Tag Archives: vocational education

International Students in America: Fewer, Please. A Lot Fewer.

I just noticed Noah Smith’s recent thread on importing students. He’s quite wrong (which wouldn’t be the first time).

Noah is upset that international students are choosing Canada rather than America.

I couldn’t be more pleased.

The best argument for reducing the flow of international students: America should not be draining the brains of the world.  If indeed we are taking China and India’s brightest people, then we are robbing those countries of the intellects needed to lead and educate their next generations–all so that they can drive down labor costs for Facebook and Google.

Noah doesn’t care about other countries, though–well, that’s probably not true. But in this case, he thinks more international students is good for America.

His case: we shouldn’t worry about foreign STEM students, because the US is graduating more STEM students than any country but India or China.


But as anyone following education trends in the US can tell you, a substantial number of those US STEM graduates are from China and India. Many STEM graduate programs are overwhelmingly dominated by international students.

and at least

33,000 of Science and Engineering undergraduate degrees go to international students. This is six year old Pew data, but it’s a good look at how big a slice of our undergraduate STEM degrees are taken up by international students.

While Smith is correct that educational attainment has consistently risen in US, I’ve written before that much of this is driven by a relentless push for US colleges to lower standards and give college credit and diplomas to students with limited reading skills and middle school math ability.  We can debate the value of this increase, but it’s certainly not evidence that international students aren’t hurting American college education.

We can import international students AND lower standards. Neither is related to the other, and neither is anything to brag about.

Smith then proceeds to argue that 1)  foreign students aren’t taking slots from citizens and 2) rather, they are PAYING for the education of American students!

The first is simply false. From 2008 to today, the undergraduate student population at Stanford has increased by 8.5%. The undergraduate international student population increased over that same time by nearly 47%.  At the University of Michigan Ann Arbor over the same time period, campus population grew by 14%, while the international students increased by half.  In this long-form article on University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, the university admits that admission of out of state American students had dropped since the massive increase in international students–and the number of African American students has fallen hard from an already low rate.  And none of these schools mentioned are among the campuses, most of them top 50 schools, with the most international students.

International students are taking spots from Americans at selective college campuses.  Full stop. Noah is wrong.

The second part is more complex. Unquestionably, public research universities with limited domestic-out-of-state enrollment began turning to  international students when states cut funding.  Moreover, some schools, like  Ohio State , seem perfectly willing to keep students in Intensive English hell for eternity, or as long as they’re willing to pay tuition, whichever comes first. So some of the appeal of unqualified foreign students does seem to be their money.

But is that all? I see several reasons to wonder.

First, the choice to turn to international students is, by definition, a choice against instate students.  The universities could choose to charge more tuition and focus on providing services for the in-state students who can pay. They choose otherwise.  Why? Next, it appears that international students get about 8%  of their funding from US sources (7.9% from state, a bit from US government, according to link above).

While their additional tuition is attractive, it’s also obvious that international students cost a great deal to support. Despite the protestations of many a university admissions officer, many if not most international students are completely incapable of functioning in an American university. Some schools have started charging more for those services, but, as the story acknowledges, before that point the international students were costing a great deal more. And if international students are valuable for their out of state tuition, why are some universities abandoning the international student premium, or giving it back in scholarships? .

So the argument that international students are increasing purely to subsidize in-state low income recipients  at public universities is….shaky.  Besides, a quick look again at all these private schools with the most international students. State funding wasn’t behind those increases.

Having watched this most recent push for international students going on for a decade now, I’m deeply skeptical that public universities are increasing their take of international students for the sake of their in-state applicants. These aren’t short-term moves. Prestige and money for niceties seem to be much more the focus than the in-state students.

Pish tosh, sez Noah, the advantage of international students  is not about educating local undergrads”.  We are thus instructed to ignore all his arguments in favor of American students that I carefully spent half a page deconstructing and rebutting.

It’s about RESEARCH. Research is what boosts the local economy, by drawing in talent and capital and money. The goal should be to UPGRADE scattered second-tier universities into good research universities.

And, from a different tweet thread:

International students are an important part of the university-centered regional development strategy that is pulling towns and regions all across America out of the hole dug by the Rust Belt and the Great Recession…But that’s not all that international students do for America. Their presence improves and increases research labs at American universities. That generates business activity in small cities across America. Want to revive the Midwest? You’re going to need second-tier universities to become first-tier universities, and create local innovation. International students are very important to that strategy.

He develops his thoughts on the value of a university to a community in an op-ed:


I’m sorry, I can’t resist: You boys know what makes this bird go up? 

