Harvard report challenges value of 'College for All' approach

A recent report published out of Havard University concludes that it is now evident that the college for all and test prep schooling that has destroyed opportunities for millions of children through the nation is wrong. Among the leaders in that approach, Chicago Public Schools, (through its 15 years leadership by MBA managers and non-educators) has destroyed career education in Chicago.

Chicago's Paul Laurence Dunbar Vocational High School was one of the best known vocational high schools in the USA from its opening in 1952 through the 1980s. The systematic destruction of vocational programs in Chicago's general high schools and the vocational high schools (which offered a college prep curriculum alongside massive amounts of vocational training) was begun in the 1990s under the "Education to Careers" program promoted by the administration of Bill Clinton and has continued uninterrupted to this day. Substance photo taken in 2006 by George N. Schmidt.The damage done in the last five years the will take a generation to fix. We are not only talking about equipment and teachers that have been removed but multi-year programs that have been completely wiped from the system's programming. The individuals who did this should be held accountable for the opportunities that have taken away from the children of Chicago.

Basically, since the later years of the Clinton administration, continuing through the eight years of George W. Bush, and now in the Obama administration federal policies have destroyed most vocational, career and technical education programs, wiped out the cadre of teachers who taught them based often on decades of practical experience, and tried to replace that training with a fantasy claim that every child should go to college and every job of the future was going to be part of what they constantly call the "global economy."

In Chicago, we are continuously getting reports of closed shops and teachers laid off. Entire wings of classrooms that once smelled of cutting oil and sawdust and were filled with the sound of tools in use are now silent and abandoned from Chicago Vocational High School on the city's far South Side, to Dunbar Vocational High School in the mid-South, all the way north to Lane Technical High School, one the pride of both college prep and vocational training. Successive generations of Chicago school leaders, all chosen by Mayor Richard M. Daley, from Paul Vallas to Terry Mazany have destroyed the career training that once provided a path to a middle class adulthood for thousands of children of all races in Chicago.

As the destruction of vocational education in Chicago progressed during the years since the Clinton Presidency began it, one of the things that was also destroyed was the historical memory of Black Chicago. Above, the trophies, for sports and vocational work, in the lobby of Dunbar High School in Chicago. Since Chicago's Renaissance 2010 program began in 2004, Chicago has closed seven black high schools, turning them over to privatization (through charter schools such as Urban Prep) or putting them under the control of private, white management groups such as the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL). Substance photo from September 2007 above by George N. Schmidt.The hardest hit programs are of course the Career Technical Education programs that are not seen as important to the College Prep or test prep core curriculum push across the nation.

Just last week Substance got news that one of the last wood shops in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) was shut down. Closed was the cabinet making program at Kelly High School: A general education open enrollment neighborhood high school that has a student population of over 3,000 students in the heart of a Hispanic working class area of the city. The program was important to the community. It was also where I did my student teaching eight years ago. In another closing, the Architectural Drafting program at Phillips High School was also shut down this summer despite having all new computers and software installed last year under one of the only teachers in system that has actual work experience on large construction projects. Phillips High School has now been taken over by one of the key allies of the mayor, the Academy for Urban School Leadership, under "turnaround."

Besides the obvious taking away of opportunities for the students of this High School this is starting to be a disturbing tend in Chicago that has, what looks like accelerated the closing of CTE programs in neighborhood high schools under the supervision of Aarti Dhupelia Director CTE programs in Chicago public schools. Duphelia, incidentally, has no industry experience and does not hold any Illinois State Teaching credentials in a CTE field, but has an MBA from Harvard.

In addition to the shutting down of CTE programs there is documentation that shows that diverting of Perkins Funding away from traditional hands on vocational training to college prep programming expenditures. In a 2009 article documenting the expansion of college access in CPS the figure is staggering, $34.5 million diverted to programming in the renamed Department of College and Career Preparation (DCCP).

Being and shop teacher myself the question that keeps nagging at me is how do we as CTE educators not only protect the opportunities for the students we service, but how do we explain to students in the middle of a three year program of training that their program has been closed. Then how do we as CTE educators explain to the community and stakeholders where all the equipment and material that was paid for by federal dollars and donations went, when their children’s programs are closed and teachers fired: the students and community that now do not have access to the resources that where inside the neighborhood school. Where did it all go? That is a million dollar question.


