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Everybody to College...Don't Count On it

Recently I paid a visit to the Oakland headquarters of College Track, a nonprofit organization just a block from City Hall that helps high school students prepare for college. The walls of College Track's offices were adorned with colorful college pennants. One hundred and thirty Oakland high school students receive mentoring at this unique and innovative institution. They put in long hours after school, sharpening their academic skills.

I sat down with a group of the students and discussed a wide range of subjects, including standardized tests, the state of Oakland schools, street crime and the merits of the Oakland Military Institute (OMI), a charter school that I started four years ago.
Since its inception, the Oakland Military Institute has been depicted by critics as a tool by which Oakland kids are funneled into the army.  Nothing could be further from the truth. The mission of OMI is to provide a disciplined and inspiring framework so that students master college prep courses. The school aims to foster good character and leadership. Success is measured by how many students qualify for four year colleges. In this respect, OMI has a lot in common with College Track. Both institutions aim for 100% college attendance.

The question is: how real is that goal for every California high school student? In Los Angeles, the Board of Education is about to vote on a proposal to require all students to take the courses necessary to attend either U.C. or C.S.U.C. Many Los Angeles teachers object because they believe the proposal is unrealistic and unfair.

The truth is that many students--more than half in certain low income areas--don’t graduate today. Adding stringent new requirements may just ensure that many more fail to get their high school diplomas.

The proponents say that schools have to create high expectations. True enough. Yet that kind of rhetoric and the decisions that have come in its wake have done nothing to stop hundreds of schools from actually generating high school dropouts. The fact that these schools do so under the legal banner of a “free and appropriate education for every child” only compounds the irony--and the horror.

Standardized test scores track wealth and poverty with frightening precision. Even the call for “equal” education spending misses the point.

If this society wants to fulfill its stated ideals, it must provide disproportionate talent and spending in the earliest years for those students whose family environment does not foster college preparation. Mere equality—which we are far from—is simply not enough.

Mortimer Adler held that every citizen required a liberal arts education and firm grounding in the basic ideas and traditions of our civilization. This is a lofty objective but tragically too many schools neither equip citizens for critical thinking, nor provide future workers with the practical skills they need.

The current situation is profoundly unacceptable. It will only change when politicians stop using illusory measures to deal with the gross disparities that currently characterize our public school system.

May 31, 2005 in Education | Permalink


It would be a perfect world if every student was competent for college but they aren't. What we should be doing is making them competent to carry on with their lives, for whatever they will be doing. They need lessons in ordering their lives; budgeting their interest, time and money to their best benefit. Having lived most of my life in a college environment I have seen way too many students who had no idea what they were doing there, and where they were going with their lives.

Posted by: Ruth H | May 31, 2005 2:30:36 PM

Let's see, high school trade education is useless, because we no longer have trades to enter into. But wait! Former trade school track students can now take Chinese, then after mastering Chinese in high school, we can wave goodbye as they emigrate to the PRC. A win-win situation, China already has all our manufacturing, now they can also have all our manufacturers -- our sons and daughters who have trade skills and want to use them.

Posted by: Bro. Bartleby | May 31, 2005 3:26:28 PM

Let's see, high school trade education is useless, because we no longer have trades to enter into. But wait! Former trade school track students can now take Chinese, then after mastering Chinese in high school, we can wave goodbye as they emigrate to the PRC. A win-win situation, China already has all our manufacturing, now they can also have all our manufacturers -- our sons and daughters who have trade skills and want to use them.

Posted by: Bro. Bartleby | May 31, 2005 3:26:28 PM

Bro Bartleby,
Pretty ironic but my peasant brother teaches other Chinese peasants in the PRC English. But what can you a middle-aged unemployed college graduate do when they don't want to support family farmers, and oursource our jobs as well?

It's actually not a win-win situation though because as we continue shipping our scrap metal to China which is returned to us in the form of manufactured goods, we produce nothing to pay for the Chinese manfactured goods. You say our daughters and sons can become "traders" but what American goods will they be able to trade and to whom?

Posted by: Peasant | May 31, 2005 8:57:47 PM

How about preparing everyone for college that has the capability AND DESIRE to go? At some point, we must ask something of the students themselves. The Gov's mention of OMI is exactly right -- the students have the desire to excel, and the school gives them the tools they need to achieve it.

But there still are "trades". And we had best have systems for training our young citizens for them, or the demand for immigrant skilled labor (or outsourcing) will remain massive.

Posted by: rodander | Jun 1, 2005 6:52:50 AM

I think you are missing the point. We need to spend more, earlier for the economically disadvantaged student so that they are prepared to be able to choose college.