So, mid-tier universities should import international students to fuel a Midwestern Enlightenment, create intellectual capital that will draw in others to benefit from the bounty. A western Renaissance of smart educated people wading through the rich flow of generated ideas.

Of course if the ideas were generated by international students, the ideas are probably copied. Or maybe the research was just faked.

Take look at the names on his list of top international countries turning out STEM students, or just the countries sending the most students.  China, India, Russia, Iran, Indonesia, and Japan.  Toss in Saudi Arabia.

These are all countries that excuse and encourage tremendous educational and academic fraud.

The students who have the means and desire to come to America to study come from fantastically corrupt countries. They generally show up for college  woefully unprepared, which is unsurprising, given that their test scores and transcripts are generally a work of fiction created by the very companies the colleges hire to find, er, “qualified” students.

Before and during their college experience,  many international students cheat every way they can–from lying on their applications, to  paying ringers to take college admissions or TOEFL tests, to cheating in class, to not even being students at all and just getting work visas–and when they are caught, they routinely wail that their cheating is totally okay in their own cultures, so how could they possible know?

Numerous reporters will hunt down academics to bleat reassuringly that oh, dear, it’s terrible, but not all international students cheat, but far fewer will mention the numerous studies demonstrating that it’s quite a lot of them, and always in greater percentages than domestic students.  The research that exists is far less interested in quantifying the impact of the cheaters on the rest of the university, and far more interested in explaining why they cheat and how they can be educated and encouraged to stop.

These often unqualified students with no understanding of American academic standards are just the seeds of Noah Smith’s grand plan to revitalize the Midwest. He wants many, many more of the same.  He wants American colleges to import millions more rich students from countries with a strong culture of student cheating and academic fraud. We’ll get them to plagiarize grant applications and produce a stream of federal funding that will run Potemkin research labs from Pocatello to Wheeling, the better to pull in start up companies to lie to venture capitalists about the great new product that some kid lied about to get an A in a senior seminar.

I’m not entirely kidding, either.  The degree to which universities are actively encouraging fraud in admissions and overlooking dishonesty and plagiarism to avoid upsetting international communities is shocking. Increasing the population would make a bad situation far worse.

Colleges have brought in far too many international students as it is. We should bring in less. I’m pleased the wave appears to be receding, although it has receded–and come back–before. I might not agree with Stephen Miller’s reasons for ending Chinese student visas, but bring it on. Ending Saudi Arabian student visas would be an inadequate, but painful, penalty for Saudi Arabia’s murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

One thing is certain: the mid-western townsfolk wouldn’t object to fewer middle-easterners. Or easterners, for that matter.

What should public universities do if states reduce their funding? They should reduce the number of students or reduce the number of services. Perhaps they could consider accepting only college ready students, insisting on students who could read at a tenth grade level and demonstrate mastery of second year algebra.  They might limit first year curriculum to a sequence of humanities and advanced math–put everyone in the same courses, leave variety to the following years. I feel sure there are ways to teach capable students more cost-effectively.

That approach may not revive moribund towns. But it wouldn’t flood them with international students who view the locals with contempt, either. Or turn them into mini-Vancouvers.

Rather than flooding the zone with federal dollars for research projects staffed by rich Chinese kids, we could use those same dollars to start vocational training centers. Maybe give grants to unemployed or unemployable to relocate and spend some money being trained in construction, in digital technology, auto mechanics and body work, and other skilled labor. That would stimulate the local economy. And if those trained left the area, well, there’d be more coming. Just like with college.

America has to start making do with its own people. It might not be easy.  It might not be better, at first. But it will certainly be fairer.








Vocational Ed: Advancing the Debate

(note: I’m calling it vocational ed in the title, but throughout will use career/tech, career ed, whatever.)

In my last post I discussed the reason that skilled career/vocational education training has declined–which is not because schools themselves sneer at anything less than college. For those who keep griping about the “disdain” America shows “the trades”, I hope the last essay provides a better understanding of the tensions involved. Increasing investment in skilled non-college education will require addressing the concerns raised there.

So I thought I’d give it a shot. Here’s what I won’t take on:

  • Whether career/tech ed is worth it–This Post story shows that getting a certificate from community college only increases income by $1500/year, which is far better than getting the credential from a for-profit school, which loses people $900/year. Wait, what? For other minds than mine, though.
  • Business involvement—certainly, businesses will benefit and thus should fund part of this effort. I’m not sure how, though, and again, turn over to other minds.
  • Currency–how do you keep the offerings current? When does it make sense to put resources into training people for a new field? How are winners and losers declared?

