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#6: Leave Children Behind: Don't Prepare Everyone for College

August 7, 2010, 12:00 AM

The U.S. education system is based on the meritocratic principle that no matter what the circumstances of a child's birth, each should have a baseline level of education and the opportunity to go on to college.

But Robert Lerman, an economist at American University, tells Big Think that for a large number of high school students, college preparatory courses aren't useful and won't prepare them for their future careers.  He says we need to face reality and retool our education system to acknowledge not everyone is meant to go to college—and many shouldn't be educated with that goal in mind.

Lerman outlines four reasons for why our college-oriented education system is wrong:

  • It's based on the notion that you need the same skills to succeed in college as in the workplace, which is false.
  • Adding to the purely academic load displaces more vocationally oriented subjects. 
  • Adopting more advanced coursework in the curriculum potentially increases the dropout rate.
  • Favoring higher-order, college-directed coursework leaves behind those not achieving even solid reading comprehension and basic math skills.

Lerman questions the much-touted federal initiative known as Common Core Standards, which, he argues, is "piling on lots of advanced course material that would be a requirement for high school education.  My view is that even though lots of states are now adopting them, or at least claiming that they will, that this is a bad idea."  Adopting the standards—as 35 states have done so far—gives states points in the "Race to the Top" program and access to $3.4 billion in federal grants.

"It is trying to impose much higher standards on everybody before they are able to achieve a really solid grounding in the basic skills," Lerman says. "This is where a lot of the employability problems arise." He cites a study from Northeastern University sociologist Michael Handel which found that only 9 percent of the overall workforce use Algebra-2 level math; and fewer than 20 percent of managerial and technical workers report using it.

The solution, according to Lerman, is incorporating vocational platforms for students, rather than an automated track toward college: "These are not necessarily classes, but might include methods of learning on the job and interactive, work-based learning paired with traditional school learning."


Economist Robert Lerman challenges the idea that our public school system should prepare  everyone to go to college. Many college-track courses in high school—like Algebra 2—do not give students skills they will need in the real world.

Why We Should Reject This Idea

College is a ticket to higher wages, and to deprive people of that ticket seems unjust.  The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in 2009 a high school graduate earned a median wage of $626 per week while a college graduate earned $1,025 per week.  More education, according to the report, translated to an increase in earnings.  The report also showed a decrease in unemployment rates with each successive degree.

More Resources

—Robert Lerman and Arnold Packer, "Will We Ever Learn: What's Wrong with the Common-Standards Project," Education Weekly.

—Robert Lerman, "Training Tomorrow's Workforce: Community College and Apprenticeship as Collaborative Routes to Rewarding Careers." 

—Michael J. Handel, "A New Survey of Workplace Skills, Technology, and Management Practices (STAMP): Background and Descriptive Statistics."

—U.S. Census Report: "The Big Payoff: Education Attainment and the Synthetic Estimates of Work-life Earnings."

Common Core State Standards Initiative homepage.


#6: Leave Children Behind: ...

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