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 | Comments (68)