All outside my ken. Designing these features hold no interest for me. Because if the system doesn’t address the disparate impact issue I discussed here, then it will ultimately fail either through lawsuit or lack of interest.

A couple years ago, I offered educational solutions, or at least options, for students of middle to low cognitive ability, in Just a Job. The programs I sketch out could easily be included in this program.

I envision “career” or “skills” training, as being designed for cognitive ability levels a bit above and a bit more below average. If using IQs, from 85 to 105.

Ban college-level remediation

Right now, we spend millions, at least, on students who are incapable of doing genuine college level work. We loan them money to take courses for which they will get no credit—loans which they will often be incapable of paying back. We spend money on instructors, on space, on curriculum. We deny increased opportunities to qualified students in the form of reduced schedules, thanks to the increased costs of remediation.

Increasing the opportunities for vocational/career training requires setting a standard for college access. We have to stop spending somewhere in order to pay for expanding vocational options. Freeing up the wasted money on wasted college spending is a good place to start. I lay out the case in the attached link.

Increasingly people push to do away with remedial education, which would mean colleges wouldn’t be forcing students to take remedial courses. Marc Tucker, for example, thinks it’s unfair that community colleges require their students to know any advanced math, since the jobs they’ll take on won’t need that math.

But if advanced math isn’t needed for the job, then why is the job requiring college? As I said at the end of the original essay: If no one is too incapable for college, then no education is remedial. So give the students credit for remedial courses, let barely functional students get college degrees after 120 credits of middle school work. No?

(OK, you have to be wondering if I’ve noticed that banning remediation is the Mother Of All Disparate Impact Lawsuits waiting to happen. I did. The rest of the proposal is designed to withstand all but the most illogical objections.)

Limit the scope of community college.

Most states offer three levels of vocational education: high school, community college and regional career centers. The last two are far more extensive than high school programs. Community colleges have appropriated many trade credentials (cosmetology, dental hygiene, auto-mechanics, etc). Low cost, but with often absurd waiting lists, community colleges attach many general education requirements to maintain the illusion of college and an AA degree.

That’s in addition to community college’s original mission: to provide an affordable method of taking general ed courses that will transfer to a four year college or provide stand alone associate degrees. Moreover, community colleges own the bulk of remedial education.

So in this new world, community colleges should be required to dump remedial education, which should be returned to adult education (more on that in a minute). Community colleges should only accept college ready students, as defined in the first step.

I can’t say conclusively that all career training should be removed from community college, which Wikipedia says handles 30% of all CTE. Some career training may have a significant academic requirement that warrant an associate’s degree. But if we are to develop meaningful non-college career training, it can’t be in college, which has a wide range of priorities and is also motivated to devote resources to immigrants.

Increase adult education funding.

Banning college remediation would be incredibly controversial. Many will correctly point out the disparate impact of this ban, that it’s funding higher education for predominantly white and Asian kids. What they wouldn’t mention is that restricting college for the qualified, regardless of race, would improve access and resources for the qualified low income students, again regardless of race.

However, everyone should have the opportunity to become college ready. Not everyone “gets it” the first time, and others finally decide to get serious about the brains they were given. All remediation, K-12 education that simply improves abilities or helps prepare for college, must be shifted to the adult education category, currently funded out of the K-12 budget but now (I hope) would have its own category.

Centralize training programs at the regional level

Someone’s going to ask why not private training programs. Go away and leave me be.

So community colleges should retain their original academic mission for college ready students. Adult education should include both adult remedial education institutions (which would be repurposed community colleges) and the regional career training centers. As I mentioned, many states offer these regional training centers already. These centers offer the best solution to skills education that crosses boundaries from high school to early college—and beyond, for those returning to the trades. All those in the area could attend their local center or apply for a center in another region, much like applying to local vs out of state public colleges today. Students can attend a combination of high school/college and regional trade school as needed.

Critically, students opt in to career training. If the students choose to enter the trades, high schools can’t be held responsible for sending them there. This reduces the potential for racism charges.

Increase resources, reduce selectivity

Today, thanks to the scarcity of career tech vocational programs, at least half the kids accepted are more than smart enough for college and would easily pass a placement test. But if step 1 is implemented, college is going to be much more challenging and college readiness will be a much bigger deal, particularly for those who can achieve it easily.