Lowery, G. and Hoyler, M. (Winter 2009) Expanding college access and success. Council for Opportunity in Education. Washington, DC.

Pathways to Prosperity (February 2011) Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Harvard Report Questions Value of 'College for All' (Press Release and Ed Week story)

Published Online: February 2, 2011, By Catherine Gewertz

By concentrating too much on classroom-based academics with four-year college as a goal, the nation’s education system has failed vast numbers of students, who instead need solid preparation for careers requiring less than a bachelor’s degree, Harvard scholars say in a report issued today.

Leaders of the “Pathways to Prosperity” project at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education argue for an education system that clearly articulates students’ career options as early as middle school and defines the coursework and training required, so young people can chart an informed course toward work, whether as an electrician or a college professor.

Their report arrives as experts are trying to define what skills are necessary for work and for higher learning.

The proposal from an esteemed school of education sparked immediate concern—including what one activist called “a major case of heartburn”—for raising the specter of tracking, in which disadvantaged students would be channeled unquestioningly into watered-down programs that curtail their prospects.

The Harvard study also drew notice because it was driven in part by the concerns of one of its co-authors, Robert B. Schwartz, a prominent champion of higher academic expectations for all students, who said he began to doubt the wisdom of a “college for all” approach to education. Another co-author, Ronald Ferguson, the director of Harvard’s Achievement Gap Initiative, is a national expert on improving learning opportunities for disadvantaged children.

The authors contend that their vision would expand opportunity for all students, especially those who face the dimmest prospects now because their education stops at high school. Rather than derailing some students from higher learning, their system would actually open more of those pathways, they say, by offering sound college preparation and rigorous career-focused, real-world learning, and by defining clear routes from secondary school into certificate or college programs.

“Every high school graduate should find viable ways of pursuing both a career and a meaningful postsecondary degree or credential,” the report says. “For too many of our youth, we have treated preparing for college versus preparing for a career as mutually exclusive options.”

Appearing at an event to discuss the report on Wednesday [February 2, 2011], U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan urged educators and policymakers to embrace a vision of career and technical education that prepares students simultaneously for college and good-paying jobs by imparting the blend of academic and workplace skills needed in both. He acknowledged that too many CTE programs have been “dumping grounds for students tracked with weaker academic skills,” but asserted that re-envisioned programs will be “viable and rigorous pathways” to college and career success.

Job Demands

The Harvard report echoes concerns captured in a stream of papers since the late 1980s that young people not bound for college face a daunting employment landscape. It draws on employment data that show more jobs demand some postsecondary training. Such figures have led President Barack Obama to urge all Americans to obtain at least one year of training or higher education after high school.

In 1973, seven in 10 jobs in the United States were held by those with only a high school education, but by 2007, that figure dropped to four in 10, the report says. Half the jobs created in the next decade will be well matched to those with associate’s degrees or vocational or technical training, including “middle skills” jobs such as construction manager or dental hygienist, it says. Many of those jobs pay more than jobs typically held by workers with only high school diplomas, and some even pay more than the average job held by a four-year college graduate, according to the study.

Six in 10 Americans don’t complete associate’s or bachelor’s degrees by their mid-20s, the report notes, and only one in 10 earns an occupational certificate. Those figures, combined with the job forecasts, suggest that education must be fundamentally reworked to ensure sound options for non-college-bound students, the authors say.

Drawing on European systems of vocational education, they argue for an American version of a “more holistic” education that would involve employers in defining the skills necessary for work and providing internships, apprenticeships, and other opportunities linked tightly to students’ courses of study. Pivotal to such a system would be career counseling embedded in schools from early in students’ education.

A focus on better preparing students for middle-skills jobs is long overdue, said Anthony P. Carnevale, one of the job-market experts whose research is cited in the study.

“If there is one thing in education that I would tell the president to do, this is it,” said Mr. Carnevale, the director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. “Since 1983 and A Nation at Risk, we’ve been very single-minded about kids going to college. It’s good, but it’s too narrow.”

But creating varied pathways is fraught with political peril because of the risk that some students will be held to lower expectations, Mr. Carnevale said.

