used to do are now being filled by immigrants. And if you suggest that immigrants are a problem that’s RACIST, you’re a RACIST for saying that. And nobody wants to be a racist.

      • Roger Sweeny

        Some of those jobs are being done by immigrants.

        Some of those jobs no longer exist (automation of manual and mental tasks, and changes in consumer behavior, e.g., less shopping at “brick and mortar” stores means fewer stores and fewer salespeople).

        But a substantial number of those jobs are now being done by college graduates. And since there are now so many college graduates, potential employers can now require a college degree. On average, college graduates will make better employees and there will be fewer resumes to go through. It is illegal to discriminate on the basis or race or IQ but not illegal to discriminate on the basis of degrees held or school years completed.

        But since underrepresented minorities by definition are less likely to have degrees, they are guaranteed to be less successful getting first and second jobs or of advancing when “education” is a prerequisite for getting promoted.

        If this bothers you, there are only two ways to go: either make school less important for economic success or make sure URMs get more educational credentials.

        Since most all respectable opinion says that school makes you a more skillful and just plain better employee, the first simply doesn’t come up. (And, of course, most people who have degrees don’t want to give up their “degree privilege.)

        That makes it terribly, terribly, terribly important to “to increase graduation rates and the number of graduates, especially from underrepresented minorities.”

        And if everyone’s the same, it’s doable. (This also leads to the easy syllogism: if it is doable but 50 years of attempts haven’t accomplished much, American society must be horribly racist.)

  • Y`l17OBz8JjHdCBm

    I agree with what’s been said here. I’m in college right now, but in high school I looked for summer jobs, and found it hard to get one. I applied as a dishwasher to a lot of local restaurants because I had done dishes in my high school cafeteria, but I hardly got any response. My guess is a lot of this had to do with immigration.

  • Purple Tortoise

    Yep, they are top-ranked kids as conventionally defined, and some of them are very good, but many are not. So it’s a mystery to me.

    I think for some of them, as you say, the issue is that they view math courses in high school and college merely as hurdles to get over and then forget about, not as preparation for subsequent learning in the sciences.

    But I am now thinking what is at the heart of the issue is different definitions of mastery. For me, mastery of algebra is not the ability to solve a sheet of math equations. What I count as mastery is the ability to take some problem described in words, often a real-life situation, translate that into algebra, solve it, and then translate it back into words. Sometimes numbers might be provided to obtain a numerical solution, and sometimes not.

  • Mark Roulo

    So if you genuinely have kids who got high 600s in the math section of the SAT and can’t do algebra…well. That’s not even believable. My guess is you’ve got kids who worked really hard and learned everything just to forget it.

    I’m fairly certain that this is a lot of it.

    The word “can’t” seems to be getting used in two separate ways in this thread. Purple is using it to mean “when given a problem, the student doesn’t know what to do.” The second version, which Ed seems to be using is “won’t ever be able to solve the problem [other than rote learning a bunch of patterns that should be on the test].”

    What Purple is seeing isn’t new. I discovered thirty years ago that students at a mid-tier University of California campus were not expected to know how to work with (or even find) the slope of a straight line. The teachers (Macro Economics) expected to teach this … presumable, “again”, because I’m sure that the students mostly knew what to do with this at some point in high school.

    So … “can’t” here probably means “has forgotten everything they crammed for the test/SAT in high school” not “doesn’t have the capability of learning.”

    Purple: The catastrophe happened when high school was dumbed down.

    Unless you mean ~100 years ago, there is/was no catastrophic dumbing down. Folks in the US have been complaining about our low education expectations since at least the 1950s. My guess is that the modern kids at the top end are better prepared than ever (though also possibly more narrowly prepared). Calculus in high school was rare in the 1950s. It is common now and I know kids who got through differential equations at a local (non-exam!) public high school. Note that this requires that DiffEq be offered.

    • Roger Sweeny

      I’m not sure “that the modern kids at the top end are better prepared than ever.” They certainly take more advanced courses. But there may be something deep lurking in ER’s April 23rd, 2017 at 1:22 am comment:

      “So if you genuinely have kids who got high 600s in the math section of the SAT and can’t do algebra…well. That’s not even believable. My guess is you’ve got kids who worked really hard and learned everything just to forget it. That’s a real problem, but it’s not caused by high schools having low standards. Quite the opposite.”