The “lower half” or more of the kids accepted to these selective programs are generally ambitious, hardworking dedicated kids who know they aren’t academic, but understand they need to have a good GPA. They stay focused. They work hard. They get internships. They get accepted into journeyman positions or move onto the next level of trade schools. They do this with the blessing and support, the letters, the advice, the guidance of their teachers and administration who—please know this—do not sneer at their career choices.

But if these rigorous, selective career and technical programs only accept the kids dedicated and focused enough to avoid all manner of screw-ups, the kids who schlep around, get suspended a few times, flunk math because they think the teacher’s a jerk, have shut themselves out of these options, often before they’re old enough to take advantage of them. Others start out motivated, then lose focus and can never get back on that path.

So “career-technical training”, voc-ed, or whatever you call it, is an excellent option for a lot of low-to-mid cognitive ability kids, but we have to recognize certain realities. These kids will be disproportionately, but not exclusively, black and Hispanic. These kids won’t always be perfectly motivated with spotless resumes.

Keep standards realistic, but challenging. Give kids a reason to work hard to qualify for a program that interests them. Then, be absolutely sure there are seats available for the qualified kids.

Qualify for skilled training using the ASVAB

Elites tend to think anyone not as smart as they are exist in a vast undifferentiated blob. Firefighter, plumber, truck driver, fast food worker–it’s all the same. But in fact, “the trades” encompasses a wide range of cognitive ability levels, and creating a fair means of ensuring rigor in the programs. The military’s ASVAB would be well-suited for this.

And–key plot point–students who need to work and study to qualify for a higher score can use the adult education program to get the support they need.

Build economies around the career centers

Remember, Brooks wants high schools to provide career and technical training so that their students can train and then leave the area. Given the expense of career tech, what states would willingly fund programs to train kids to leave the state?

But if the career centers themselves can rejuvenate–or at least bolster–a weak economy, it might not seem so pointless.

For example, West Virginia could place specialized regional centers in its ten poorest counties, each one focusing on a rigorous technology. Maybe not all–or even some–of the locals can qualify for the technology, but the center itself would provide jobs. The trainers and teachers relocated to the area would spur some growth as well.

Invest in the students

I don’t know if it makes more sense to subsidize career training through low-cost tuition or low-cost loans. Probably some of both. Certainly remedial education should be inexpensive and readily available (although we should not fund living expenses for remedial ed). Essential, though, is the understanding that the investment spigot isn’t shut off for kids who aren’t eligible for college. If, as I suggest, we close off college for many, the money saved must be spent not only on increasing resources for low-income college-ready students, but also on training and investment for students who won’t be going to college.

So there’s the broad outline.

Mentioned briefly here, but the main point of my tweet storm and Just a Job: restricting immigration is essential to invigorating the job and training market for the low skilled. (Note to Brooks: Rick Hess, AEI point man on education, pointedly observed a federal role for education that you might want to write about next time.) Until such time as we finally dramatically restrict immigration, we should at least limit our investment to citizens. Not just the loans, either. (To reiterate, I don’t hate immigrants. But they have no place in our educational system these days. Too expensive.)

We need to advance the debate on skills training, from say age 16 and older. We need to get beyond the tired tripe of “education needs to stop demonizing blue collar work” and start understanding why so few options exist. The only people glorifying college are the progressive and conservative elites. Us proles in the middle are just fine with jobs.

But if we are to start dealing with the difficult challenges that come with a diverse society with wide ranges in cognitive ability, motivation, and needs, then we need to stop the combination of “everyone can succeed” happy talk and “schools SUCK!” condemnation that consumes the discourse today.

Vocational Ed and the Elephant

I thought I’d expand my tweet storm on Arthur C. Brooks directive on American relocation, on one point at least. The one involving the Voldemort View, which must not be spoken. Here referred to as the elephant, because it scanned better.


Rod Dreher and his commenters go to this well all the time, about the so-called snobs who sneer at vocational education. Mike Rowe has built a career on it.

But these calls for a friendlier approach to vocational ed, aka CTE, aka career tech, completely misunderstand the reasons for its relative scarcity.

I have never met a public school teacher who sneers at vocational ed. I don’t often meet administrators in this category, either. I know they exist, particularly in urban environments–NOT simply high poverty schools (I teach in one of those). But overwhelmingly, the teachers I know are very realistic about college.

No, the reasons for  vocational ed’s disappearance mostly have to do with the elephant in the room.