In apparent anticipation of such concerns, the authors say that in their system, students would “not be locked into one career at an early age.” But they also say in the report that “the course taking requirements for entry into the most demanding four-year colleges should not be imposed on students seeking careers with fewer academic requirements.”

Premature Shift?

Some education advocates reacted with alarm to the recommendations, especially given the virtual absence of career counseling in the K-12 or community college system to help level the playing field between disadvantaged students and more-fortunate ones.

“They’re arguing for different standards and separate tracks,” said Kati Haycock, the president of the Education Trust, a Washington-based group that focuses on policies to improve education for low-income students. “Every single time we create multiple tracks, we always send disproportionate numbers of poor kids and kids of color down the lesser one. Until we can find a way not to do that, then people like me will object.”

Mr. Schwartz of Harvard acknowledged that the report wades into “tricky terrain.” But he said that tracking is “when schools make decisions about what kids are capable of and what their futures are. It’s pervasive in our schools, and it’s a huge problem.

“But I wouldn’t confuse that form of tracking,” he said, “with trying to create a system in which by the time kids hit 16, they and their families have some real choices to make.”

Michael Cohen, who succeeded Mr. Schwartz as the president of Achieve, a Washington-based organization that works with states to raise their academic expectations, took issue with the report’s depiction of the college-readiness agenda as having failed. Only recently, he said, have states adopted course requirements that reflect the skills and knowledge needed for college and good jobs. “To say we’ve tried this and it failed seems a bit premature, like snatching defeat from the jaws of victory,” he said.

In addition, he speculated, shorthand rhetoric might be confusing what people mean by “college for all.”

“No one is talking about preparing everyone for four-year colleges, or even two-year colleges,” said Mr. Cohen. “It’s a straw man. Everyone from the president on down is saying, ‘Some form of training after high school.’ ”

Some states and districts are moving toward highly rigorous versions of career and technical education. The report cites examples such as California’s Linked Learning initiative, which combines work-based learning with counseling supports, and Massachusetts’ network of regional vocational-technical schools. Construction Technology Academy at Kearny High School in San Diego, one of the 50-plus campuses in California’s Linked Learning network, could illustrate some of what the report’s authors have in mind, said Gary Hoachlander, the president of ConnectEd, a Berkeley, Calif.-based nonprofit group that supports Linked Learning schools.

Students who choose the academy study architecture, engineering, and construction as well as the typical core curriculum, he said. Some go on to apprenticeship programs in the construction trades, some go to community colleges, and some enroll in universities, but all students take courses in the principles of engineering, computer-assisted design, carpentry, and electricity, Mr. Hoachlander said. “There are no traditional separations between the students headed to one place and those headed to another,” he said. “They all study the same things. And those connections are what’s so powerful.”

Coverage of "deeper learning" that will prepare students with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in a rapidly changing world is supported in part by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at

Vol. 30, Issue 20


The American system for preparing young people to

lead productive and prosperous lives as adults is clearly

badly broken. Millions of young adults now arrive at their

mid-20s without a college degree and/or a route to a

viable job. As we have seen, many other advanced nations

are achieving markedly better results with pathways

systems that take a more holistic approach to youth

development. We are not suggesting that America can or

should try to import these foreign models. The German

dual-apprenticeship system, for instance, has been

developed over many generations, and is the product of

a very different culture. But the superior results achieved

by these systems argue that we must embark on an

effort to build a more comprehensive American system

of pathways to prosperity—one that is better equipped to

meet the widely diverse needs, interests and abilities of

all our young people. Continuing on our current course, by

placing almost all our bets on classroom-based pedagogy,

is likely to produce little more than the marginal gains

we’ve seen over the past two decades. And that rate of

progress is simply unacceptable for anyone who cares

about the future of America.

In what follows, we have chosen to focus on three

essential elements of any long-term strategy to address

the challenge outlined in the opening section of this

report. The first element is the development of a broader

vision of school reform that incorporates multiple

pathways to carry young people from high school to

adulthood. The second is the development of a muchexpanded

role for employers in supporting these new

pathways. The third is the development of a new social

compact between society and its young people.

The ideas outlined below will require changes not just in

how we prepare young people, but also in some of our

deepest cultural beliefs and biases regarding education.

