However, a close inspection of the president’s goal reveals how difficult his goal will be to achieve. The Blueprint is the plan for achieving the goal and ensures that “every student graduates from high school well prepared for college and a career.” That’s a mouthful, and we need to examine the three very significant components embodied in that quote.
We know for a fact that today, not every student graduates from high school. In fact, approximately one-third of our students are not graduating, and among that third are a disproportionate number of black and Hispanic students. To get our high school graduation rate up to 100 percent is an impossible task for any year, let alone 2020. Consequently, a more realistic measure will have to be agreed upon as part of the reauthorization process.
Getting beyond the high school graduation piece—no small feat, mind you—we must next consider the “well prepared for college” component. If we assume, and we must based on the president’s goal, that well prepared implies graduating from college, we have even a steeper hill to climb. There is research in the works that strongly suggests that, when we reverse-engineer to the K-12 performance of college graduates, we see students taking a much more comprehensive and challenging curriculum than what the Common Core standards will produce. Getting students to stay and complete high school is challenging enough, but getting those same students to graduate from college will be the much bigger challenge.
The third piece refers to career ready, and this may well be the most viable solution to our dilemma, but there is not much emphasis on that component. Is this a reference to vocational education? In a recent conversation with Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Duncan assured me that it is, but this needs to be clarified and reinforced.
We know that, perhaps for very legitimate reasons, vocational education has fallen out of favor. For many years, occupational education programs were the dumping ground for minority students. Today, we envision a world where every child is college-bound, even though the reality is that only about one-third of our students wind up with a college degree. And many of our students who do go to college and graduate from college are ill prepared for the workforce.
There is a good chance that many of the 30 percent of our students who drop out of high school would stay in school if they were learning a marketable skill that would lead to employment upon graduation. The very European nations that we unfavorably compare with on the international tests have a system of occupational and apprenticeship programs that have resulted in their having significantly lower youth unemployment rates than the U.S. Thus, there is a need for further refinement of what is meant by career ready. If we mean having a skill that leads to employment and possibly the completion of a postsecondary trades program, then our first task is to change the current culture that looks at occupational education as an inferior accomplishment to being college bound.
The Blueprint openly stipulates what many of us have realized in the absence of reauthorization: The administration used the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to push its policies forward without a single vote by Congress. Race to the Top, Investing In Innovation (I3) grants, and School Improvement Grants have all required adherence to the administration’s priorities for reform. Thus, states and local school districts have agreed to adopt the Common Core standards, institute the evaluation of principals and teachers based on student performance, consider pay for performance, fire principals and teachers, and more, to be eligible to receive federal competitive dollars.
Once ARRA funds are spent, the administration will need to rely on Congress’s approval of its education budget and the reauthorized ESEA, according to the Blueprint, to maintain its competitive programs. We have objected to the use of Title I funds for competitive grants because we feel that the intent of Title I has been to be the great equalizer to poverty. Formula funding ensures that all impoverished children receive funding equally, and not that some receive more because their districts have better grant writers.
But there are many aspects of the Blueprint that need immediate implementation, such as abolishing the current method of establishing AYP and moving towards more comprehensive assessments that measure growth. We need to eliminate the labeling of failure and instead reward success. We need to revise the federal role in education so that it is less intrusive in the local decision making process and more focused on providing the necessary resources to ensure that, for real, our black, Latino, and impoverished children are not being left behind.
Daniel A. Domenech is the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.