Dan Walters: California's straitjacket education bites back

dwalters@sacbee.comNovember 25, 2012 

We Californians – or at least those of us with access to the media or political forums – make lots of celebratory noise about our diversity, as we should.

One of the state's unique qualities, and one of its strengths as well as one of its challenges, is its wide array of ethnicities, cultures, languages, religions, nationalities, lifestyles and sexual orientations.

That diversity represents a particular challenge for the public school system in educating 6 million students with such an astonishing array of backgrounds, not to mention the diversity of intelligence, talent and motivation that may be found in any student population, even monochromatic ones.

Such wide variations would seem to warrant a more individualized approach to education, but oddly, for all our happy talk about diversity, we increasingly tend to stuff kids into one-size-fits-all systems, with ever-narrower curricula enforced by testing.

Nowhere is that rigid approach more evident than in the twin trends toward eliminating job-related classes, once called vocational education, and insisting that all high school students, regardless of their aptitudes, take college prep classes as a condition of graduation.

Not every adolescent wants, or needs, college prep classes, especially since we should know that only a fraction of them will actually pursue or obtain four-year degrees.

The college-for-all assumption also denigrates the very useful – and often well-paying – employment opportunities in trades, crafts and technical fields.

Any society needs its auto mechanics, its carpenters, its electricians, its plumbers, its electronic technicians, its machinists and others who do real work.

Tellingly, there are still unfilled demands for skilled workers in those and other fields while many college graduates are jobless or struggling in low-skill jobs.

Moreover, the rigid imposition of college prep subtly encourages those not oriented toward academia to drop out of high school, as San Francisco Unified School District, one of those college-for-all systems, is learning.

The district imposed its college prep requirement on incoming ninth-graders in 2010. Now, it was revealed last week, almost half of its potential high school class of 2014 is not on track to complete the curriculum, a requirement for graduation.

Educators are all college graduates, and most parents like the concept that their sons and daughters are going to become college- educated professionals, so it may be a popular policy.

But what if their Johnny or Jane really would be better suited by talent and inclination for a blue-collar job?

Do San Francisco Unified and other systems that have adopted the college prep requirement really care about what happens to them?

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