And believe me, we ask plenty of every student who has to attend public school in this city. The schools are such cesspools of violence and chaos, it is remarkable that any are able to function there.

I do not blame the schools for this situation, I blame the lack of parenting (and outright toxic parenting) of the kids. We would do better to teach kids parenting and social skills starting in elementary schools so that the kids realize what the norms of a civilized society are, and then hold them to that behavior at school. That would be a precious gift to the future.

Posted by: Janet | Jun 1, 2005 7:37:00 AM

Keeping with the ironic stream of thought, maybe we can outsource our children to be raised in rural Chinese villages, then upon their rite of passage into maturity, they return home, well mannered, willing to eat almost anything, hard working, and able to teach conversational Chinese at any local community college.

Posted by: Bro. Bartleby | Jun 1, 2005 11:07:22 AM

As a native Californian who spent his formative years attending school in Wisconsin, I can say that trade schools and "shop" classes play an important and vital role in education. I had many friends that were not book smart and had no interest in attending college. Instead, they were extremely talented in construction, wood working, or automotive repair. Had they been forced to learn college material, they would have certainly failed. Because my high school had shop classes like welding, auto repair, and wood working, they were able to use their natural ability and skill set. Not everyone is meant to go to college, but their contribution to society is no different than those who become doctors or lawyers. We all need people who can fix our cars, build our homes, and repair our electronic devices. I hope that the educators realize that just because students do not follow the path to college, it does not mean that they are not as valuable as those who attend college and receive a degree.

Posted by: Dave | Jun 1, 2005 3:55:45 PM

Dave and Bro Bartley,

Good points about preparing and equipping people with skills in order to make a contribution to society and to prevent us from having to import all those immigrants presently working on construction sites all over Oakland rather than our Native sons and daughters.

I, too, went to high school in the midwest and benefited from the woodworking class. Coming from a farm background further benefited me in learning a lot of mechanical skills. But my education and preparation for entering a technologically sophisticated and economically complex society didn't stop there. I also went to University on scholarship.

The point being that today's kids who aren't motivated to go on to college still need to learn mathematics, physics and all the other hard "core" science classes needed in order to prepare them for the "trades" now in demand as well as basic trades like being an electrician where math skills and basic knowledge of physics are necessary.

Posted by: Peasant | Jun 1, 2005 6:21:02 PM

I don't understand how 'education' and 'school' became synonymous. I also don't get the 'school' that guarantees a 'job' thing either. American schools are just lame. it basically a bunch of patriotic indoctrination with some 'fuzzy math' and science added on. then collage is just a self-indulgent mental masturbatory fest. later college grads are horrified that employers value experience over education. to reference a previous post of the mayor: its a better career move to go to prison than college...cheaper too.

they ought to rip out the whole system and start over. have a series of tv's lure kindergarten age kids into a library and leave them there for a year. then they present a project based on 'discovery'. then they are divided into groups: the platinum group will learn to play golf and mix martini's the gold group will learn how to fill out paper work and blame other for their mistakes, the silver group will learn to wear nametags and greet customers, the bronze group will be versed in grill theory and spatula technique, and the orange group will learn to fold sheets and make weapons out of toothbrushes.
it's cruel to humor kids into thinking that our civilization has anything to offer them (if there parents are not millionaires)

Posted by: darfur twinkie | Jun 2, 2005 9:49:40 AM

Darfur Twinkie,

Cynics like yourself who have no hope, vision or dreams for a better world
for our children should not have children period!

Posted by: Tinkerbell | Jun 2, 2005 12:08:04 PM

Well geez - first of all woohoo! to Rodander! - in that OMI does, in fact, offer ultimate options to those cadets who are willing and desirous to excel... in any future endeavor- be it college or a trade. OMI instills the discipline and focus to achieve one's goals! It's quite sad that so many adults are so quick to be critics of this super school! Janet- you're correct in that the fundamental problem lies within the family/ and the values and structure...but that's a "long road to hoe" to correct! Dafur- you're purely a lost soul- one who obviously didn't do well in school: particularly in English/Grammar! You lack all the requisites to land even the most basic clerical/ secretarial job, and are probably quite frustrated and angry. Perhaps you might consider taking an online class or two?

Posted by: carak | Jun 3, 2005 1:55:32 AM

Here's my question about the Oakland schools. Property values have skyrocketed here; maybe 50 percent in the last five years. New market rate projects abound, and sell quickly. Lofts in Jack London Square are now $600,000 and up. These new homeowners are paying upwards of $7,000 a year in property taxes, without adding any more kids to the system (most are without kids).

