Crash and Burn: How Misguided Policies Ruin Lives

by James A. Bacon

Give Richmond educators credit for brutal honesty. A presentation of the school system’s five-year plan surfaced some devastating data: Only one in ten Richmond high school students is ready for college and a career, according to College Board criteria. If it’s any comfort, that number is up from 9% in the 2017-18 school year.

“Finally we can demonstrate with empirical evidence that RPS has failed our students and our families and our city,” said Board member Jonathan Young, as quoted by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. That sentiment was echoed by Superintendent Jason Kamras. “It’s devastating. We, the adults, have failed our kids for years.”

Indeed, the educational system has not only failed Richmond’s predominantly African-American students, it has shepherded many young people into college programs from which they subsequently dropped out. Left unsaid in the analysis is that college drop-outs are typically saddled with thousands of dollars in student debt, which many cannot repay. In other words, the coupling of high expectations (every student has a right to attend college) with abysmal performance is ruining thousands of lives.

Statewide, 44% of students meet the benchmarks:

For 10th-grade students, the college and career readiness benchmark for reading and writing is 430 and 480 for math. It’s 30 points higher in both subjects for 11-graders. Students who meet those standards have a 75% chance of earning a C or better in an introductory college class, according to the College Board’s description of the benchmark.

Only three in four Richmond students who start 9th grade end up graduating — 16 percentage points below the state average, the RTD reminds us. This data has been widely reported.

Here is what is not well known. While only 10% of Richmond high school students are college ready, 52% from the graduating class (or about 40%) end up going to college anyway. Once they get to college, many never finish. Reports the RTD:

Roughly 2 in 5 of the RPS alumni who go on to college earned a year’s worth of college credit within two years of their high school graduation, according to federal data for the graduating class of 2015 for the city’s five comprehensive high schools.

Only 14% of that year’s total class earned at least 30 college credits, the National Student Clearinghouse reported.

Not surprisingly, most academically ill-prepared students crash and burn. Statistics don’t convey the personal tragedy. Some 25 years ago, I used to live next door to a guy who dropped out of college (I don’t know whether it was due to lack of academic preparation or the difficulty of paying the bills.) He worked as a check-out clerk at Blockbuster. I judge that his life really sucked by the fact that he frequently took out his frustrations on his girlfriend. One time her screams were so bad I nearly called the police. (Looking back, I probably should have. But that was long before the #metoo era, and I was more worried then about being tagged a racist busybody than a misogynist.) I felt bad for him. He was a decent enough fellow most of the time, whose life had hit a dead end. I’m sure he felt like a failure. I’m sure he felt tormented.

The fact is, not everybody is cut out for college. But some are equipped for manual trades and occupations, from brick masonry to nursing home aides, that pay a living wage. I don’t have the numbers, but my sense is that public schools have systematically under-invested in education of the trades — out of a misguided sense that is “racist” to shunt minorities off the college-prep track. Well, this isn’t the 1950s anymore. It’s time to acknowledge the damage done by funneling students onto college/career paths where they have little hope of succeeding. Surely we can encourage those who have the potential to succeed in college while providing career alternatives for those who don’t,

Update: I have updated the second-to-last paragraph in response to criticism posted on the Blue Virginia blog. I opened myself up to that criticism for giving an incomplete explanation of the girlfriend-beating incident and its context. I have provided the additional context. If people still want to criticize my reluctance to call the police, then so be it.

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10 responses to “Crash and Burn: How Misguided Policies Ruin Lives

  1. Jeez, Jim, there are far more good paying middle skills jobs than “brick layers and nursing home aides” that do not require college! And as I read the story, the shortfall was being ready for college or such a career, most of which do require training beyond high school. That data is devastating.

    Wouldn’t it be interesting to really dive into that data, locality by locality, and of course (for Larry) these are tests routinely taken by private school students as well. The results would shut him up with his constant drumbeat they might not be as good as the publics….the truth is they are siphoning off many of the college and career track students.

  2. The problem is that colleges and universities recklessly admitted students who had no realistic chance of graduating. They are active participants in the student debt crisis. Fine. We need a “wealth tax” on their endowments to start retiring the debt of those students who were least able to perform at a college level but accepted anyway. Alternately, unprepared students drowning in debt ought to form a class action lawsuit against the colleges and universities which accepted them. Herring needs to consider criminal fraud charges against the administrators of those colleges.

    Think of it this way … if a 300 pound man who was wheezing as he walked up to the hang glider rental stand was rented a hang glider would the rental company be responsible for medical damages the man incurred when he crash landed?

    Being sued for malpractice – it’s not just for doctors anymore.

    • Where is the evidence that colleges and universities “ recklessly” admitted students who had no “ realistic”chance of graduating? I wonder how many of those Richmond high school graduates who went to college, but who did not finish, actually went to community college, which have different admissions standards.

  3. From my former life as a Board Chair of a CT School… these numbers are so bad that the problem is not about high school. How about earlier childhood ed? Years ago it created success where none had been before. A child that shows up at kindergarten from an educationally disadvantaged home will begin to fail immediately and it will only get worse.
    NYCity has done it. Interesting to know how successfully

    • Agree with Jane – the Problem is not College nor even High School – it’s 3rd grade elementary.

      If a child cannot read (and write AND be able to articulate concepts) by the end of 3rd grade, he/she is in trouble – and that’s way, way before even middle school.

      You ask why some kids in high school are “discipline” problems. The answer is easy. By the time they get to high school – they KNOW they have no opportunity, no hope to graduate with a good job. A few of them will luck out with a sports scholarship but the rest of them KNOW they are headed to a life of low wages and crummy jobs and not enough money for basic necessities of life. When that’s your future – you act up – it’s not rocket science.

  4. my suspects are that these kids are not anything like kids of well-educated parents with good incomes. They are at the edge of the cliff – and few schools – public or private are prepared and equipped to get them back on grade level … educations kids living in poverty without adequate parenting is actually WORSE than a kid living in foster care or waiting to be adopted.

    But once again -I am MORE THAN WILLING to have other non-public schools take on this task – with public money – as long as they are held to the same standards as public schools. We actually need to do this so we can dispel some myths and get on to other more promising approaches rather than living in the current LA LA LAnd on private schools fixing this problem.

  5. We need more manual trades. We have so few now that you can wait months to get things done around a house. It would also ease the pressure on the prices a bit so that people could afford to do more.

  6. There are LOTS and LOTS of jobs these days that REQUIRE workers to be able to read and write and do basic math – in order to be able to operate equipment that is computerized. A good example is an X-ray Tech which used to be a “manual” job but now is uber-computertized and requires training and the ability to read and understand the manual that describes how to operate it and how to troubleshoot it. Most jobs in the economy now – require good reading and writing skills and the ability to read and understand tech manuals and the such. If one “graduates” from high school with minimal skills, the truly “manual” jobs are things like laying asphalt or puting aslphalt shingles on roofs , etc. More and more – even those jobs are being automated.

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