      Top flight kids today are incredibly busy. They’ve been told for years how important it is to get good grades AND to do this, that, and the other thing. Now, here’s the thing. Really understanding something often takes time. It takes concentrated mental energy, trying to puzzle things out and make them fit. And you may not succeed. It is easier and quicker just to memorize what you’re expected to memorize, use it on the exam, and if you’re not being tested on it again soon, let it drift away.

      Two bits of anecdote from my time teaching high school physics. If I gave a problem on an exam that wasn’t the same as a problem they’d already done, I would often be told “that question is confusing.” No amount of rewriting could change that. And there would sometimes be a feeling of betrayal from the students when I asked a question like that. This was not what they had come to expect. They had been unintentionally taught for years, “Listen to what I say is important, memorize it for the test, give it back to me, and you will succeed.”

      Maybe people in the past, with more time and less pressure (and maybe less socialized into the game)–maybe there was more understanding (for some!) and less “memorize and forget.”

      • educationrealist

        Well, I think this is a teaching problem more than anything.

        I don’t believe there are *lots* of kids who got into top tier universities who have forgotten slope. I do think that a number of them only learned it without being able to apply it.

      • Mark Roulo

        I don’t believe there are *lots* of kids who got into top tier universities who have forgotten slope.

        There were enough that the TA for my section of Econ 2 (that would be Macro) spent a huge chunk of one of our first sections going over it. And going over it began with defining it and showing how to calculate it by counting units to the left and units up. My university was mid-UC, so probably in the top 50-70 in the US (using USNWR rankings … which aren’t perfect, but probably are close enough for our purposes).

        Then there is this:

        from a prof at Johns Hopkins.

        But, yeah, this should be a teaching problem. But that counts, too, if we want the kids to learn this for longer than the next test.

      • Roger Sweeny

        I still can’t stop thinking of ER’s comment.

        The more there is to learn, the more temptation there is to “memorize and forget,” especially if that has worked in the past. This temptation can be awfully hard to resist if you expect “memorize and forget” to be an efficient strategy for getting a good grade.

        A student may hear a teacher say, “I don’t want you to just memorize; I want you to think and understand” but won’t believe it. Perhaps she has even become unable to see that there is a difference between “learn” and “successfully transmit information back on a test.”

      • educationrealist

        Yes. And that’s what I mean by the opposite of low standards. We are shoveling too much at them, and because some kids are happy to fake and regurgitate, we end up with that being defined as “doing good in school”.

      • anonymousskimmer

        ” It is easier and quicker just to memorize what you’re expected to memorize, use it on the exam, and if you’re not being tested on it again soon, let it drift away.”

        Damn it. I responded too soon thanks to wordpresses bad discussion threading.

  • J Oliver

    It would be nice if you would write a little about why in the current environment colleges lowering standards (I assume that you mean making it easier to pass) is bad.

    • Roger Sweeny

      In all environments, lowering standards/making it easier to pass would be good. In fact, lower them enough and everyone will get a college degree, which will make people feel good.

      Of course, that means that the degree does not indicate much in the way of skills, or that the degree-holder is in some way a better potential employee than a non-degree holder. Which means that people will go to school even longer.

      But that’s a good thing. School is just good. And there will be more jobs for teachers and administrators and counselors and other helping personnel.

      Some people think a degree–college, high school, middle school or whatever–should certify a certain minimum level of knowledge and skills. How ridiculous! Today, many high school graduates can’t read or write or do math at what state standards say is a ninth grade level. The time has come to extend that to college graduates.

  • anonymousskimmer

    ” too many people are transfer students…that 500 people are going on probation, 200 are being expelled. He thinks it’s more tutoring, more support services, when we’re just taking in people who don’t have the skills….”

    This is something the schools should actually have *all* of the data to determine. Everything should be in those student files – the requisite test scores, the classes in which they do better and worse, things told to the guidance counselors, and any other data.

    Have any studies been done?

  • anonymousskimmer

    I’m curious what the impact of a move to adult newspaper deliverers (as well as the decrease in circulation numbers) has had on adolescent employment (males were the stereotypical paper deliverers, but an increase in the supply of unemployed males has consequent effect on all adolescent employment).

    When I was a child I averaged around 75 papers. When I was in my 20s, about 15 years later, it was between double and triple that, over a much larger delivery area. The employment turnover also is likely less than for children.

  • edtitan77

    Wow I’m stunned by the work permit bit. When I was 14 in 1992 I secured a work permi in Virginia. I believe the only requirement was my mother’s signature. What have we done?

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