So where is all that tax money going? It sure as hell is not improving our schools. Something is utterly dysfunctional here if we cannot improve the schools even when cash is (or ought to be) flooding into the system. It's not Prop. 13's fault that our schools are among the worst in the country. What's going on? We have Palo Alto prices and an Alabama school system!

Posted by: observer | Jun 3, 2005 9:24:14 AM

Jerry, what is your solution? FedEx did wonders for the US post office. Did you know that the Post Office will now come to your office and pick up your mail/Boxes.... and they even say "Thank you"! I guess we can thank FedEx for that!

Hmm, I wonder if any lessons can be learned from that example?

I'm sorry, hard head like me - what in the world does the Post Office, FedEx and "Government" ran schools have in common? I don't know, went to a "Government" ran school!

I understand peoples desires to have government solve these types of problems. Government can't do it. What government can do is design mandates. All that is missing is competition. But what monopoly ever wants to compete? None...

Government broke up AT&T. And look want it gave us. What if Government broke up the Government school system? And made it compete against itself.

Problem solved. What is your solution?

Posted by: Mark | Jun 3, 2005 12:21:05 PM

Interesting article and thread. My two cents worth: I agree with the thought that not every child wants to go to college or will benefit from it. Thus, woodworking, shop, auto mechanics etc are very valuable and seem to have gotten lost over the years...I think in part because of the rejection of "tracking." I understand the disdain for tracking but I think you can allow students who are 15 and over to choose vocational classes rather than or in addition to college prep classes. I also agree that the lack of good parenting contributes to the failure of our educational system. Our society must address that through education of parents (including teaching about birth control).

Posted by: Cidney | Jun 4, 2005 9:38:19 PM

One question, Jerry. If you are concerned about these kids - engaging with them, meeting their needs, etc. - then where were you on May 17th when students from all over Oakland marched to City Hall to demand better educational opportunities and getting rid of the standardization which you say you're against?

You got an invitation, but you didn't show up. What gives, Jerry? These kids organized themselves to fight for better schools and you can't give them the time of day? Seems like you're only interested in engaging the youth on your own terms.

How will you engage them as Attorney General? Will they be anything more than potential inmates to you? And once they get out on parole will they live under a statewide curfew? More flesh to feed the for-profit prison system and line your pockets with prison guard union donations?

Posted by: scott | Jun 5, 2005 12:50:55 AM

Wow. The discussion here is brilliant.

Posted by: Fayza | Jun 5, 2005 8:17:29 AM

The schools are fine, or at least good enough. How would you respond to the fact that students do make it through the Oakland School system, myself and numerous friends included, and attend UC?

Schools are made up of a physical locations, texts, and teachers - I found all of those parts at least satisfactory. So what else makes a shool?

Students and parents. It is a glaring fact that you or your perspective choose or can't see, but the sctual students, and by association their parents, guage the actual success of an institution.

Go on and make excuses and nothing will ever change. Do you honestly believe that brand new texts, state of the art computers, top tier professors, and gleaming facilites will turn around the worst Oakland schools? If you do you are wrong...

It is going to take students and parents to do that, and sadly i don't see it happening - just misguided frustration that actually makes things worse rather than better. Blaming others never got anyone anywhere and it did not get me to UCLA either...

I have seen more in the Oakland School system than you could imagine,

Class of '96

Posted by: qwerty | Jun 5, 2005 3:28:53 PM



Seems like OMI - the alleged college prep school -- is still kinda sucky.

Children make such fine pawns, don't they, Mister Attorney General?

Posted by: guess | Jun 5, 2005 10:16:54 PM

Observer? Perhaps you need to do a bit more research... in that we do NOT have Palo Alto prices - and furthermore? the very first requisite for family-minded homebuyers is to research the schools.. If home/loft buyers new to Oakland choose to buy here, it would probably be due to their confidence in their investment.

Posted by: carak | Jun 6, 2005 1:29:23 AM

Cidney.. very true! about trade schools and tracking! It's sad that government has mandated laws about tracking - preventing it. Particularly here in California we tend to initiate laws that ultimately harm us - in the name of " consumers/ etc." And the subject of parenting? Wow.. that's sadly a lacking talent lately. Far easier to rely on schools and government to shoulder THAT responsibility! But woe to those who try to correct the behavioral problems! Can you say litigation!?