We are under no illusions that this will be easy or

uncontroversial. There will be additional investments

required, human as well as financial, especially from

employers. But from the Revolution and the Civil War to

World War II and the Civil Rights Movement, none of the

greatest achievements of this nation have been easy and

uncontroversial. Building a better network of pathways

to adulthood for our young is one of the paramount

challenges of our time.

continued....a report issued today.


February 5, 2011 at 8:35 PM

By: bob

Shop classes at Dunbar were key to many futures...

Pine sawdust smells good

This story is correct but I would like to comment on the students who went to the old vocational schools and the teachers who taught them. It is fitting that your pictures shows Dunbar a school that produced hundreds of teachers. Yes, the vocational programs there produced almost all the shop teachers who I taught with at the old Simeon. A person did not have to have a college degree to teach a skill, like machine shop, under the Smith Hughes act. They only have to have served an apprenticeship and worked as a journeyman in their trade.

Look around today and you will find many of our skilled tradesmen, and women, were not taught in American Vocational Schools but overseas. If America needs a thousand brick layers, put out the word and they will pour in from Ireland and Poland. Dunbar was the only school in Chicago that taught that skill.

Students in a vocational school were exposed to different shops and chose the one they wanted. Any kid could learn how to change his tires, or oil, and still prepare for college. Nobody who took auto shop at Simeon ever fell for a mechanic who said :“Your franisanice is broke. It will be a grand to fix it.” They knew better.

October 16, 2011 at 8:45 AM

By: Andre Morgan

The silence in the shop wing of CVS is very clear..

As a graduate of Chicago Vocational and as an adult a 20 year employee of CVS, the silence of the Anthony Wing (the long hall that use to be filled with shops) is horrible. There was a time when vocational ed students were the future of our country's work force.

So many of our students have no choices, and most with their 14 ACT will not matriculate to college. As someone said to me yesterday, "Whose brillant idea was it to determine that everyone should go to college."

We must find a healthy balance for the American Education system.

May 30, 2013 at 7:34 PM

By: Paulette Lane

Dunbar Students and CTE

Many of the students coming into Dunbar today are several years behind in school academically and lack the necessary aptitude to sucessfully complete a CTE Program. I remember reading a report that indicated that many of the students at Dunbar were coming into the school unable to read, so some of the programs were cancelled in order to teach them how to read. So in essence, the students are causing the programs to get cancelled because they are not academically ready for a CTE program. Dunbar also lowered their academic standards (lower than they already were) to qualify for a small learning community grant. The school has been failing for about 20 years. So sad!! CPS should set higher standards for all their CTE Programs in order to attract students with a strong academic work ethic that was demonstrated in elementary school. However, CPS is currently just setting up weak students to fail by expecting students who are not ready for a CTE Program to somehow be successful at Dunbar.

May 31, 2013 at 5:56 PM

By: Rod Estvan

Vocational programs and youth unemployment

The German, Swiss, and most Nordic nations' vocational apprentice programs have worked -- and continue to work -- in providing skills and jobs to students, even in the current fiscal collapse in Europe. Youth employment in those nations is still relatively strong.

But in a nation like Italy right now these training programs are all about keeping young people out of training programs that are most likely to result in employment for those who complete the vocational programs. The current Italian youth jobless rate is at 40.5 percent. But it's actually even worse than that because Italy has a chronically low rate of participation in the labor market. Youth unemployment is over 50 per cent in Greece and Spain.

Because of the European Common Market, many of the standards for vocational training are similar in those European nations with almost no youth unemployment and those like Greece and Spain with high levels of youth unemployment.

Just like here in the USA, youth with a higher level of training and skills are more likely to be working. This means that low qualified young people are the main group at risk of experiencing unemployment in terms of occurrence and duration. Males and people with an immigrant background show higher risks of unemployment compared to others in nations like Italy and Spain.

The reality is both in Europe and here the effectiveness of vocational programs depend on the state of the economy and the number of youth entering the labor market. So a school like Dunbar could raise its standards, but still not find jobs for vocational graduates given the current labor market. The driver here is the labor market itself -- not the quality of the vocational programs.

Vocational education is not a magic pill that will solve youth unemployment. But the decline of Dunbar which Paulette described well is indeed depressing and sad. When I taught at Calumet High we used to be just amazed at the relative calm and order of Dunbar even in the early 1990s.

Rod Estvan

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