Are College and Career Skills Really the Same?

The Common Core curriculum standards don’t prepare students for the workforce, says Robert Lerman. Still from PBS NewsHour footage.

Paul Solman: Centrist economist Robert Lerman of the Urban Institute and American University is back on this page with a timely concern: Is America’s new push for a “common core curriculum” seriously at odds with the country’s pressing economic needs?

Lerman’s first NewsHour appearance in 2011 generated real wrath. He later appeared in a story of ours about the seemingly sterling school-to-work program Youthbuild, adding the economist’s cold-hearted cost-benefit perspective: “We have not had really serious research that proves that it’s highly effective…on balance [it] may not even capture its costs.”

Lerman pointed out that the Department of Labor is funding a major experimental evaluation to estimate the program’s impacts.

I cite Lerman’s bona fides as skeptic because he himself has been pushing government investment on the Making Sen$e Business Desk for a while now — specifically, investment in apprenticeship programs as an answer to the youth job crisis: more than 20 percent of Americans ages 16-19 are unemployed and more than 42 percent of 16-19-year-old African-Americans are unemployed.

He first made the case in February and then followed up last week with a post on evidence that apprenticeship actually works.

Now, Lerman takes on the alternative to apprenticeship: school learning. As it happens, so does the NewsHour’s distinguished education correspondent, John Merrow, in the most recent installment of his “Taking Note” blog, — an occasional column that should be essential reading for anyone engaged in education. I asked John for his reaction to Bob’s post and if he would mind contextualizing it.

John replied:

“I would ‘contextualize’ it by pointing out that he is repeating the New York Times’ error of conflating the standards with the curricula. The governors and others in the states wrote the standards, but the curricula are being written now by real classroom teachers, as well as publishers and hucksters.”

Bob replied with a link of his own — to an article from Education Week. In other words, you can spend the rest of the day on the Common Core without ever leaving the Business Desk!

Bob Lerman: The Common Core is taking the educational community by storm. As Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus point out in last Sunday’s New York
45 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the curriculum and will begin testing students on the material in the 2014-2015 academic year.

Hacker and Dreifus raise questions about this initiative, which they view as “…what may be the most far-reaching experiment in American educational history.” In responding to their worry about the Common Core’s potential impact on students at risk of dropping out, they quote Ken Wagner, New York’s associate commissioner of education, as saying, “College and career skills are the same.”

Now, I am far from an expert on the extensive Common Core
or on any curriculum. But two issues concern me about the debate. One is the lack of solid evidence about the effects of the curriculum on students. Education research, long a backwater of social science, has become more rigorous in recent years, backed in part by the federal government’s Institute of Educational Sciences and its funding for rigorous experimental methods to test educational interventions. Yet, here is the same federal government encouraging a massive educational initiative without solid evidence documenting gains for student academic or career outcomes.

The second concern is justifying the Common Core on the highly dubious notion that college and career skills are the same. On its face, the idea is absurd. After all, do chefs, policemen, welders, hotel managers, professional baseball players and health technicians all require college skills for their careers? Do college students all require learning occupational skills in a wide array of careers? In making the “same skills” claim, proponents are really saying that college skills are necessary for all careers and not that
large numbers of career skills are necessary for college.

How did this “same skills” idea emerge? In a 2005 report sponsored by the National Governors Association (NGA), the nonprofit organization Achieve, Inc. claims:

“Consequently, all students — those attending a four-year college, those planning to earn a two-year degree or get some postsecondary training, and those seeking to enter the job market right away — need to have comparable preparation in high school.”

The report offers weak evidence to back up this striking assertion. One justification is a poll finding, “Employers say the high school graduates they hire need the same skills and knowledge that colleges and universities assert enrolling students should have.” But, their polls show no such thing. True, employers report 39 percent of recent high school graduates with no further education to be unprepared for the challenges of entry-level work. But, in the same survey, 72 percent of employers say they are satisfied with the overall job high schools are doing preparing graduates for the work world. Moreover, employers and non-college recent graduates almost universally (97 percent) see the need for improvement coming from “real-world learning” and “making coursework more relevant.”

Nearly every study of employer needs over the past 20 years comes up with the same answers. Successful workers communicate effectively orally and in writing and have social and behavioral skills that make them responsible and good at teamwork. They are creative and techno-savvy, have a good command of fractions and basic statistics, and can apply relatively simple math to real-world problems like financial or health literacy.

Employers never mention polynomial factoring. But what about the higher level math required by the Common Core? Consider algebra II, the study of logarithms, polynomial functions and quadratic equations. Many states want to make algebra II a requirement for graduating high school. Yet, a stunning finding produced by Northeastern University sociologist Michael Handel (cited in a recent Atlantic blog) indicates that only 9 percent of the work force ever use this knowledge, and less than 20 percent of managerial, professional, or technical workers report using any algebra II material.

The real problem is, as the National Assessment of Adult Literacy shows, over 20 percent of adults (and about 50 percent of minority adults) never learn fractions well enough to apply them to common tasks.

All students should master a verifiable set of skills, but not necessarily the same skills. High schools fail so many kids partly because educators can’t get free of the notion that all students — regardless of their career aspirations — need the same basic preparation.

As states pile on academic courses, they give less attention to the arts and downplay career and technical education to make way for a double portion of math.

Maintaining our one-size-fits-all approach will hurt many of the kids we are trying most to help. Maybe the approach will just lead to another unmet education goal. But it won’t resolve the already high rate at which students drop out or graduate without the skills and social behaviors required for career success.