Policy won’t lead change; teachers must

Seen from above, graduate's black mortarboards.

A piece by Mary Alice McCarthy in The Atlantic last week has gotten a lot of well-deserved attention. McCarthy’s thesis is in her title: “America Needs to Get Over its Reverence for the Bachelor’s Degree.”

She uses the experiences of her two nephews to show two equally unacceptable options for students who don’t want to move from the high school classroom to the college classroom.

One of her nephews went into a culinary arts training program at at technical college. Then he went to New York City restaurants where he did well and got great experience.

All his training and experience afforded him no credit toward the college degree he’d need to work in management, where he’d earn more and which could lead to operating his own restaurant.

The other nephew went, reluctantly, to college, eventually graduated, but without having developed any true college-level skills. He’s unemployed, unqualified for white collar jobs, and untrained for blue-collar ones.

McCarthy points out that, unlike America, many other developed countries have career pathways that start with impressive vocational training programs.  She writes:

The issue isn’t that a career that starts with technical training can’t lead to more advanced learning and skills. It is that our higher-education policies simply don’t allow for it—and that’s just a failure of imagination.

I agree with McCarthy that America’s love affair with the bachelor’s degree is absurd.

I entirely agree with her that the traditional BA program makes no sense for millions of students who need experience to ground their academic study. I’ve had hundreds of them in my freshman composition classes.

I also can see how the “upside down” bachelor’s degree, which has the career training component  before the general education courses, would work for some students who are not classroom oriented.

I just don’t see it working for sufficient numbers of students.

I think there are just too many students for whom traditional general education courses remain unconnected to their vocational interests. The bulk of students I’ve had wouldn’t see any more value in college composition after completing two years of vocational training than they would have seen their first semester of college.

I don’t disagree with McCarthy’s point that American education policy is out of whack; however, I don’t believe policy changes alone are the answer.

Policy changes don’t necessarily result in practice changes necessary for successful implementation of the policies. The whole Common Core debacle is testimony to that.

No matter where the academic  gen ed courses fall in students’ post-secondary training, if post-secondary teachers are not equipped to teach the masses of students who need a college degree solely for the financial reasons McCarthy describes, conditions are not going to improve any time soon.

Post-secondary teachers in America are split between “vocational types” and “academic types.”  Both types would need experiences to enable them—collaboratively, if not individually—to craft assignments that guide students to discover connections between general education and their careers.

When such assignments are given today, it’s mainly by accident.

Unless academic faculty are encouraged (encouraged is the politically correct term for required) to build assignments for the career and technical education students, those assignments won’t be created.

Unless vocational faculty collaborate with them, the academics will make a mess of the assignments.

And if all faculty don’t create assignments that encourage (that PC term!) students to figure out how the career courses and the gen ed courses complement each other, students won’t see any connection between the two.

Even without policy changes, an imaginative faculty could begin the process of collaborating on new assignments that give career oriented students a basis on which to learn more advanced skills and develop new interest areas in the future.

Such collaborative experience might even spark  significant changes for students, faculty, and their institutions.

Photo Credit, David Niblack, Imagebase.net.

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Filed under Post-secondary education, Teachers

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