But begin by realizing this: US has never experienced a halcyon period when committed, focused students were provided with meaningful careers through a helpful high school career training program. The term “dumping” has been around for a long time. A 1985 review of California’s vocational ed program showed that high school courses resulted in no improvement in employment or graduation rates, and even regional training centers had little impact on employment. The country’s support for any sort of vocational ed has always been tepid and cyclical. So it’s not as if we had a fantastic functioning vocational education system before the modern era.

The latest cycle began when 1983’s Nation at Risk forced radical changes in high school education in a failed attempt to raise standards. Nation badly damaged what successful vocational ed we had by arguing we needed rigorous preparation and high expectations to get more high school students ready for college. Of course, not everyone could meet the higher standards, because otherwise there’d be no point to the higher standards. The authors expected that students who weren’t ready for college would be well-trained by rigorous vocational education; they just didn’t think about the elephant.

See, Nation‘s call for high standards, joined five years later by Bill Bennett’s report update, dismissed any notion of an achievement gap. The achievement gap, according to these Ur-reformers, owed its origins not to poverty and ability, but unprepared teachers with low expectations and parents who didn’t care as much. Over time, education reformers stopped blaming parents.

But really, blame is irrelevant.  There sits the elephant firmly in the center of unspoken space: large, cranky, completely ummovable. The kids who couldn’t, and still can’t, manage college prep curriculum are disproportionately black and Hispanic and, (often separately, alas) poor.

So the insistence that “everyone could succeed”, with “succeed” meaning “go to college” led to that form of accountability otherwise known as lawsuits, which found that tracking resulted in disparate impact, which meant that tracking ended. Everyone took or tried to take college prep, and high school standards declined. Since everyone was taking college prep, no need for vocational ed, which became more of a dumping ground than usual. The low quality and already weak statistics eventually killed funding for the highest quality career training of the 80s and early 90s. (“Nation at Risk Killed Voc-Ed is mine own opinion, but this 2000 NCES report shares it, pg 49).

This did not happen with the teaching community’s enthusiastic whole-hearted consent. To put it mildly. Yes, some idealistic, progressive teachers voiced support for the idea, and unions (run largely by progressive teachers) mouthed the right things. But rank and file teachers, particularly math teachers, were usually aggressively against the whole idea. Teacher surveys show to this day that they aren’t thrilled with heterogeneous classes, so don’t blame us.

While many ambitious vocational ed programs were often killed in the Nation era, the next conservative reform movement, “No Child Left Behind”, resulted in an unexpected rebirth of excellence. Forced to prove themselves in order to avoid closure, the remaining voc-ed programs had to keep test scores high. So many career-oriented programs basically re-emerged as rigorous, but incredibly expensive and hard to staff. No longer a dumping ground, career-tech ed (CTE) supply is now outstripped by demand. The programs can pick and choose; the cognitive ability levels required are quite high. Today, career technical training is outstanding, demanding, and extremely selective. At least half the students strong enough for career training programs can easily place into college. The kids who can’t pass Algebra aren’t qualifying for career programs.

So “more technical training” in high school isn’t a magic bullet. Brooks’ AEI stable includes probably the best conservative reform policy guru, Rick Hess. If Brooks asked Rick about vocational education, the answer might have looked something like this:


Comparing Hess’s response to Brooks’, I’m figuring Hess wasn’t asked.

Or Brooks could have read up on Michael Petrilli’s push for moving more kids to career training. Petrilli, president of Fordham Foundation’s education reform think tank, published a harsh message for low ability kids in 2014: Sorry, Kid, You’re Just Not College Material, proposing that kids who can’t cut it in academic courses be rerouted into career and tech ed.

And Petrilli got schooled and schooled hard, as dozens of experts handed him his ass, explaining the history of vocational education, calling him a racist for writing off poor kids of color, pointing out the racial disparities, and basically calling him an uneducated yutz for blindly suggesting solutions that he didn’t understand. Anyone thinking of suggesting changes to vocational/career ed has no better starting point than Petrilli’s chagrined follow up acknowledging the error of his ways, and sounding a bit depressed about the cognitive demands of career training.

Yet here Brooks is, pushing career training again, ignoring the very recent experience of someone on his own team, blandly suggesting vocational education, continuing to avoid the Unspeakable. Twas ever thus. It’s always this vague notion that schools sneer at anything but college degrees, Brooks’ idee fixe. No one ever goes past this reason to wonder why high schools don’t track anymore.

