If John Bailey Ran The Zoo…Plus A CTE Opportunity?

John Bailey is out with a new round-up of studies about school and Covid in an effort to push the reopening debate. 74 here.

I wanted to write on CTE and Miguel Cardona, but work and life have thwarted those plans. So here’s something brief.

This piece by Tamar Jacoby is a good look at some of the creative opportunities here. CTE seems like one of these issues where a bunch of things are all true. It has real promise for people’s lives and opportunities. It can also be a tracking system especially for poor kids, Black kids, and Hispanic students. Most of the advocates (in the elite parts of the reform world) think it’s great for other people’s kids but expect their own to rock it at Vassar. It’s not the “shop” class of lore these days but rather a host of opportunities. There are too many credentials as a result of a political case for creating them, as a result some are not respected by industry or in demand. And, of course, college completion is really important for poor kids as a social mobility strategy. ‘Having the choice of going to college for all’ is a lousy slogan, but a pretty good policy if it means we address all the barriers to poor kids getting to go to college at the same rate as affluent ones.

Two things here to think about, switching costs and an elite bias among much of the sector’s leadership and infrastructure.

First, college/career switching costs are way too high for young people and young adults. One reason the “pathways” rhetoric leaves me uneasy is I don’t want young people on pathways. European-style systems often seem at odds with parts of the American ethos and a better fit for those cultures. Isn’t it better for young people to instead be on trampolines where they can bounce into a bunch of things that they choose? And if they don’t like those choices they are prepared to bounce again and able to make new ones?

The structure of school, and really of life, means that when you are 17 or 18 you have to make some big decisions. But you know who is not great at making decisions? 17-and 18-year-olds. But also the people who are often charged with making decisions for them. So we really should be thinking more about how to lower the various switching costs for people who choose college and then are attracted to opportunties where a degree isn’t necessary and also for people who think they don’t want to go to college and later change their mind. Or for people who just figure it out later than others. None of this is to argue against giving kids information about careers or exposure to them, that’s all important. But realism means we should expect a lot of slippage and policy should account for it.

Second, the education sector’s leadership is mostly populated by very academically successful types. That’s great. We should celebrate success and it’s really weird when the education sector, of all places, minimizes academic achievement, intellectualism, or ideas. But, at the same time, viewpoint diversity on conference panels or in organizational leadership is not having both Ivies and the Seven Sisters represented. It’s still too rare to see someone who graduated from a state school that is not Berkley or UVA show up. Even better maybe someone who didn’t graduate at all? There is a certain kind of person in our sector who talks a good game about inclusion but thinks that having underrepresented perspectives means inviting someone who went to Chicago or an elite school on the west coast rather than the northeast. This can skew ways of thinking about opportunities and accounts for the casual classism, and sometimes racism, that bubbles up around these issues.

Thing is, most Americans don’t go to fancy schools (if they go to college at all), care about parsing how Stanford and Duke fit into the pantheon of elite schools, or focus much on elite markers at all. Their education experience is not linear, good schools then good college then formative professional experience at a blue chip kind of consulting or finance or other professional services firm followed by professional or grad school, and then a more refined career. Most people zig and they zag for a while as they figure it out – and they have a broader definition of successful anyway. We talked about divides the other day and what kind of validation people thrive on would be another one. I’m not an adherent of either, but Michael Lind and Frederick deBoer are both well worth reading on the various class issues here.

My hope is that this is why Miguel Cardona will be an in interesting voice and creative policy designer on CTE. His own life experience involved some zigging and zagging when he changed his mind about career paths. And, based on his work in Connecticut, he seems to have a keen eye toward equity and opportunity and how to expand access for more Americans. There are interesting coalition building opportunities here with labor and unions, with business, with equity focused reformers, and with the schools. Here’s one approach we highlighted last week at Bellwether.

Cardona’s instinct seems to be toward giving people choices rather than setting them on a path. That, coupled with second chances, is really what the American school system, and American life, is about at its best. We can do a lot worse for a North Star in this debate.

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