Posted by: carak | Jun 6, 2005 1:40:50 AM

qwerty! I couldn't agree with you more! It's so easy to attempt to place blame on all others for underachievement. It would behoove people to realize? That the Mayor.. does NOT have the power? to make changes to Oakland schools! Look to Dr. Ward.. etc. the Mayor has merely attempted to spur competition/ action to improve the situation which has always been beyond his control!

And Guess? hmmmmmm I'm quite curious as to your basis for your post...with regard to pawns, etc. Perhaps you might elaborate? and enlighten us all.

Posted by: carak | Jun 6, 2005 1:49:14 AM

Jerry is catching it once again from both the left and the right peanut galleries. I have to concede sympathy with Scott's criticisms.

But once again people have failed to read closely and note that Jerry is making overall comments about the problems of California's statewide educational system. These policies are devised by the Governor through his Education secretary Riordan as well as the State Superintendent Jack O'Connell. The state of California has a choice--whether or not they want to participate in the "no Child Left Behind" legislation put forth by President Bush or opt out.

"Standardized test scores track wealth and poverty with frightening precision. Even the call for “equal” education spending misses the point."

That's why OMI has a lower test score. Because the students Mayor Brown has dedicated himself to advancing on towards a college education did not come from affluent backgrounds. Furthermore many were several grades behind.

As an experiment in trying to produce a class of college grads from backgrounds that would have produced high school dropouts, I must commend Mayor Brown for all his time, energy and efforts he has poured into this endeavor. No he couldn't save Oakland Unified from going under, but neither could Superintendent Chaconas, County Superintendent Sheila Jordan nor the Oakland School Board, all of whom had primary responsbility for the financial fiasco which took place along with Sen. Perata who pushed for receivership rather than trusteeship.
And let's face it--this is the second time now that Oakland schools have gone into receivership.

While I'm not too happy with the amount of money and attention being given to OAS, the Mayor's second charter school, I must cheer him on with the OMI which is indeed a noble experiment which nobody before has tried and attempted-- to graduate an entire school of African American students in Oakland onwards to college.

Keep trying Jerry! Don't give up.

And those in the peanut galleries, aim your fire at Gov. Arnold Schwarzennegger--he's the one cutting the $2 billion from California's schools and attacking some of our state's most hardworking teachers--the teachers in schools where children do not come from affluent backgrounds.

Why doesn't the Governor put the prison guards and the state legislature on "merit" pay along with his l80 member staff? What have they produced in the way of productivity and streamlining in making our schools more productive and free of red tape? What have they done to advance our bridge or help breakup traffic gridlocks throughout Bay Area freeways?

Why has the governor targeted teachers for union busting and not prison guards when the prison system in California is considered one of the worst and most corrupt?

Posted by: Val | Jun 6, 2005 2:48:12 AM

The olden days ...

we who were blessed with clueless parents found high school to be a delight, all day long we played with buzz saws and drill presses and disassembled engine blocks and put new rings on pistons and carved walnut nut bowls and crafted pinewood cabinets and used drafting machines to draw buildings and melted lead to make fishing weights. And our parents were wowed, for they were either from the 'old country' or they worked in a trade and valued craftsmanship.

Alas, those with cluefull parents found high school a grind, a contest, competing for tickets to a college or university. Woe to one of those kids who tried to sign up for a 'shop class'! The parents had already drawn the line in the sand, and if one wanted to get ahead, one went to college ... after all, if one became blue collar, then one's class was forever defined. And class for them REALLY mattered.

So, today we attempt to created, not the classless society, but the society with everyone pretending to be in the 'upper class' -- the white collar class. With all students on a college prep track, then we don't have to deal with that dreaded lower class, the blue collars. At least that's the illusion we are attempting to create.

Posted by: Bro. Bartleby | Jun 6, 2005 6:31:37 AM

Parents are at least most of the problem when it comes to education. Teachers and politicians contribute too but it starts at home. Clueless parents of yesteryear didn't let their kids run wild in the streets. Yesteryear, cursing a teacher would get you knocked down by said clueless parent. Today, the clueless parent agrees with the kid and perhaps joins in.

A statewide curfew is not a bad idea since too many parents don't know where their kids are, who they are with, what they are doing, and when they'll be home.

Too bad being a parent has become an ego test of your worth as a person instead of a charge to raise children to be productive, self sufficient people. The state can hold you responsible for damages done by your pet but heaven forbid we hold parents responsible for their kids.

As for trade school and university, who gets to decide which kids go where? I forsee brown kids going to trade school and non brown kids going to college. Nothing new there. And brown kids still having a hard time getting work on a construction site as a skilled tradesman.

Posted by: Kris Rocks | Jun 6, 2005 7:54:16 AM

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