I’m not sure anyone really understands why, until they have their noses shoved into it like Petrilli did. People just don’t understand the degree to which many high schools are forced to choose between failing most of their students year after year, with no hope of ever achieving three years of advanced math or English—that it’s not a matter of trying harder, or teaching better, or that the kids weren’t taught. They lack any real understanding of the layers of cognitive ability. They don’t realize there are perfectly normal folks who aren’t smart enough to be plumbers, welders, or dental hygienists.

But those who do understand often sound callous or dismissive of people with low IQs. Maybe it’s because my father cooks a great meal, fixes a great plane, and has a sub-100 IQ, or maybe it’s just because I was raised working class. Maybe it’s my work as a teacher. But I don’t think “low IQ” is an insult or a dismissal. And so, I’m angry at those who make basically ignorant proposals–move more! create more plumbers!–without even the slightest understanding of the political and social tensions that stop us from tracking kids by ability to the extent that, perhaps, we should.

I have never seen the cause of those tensions more eloquently expressed than in this panel on Education for Upward Mobility, by Howard Fuller. After an early life as a black activist (or maybe “after” is the wrong word), Fuller went on to become superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools. Pro-charters, pro-choice, the embodiment of neo-progressive education reform and in every way imaginable a partner with Petrilli, the panel moderator, who asked him his thoughts on how best to shake off the ugly history of tracking and use it to help kids succeed. It’s best to listen to him say this, around minute 12, but for those who won’t bother, here’s what Fuller had to say:

“You know Mike, my thing, starting with the whole ‘who goes to high school'[think he means college]….most of the people who talk about ‘kids don’t need to go to college”, hell, they went to college. And so that’s where my problem starts right there. Why is it okay for you, but for these low income kids, “aw, y’all can’t go to college.” ….What do rich people do for their kids?….When I hear some of y’all talk about [vocational education], just know that I’m gonna always be suspicious. It brings up to me…somehow we’re trying to figure out a way…it’s almost like a Booker T./Du Bois argument brought up to this century. Whenever I hear the Booker T. part of that argument, it’s that we’re going to accept that a certain group of people are going to have to be in the lowest level, because that’s the way our economy is set up and so some of these kids, it’s okay for them to be there….And when people say tracking….the issue of power and whose kids get tracked in what ways and where they end up…I can’t get it out of my head…..I’m afraid of whose going to make what choices for what kids.”

This is what’s known as a facer. I have two simultaneous reactions. First, I’m impatient, because Fuller’s response just kills all rational conversation dead. There’s really no way past that. It’s brilliant, effective, and utterly deadening. Why here, I’ll just point out the elephant in the room, shall I? And because everyone’s busy pretending the elephant doesn’t exist, their scrotums will retract up into their livers. We’ll just change the subject, shall we?

But my second reaction, coming right afterwards, is doubt. Brooks’s op-ed is one of many sneering at the working class these days. The GOP head of Congress is wondering if he can talk Trump out of immigration restriction, since his own position is amnesty and more immigration for skilled workers , while Clinton wants amnesty and more immigration of every sort.

So I’m not entirely convinced anymore that Howard Fuller is entirely wrong to doubt the intentions of the elites who want so desperately to make decisions for all the little people.

But that won’t stop me from suggesting a system for career/tech training, of course. Stay tuned.

Just a Job

So Michael Petrilli leads with a somewhat feckless proposal to limit college access but then his follow-up appears, in which he’s shocked—yea, shocked!—to discover that vocational education has significant cognitive demands!

Petrilli still pretends that these deficiencies are an “outrage” caused by poor schools that charters and choice and firing teachers will fix. But here’s the crux of his second piece:

So let’s assume, then, that for the foreseeable future many of our high schools are going to have a heck of a lot of entering students who are prepared for neither a true college-prep curricular route nor a high-quality CTE program. The high school will do its best, but in all likelihood, a great many of these young people will graduate (if they graduate) with low-level skills that won’t leave them prepared for college or a well-paying career. What should we do with these students while they are in high school? What education offerings would benefit them the most?

We’ve got all these kids that won’t be ready for a well-paying career, so what do we do with them while they are in high school? Seriously?

He skips right by the important question: what do these kids do for a job?

Petrilli’s entire reason for existing, professionally speaking, is to offer education as a silver bullet. He’s not someone who will cheerfully accept Paul Bruno’s data showing that education doesn’t fight poverty.

But even Petrilli has to acknowledge that our country has all sorts of jobs that don’t require any training.

What jobs require minimum skills? All the jobs reformers and progressives both describe in disparaging terms: Walmart clerk, hotel maid, custodian, garbage collector, handyman, fast food worker. The average elite makes these jobs sound unfit, an insult to even consider.

