Why not improve student graduation rates and save money?

Surveys of high school dropouts found that 81 percent of them believed high school would have been more relevant with real-world learning and connecting school with work. From the 1870s to the 2000s, the United States has fallen from the highest high school graduation rate to 13th and has the worst college dropout rate of industrialized countries.

Harvard’s Graduate School of Education wants to reverse that decline and recommends three different strategies in a report called ‘Pathways to Prosperity, Meeting the Challenge of Preparing Young Americans for the 21st Century.’

The report aims to focus our attention on giving more students employable skills by their early 20s. It makes sense to me because I dimly recall retiring 10 years ago as dean of business and computer technology at an Oregon community college, where faculty taught over a dozen professional technical programs and three university transfer programs.

First, the authors support the common core standards adopted by Washington through the 10th grade that are broader than those aimed exclusively at the four-year college degrees. More paths to career and technical education should be promoted earlier in middle and high schools. My division taught business math. The medical assistant (MA) instructor was concerned because the math department had canceled a medical math course that was applied and not theoretical. New MA students were falling behind. We dropped one course and added medical math to teach such topics as converting dosages from ounces to milligrams.

That approach sounds unremarkable except another division wanted applied math but the technical and math faculty refused to teach it.  A consultant was brought in to resolve the conflict. I told her our method and she said her school did the same. The complaint persisted the 10 years. As Dave Barry says, “I’m not making this up.”

Isn’t that what Washington is doing with only one high school path to math for graduation?

The report’s second recommendation is to entice more employers into supporting more pathways. All community college technical programs have employer advisory committees who set standards, design programs, advise young people, offer work-linked learning, job shadowing and studying real industry problems.

Eastmont High School has fun programs for students and employers. Its robotics club competes in nationwide competitions under the mentorship of engineers. Woodworking students have a mentor who teaches students to make a longbow from a plank of wood. And students have seven units of electives in both EHS degrees and four-year college degrees — that’s 14 semesters of courses, giving students options to explore concepts and internships.

It’s not clear what pathways the 2011 Eastmont graduates are following. Thirty percent are attending four-year colleges and 50 percent are attending community colleges.

Based on national graduate rates, less than half of the four-year and community college students will graduate on time, many with misspent debts. Might such high failure rates be avoided with earlier and better guidance? Two students enrolled in apprenticeships, seven percent enrolled in technical skill- based schools and five percent in the military, which offers excellent career advising and technical training.

The report’s final recommendation is social and political: commit once again to providing funding and incentives to give young Americans job skills before they finish schooling instead of waiting for them to draw unemployment benefits and qualify for training assistance. We’re pulling floundering students ashore without fixing the source.

Of course students must commit. A 30-something student came to my office because she wasn’t getting the success in computer training she had wanted. She’d run her own tavern and knew how to succeed, but now wanted a better job. I sat with her in a computer lab as she showed me how she approached her assignments. We jointly diagnosed that a self-paced program was better for her. Fortunately we had multiple ways for her to succeed because teachers, funding and program advisors made them available.

Let’s commit to help our elementary and high school teachers provide more pathways to prosperity much earlier than we are currently doing.

Got a comment on Jim’s column? Shoot us an e-mail at weekly@empire-press.com, or visit his blog at blog.jamessrussell.com.