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:
- “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.
- The reason teens don’t work anymore is because of the view that everyone must go to college.
- 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.