I had a kid who I will call Sam in my Math Support Class for Kids Who Didn’t Pass the Graduation Test. He wasn’t particularly memorable, charming or appealing, a slacker constantly trying to get out of any effort. If I didn’t take away his cell phone, he’d never work and even without his cell phone he’d be more likely to draw than practice the basic skills I tried to help him improve on. His skills are incredibly weak; like many low IQ kids he’s got good solid math facts but no ability to synthesize or generalize.

A couple months ago, long after he’d finished my class, Sam came bounding into my room beaming. BEAMING. He’d gotten a job at Subway. He was going to make a presentation in English class on how to make a sandwich, and he was wondering if I could help him edit his essay on the same topic. His essay was weak, but it demonstrated significant effort on his part, and he took my edit suggestions to heart and returned with a still-weak-but-much-improved version. I’ve seen him several times since, getting an update on his increasing hours, a raise, getting his GED because he can’t pass the graduation test. He’s got a purpose and he’s excited. He could give a damn if elites think his job’s a dead end.

Sam’s Indian. A recent immigrant. Weak English skills, which his parents (who are not college graduates) share. Given that many if not all the Subways in my area are franchised by south Asians, I am reasonably sure he got the job through family connections.

You know any women who get manicures? Ask them the last time they paid a non-Vietnamese woman for the service. Then wonder whether these salons would hire anyone who doesn’t speak the boss’s language.

Read this 1994 qualitative study, in which managers of large low or unskilled work forces describe why they hire more Hispanics, the power of networks, and the ability to get good workers for less because hiring by referral was cheaper, even if, or especially if, the workers were all Hispanic. Notice how the employers talk about black and white low-skilled workers, natives, who resented the treatment. Notice the discussion of different hostilities between blacks and Hispanics, but also the fact that Dominicans, Guatemalans, and Mexicans didn’t like working together. Then read the same author, Roger Waldinger, finding that second generation Hispanic immigrants are not, as was the case with other immigrants, moving up. So we imported millions of illegal Central Americans, they had kids that are now permanently low skilled workers—and still, as any employer can tell you, subject to the same inter-group hostilities, but now just as entitled as the blacks and whites are. This is a group we need more of?

Of course, all of these employers and managers in that research are white. As the Vietnamese cartel in manicure businesses suggest, Asians have taken to starting their own businesses where they mostly hire their own. Thought I was making it up about Subway and Indians? 1500 Patels in the Subway franchise database—I imagine there are all sorts of Singhs and Guptas, too. In hotels and motels, Indians own 50% of recent hotels and 60% of budget motels. With Cambodians, it’s doughnuts; the Cambodian community loans money to incoming refugees to start a franchise; the independent Cambodian shop owners have largely chased out Krispy Kreme, Dunkin Donuts, and Winchells out of LA. Cambodians have no history of donuts and from all accounts just use powdered donut mix but thanks to the network effects of cheap money and a steady supply of other low-skilled Cambodian workers, often family members, and undiscriminating illegal Mexican customers looking for a cheap breakfast, they do pretty well. In much of the eastern US, >Dunkin Donuts franchises are dominated by Indians and Portuguese. Meanwhile, 90% of the liquor stores in Baltimore are owned by Koreans where, as in LA, they sell to primarily black communities but never hire blacks to work in their stores. But in the main, Koreans left independently owned businesses and turned to franchises as well. Koreans pretty much own the frozen yogurt market: Yogurtland, Pinkberry and Red Mango have done much to challenge TCBY. I’ve never seen a Yogurtland that didn’t employ Koreans only, but I can’t find any demographics on their employee population.

Franchises and small business are not only dominated by immigrant populations who haven’t, er, gotten the memo on diversity and tolerance, but they are used as a way for non-Americans to get over here in the first place. Franchise Times: “The franchise community has been developing unique tools to secure additional capital. One exciting approach is the use of the EB-5 program (better known as “buying a Green Card”).”

Regardless of ownership, franchises and small businesses that use a lot of unskilled labor are usually hiring illegal immigrants—in fact, “undocumented” Hispanics seem to be the one non-Asian group that Asian small business owners don’t object to as employees, although Chinese illegals have been coming through the southern border in big numbers, so maybe that will change. In at least one quite horrible case, Pakistani 7-Eleven owners brought over illegal Pakistanis and locked them up to work in their stores 18 hours a day for well under minimum wage and committed all sorts of identity theft and money laundering to make millions.

We do not need immigrants to come over to America and exploit illegal aliens. This, manifestly, is a job that Americans are willing to take on.

So Mr. Petrilli wants to know how to best educate low-skilled high school students, but before I get to that, it’s clear that Mr. Petrilli needs some education.

The single most important thing we can do for low-skilled high school students is improve their job market opportunities and the quality of their work experience.

First step: stop importing competition. It’s not enough simply to crack down on Chinese and Hispanic illegal immigration; we should also realize that many immigrants are coming to America with family money and community networks to start businesses that aren’t positively affecting the low-skilled job market. Many of these immigrants are coming over via chain migration.

It is not immediately apparent to me that we gain when McDonalds and other franchise food chains reduce their company-owned stores in favor of franchises. Less risk for the companies, less transparency for the hiring processes, and improved deniability. Since it’s probably impractical to stop franchises, we should at least hold Subway, 7-Eleven, McDonalds, and the rest responsible for hiring violations—not just illegal employees, but also skewed employee demographics, which starts with increased reporting.

Small businesses owned by recent immigrants that only hire family members and take advantage of immigrant networks may have some positive impact on the economy. But not only are we importing competition for our low and unskilled workers, but our schools are required to educate their children, who are often very low-skilled, creating more classroom impact and oh, yeah, the reformers will then scream again about our lousy schools.

So the key to helping unskilled American workers is to improve their job opportunities by reducing or stopping immigration, insisting that immigrant employers follow the same hiring rules as everyone else, and demand transparency from large employers who are doing their best to avoid it by outsourcing to smaller companies to do their dirty work. If we tighten their labor market, many of the (abuses may stop as they don’t have a ready supply of willing victims. Hopefully, pay will increase.

But there’s plenty we could do in education, too, where reduced immigration will also allow us to focus more meaningfully on low-skilled citizens. High school vocational education could be expanded to include low-skilled jobs. Bill Gates and other well-meaning billionaires could open some franchises in districts with many unskilled students. Create training programs for kids to learn the importance of showing up on time, understanding customer service, identify assistant manager potential. Start a training program at Home Depot and Lowes, teach boys how to use all the equipment. Then tell the locals that they can call their local schools directly for miscellaneous labor needs and get a guaranteed source, rather than picking up whoever’s sitting out in front of Home Depot.

I know nothing about how state and local employers hire meter maids, garbage workers, and the like. I bet most reformers don’t either. How about finding out? How about internship programs, again funded by all those well-meaning billionaires, that give kids summer experience writing parking tickets, picking up recyclables, collecting bridge tolls—are any of these jobs outsourced? Suppose we have a discussion about that.

As for education, we can teach kids how to read, write, calculate, and engage their brain on the issues of the day without moving beyond an 8th grade vocabulary. We can even extend that 8th grade vocabulary a bit. Teach them how to read newspaper articles, how to write their opinions in an organized fashion, how to write a letter to the editor—how to craft a job application letter specific to the situation. Certainly we could teach them the basics of business entrepreneurism for those who would like to try self-employment or small business. How about living opportunities? Many kids in this situation can’t afford an apartment and so live with their parents, feeling infantilized. Perhaps they need to be educated on their opportunities: sharing rentals, more affordable regions, and so on.

We don’t even really know yet how to educate people with IQs less than 100, which is probably the most important educational research we aren’t doing. Maybe we can move some of the kids from unskilled to skilled technician jobs, with the right approach.

I’m glad Michael Petrilli has acknowledged reality. But in doing so, he’s opened a big can of worms for the reform movement. Once we realize that the bulk of the kids reformers have been focusing on, the lowest achievers, can’t be educated in the manner they demand, then it becomes clear that employment, not education, is the key area for reform.

Let me finish by referring back to the Sam anecdote. We should not be importing families who will add to the unskilled labor pool, but have an advantage because of immigrant social networks and capital.

But I can’t begin to tell you how completely transformed Sam was when he got his job. He had a purpose. He felt useful. I remember vaguely in Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed a time when she made a contemptuous remark about their work and hurt a co-worker’s feelings. The co-worker didn’t think the task was a waste of time; she was proud of getting it done correctly.

Progressives and reformers hold these jobs in low esteem because they simply can’t conceive that for low skilled people, these jobs can be meaningful and satisfying. But other times, they’re just jobs, just something that people do to make money and live. “Just a job” isn’t an insult. It’s an objective. It’s a goal. It’s time to start focusing on meaningful employment opportunities for the entire population, instead of giving immigrants the jobs our unskilled workforce needs.