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The Case Against One-Size-Fits-All Education

By Marty Nemko

Extended version of my argument in my debate against Kati Haycock, president of Ed Trust

Education Writers Association National Conference, May 1, 2009

I want to thank the Education Writers Association, in particular, Lori Crouch and Lisa Walker, for inviting me here today. Lisa invited me here 21 years ago to discuss my book How to Get an Ivy League Education at a State University. I was unable to come and am most pleased to be here now. I believe that few people have potentially greater impact on society than education writers--In shining a light on education's excellent and terrible, you can affect the lives of literally millions of students, our future.

Among my saddest moments as a career counselor is when a client who is the first in her or his family to go to college and spent five, six, eight years attempting to get a degree, taking on a mountain of debt, and triumphing over the odds, finally got the degree and yet is unable to land a job more professional than what he could have gotten as a high school graduate. Typically, that person attended a not-prestigious college, struggled to get even a modest GPA in one of the easier and less marketable majors, for example, sociology or art.

This may be even sadder: A career counseling client, a woman could not pass the GED tests no matter how hard she tried. She so wanted to be a lineman. She said, "I love to climb stuff!" If she'd gone to a high school with career and technical education integrated into its curriculum, she would have graduated on time and gone into a great high-paying job. Instead, she was a high school dropout, couldn't get a job and sold drugs to support herself and her child. She had low self-esteem and thought she was stupid. But she was body-smart -- very physical and good with her hands. The CTE programs were all post-secondary and required at least a GED, so she was locked out.

Too, I believe that a career-prep high school program could have made all the difference for a kid like Danny, the boy my wife and I have mentored for a number of years. He just was not academically oriented. When he was in the 9th grade, his reading ability was at the 5th grade level--Shakespeare was Greek to him- and he couldn't care--he liked fixing things, being adventurous and in the outdoors. And his high school which offered no career-prep program made Danny feel that unless he was good in academics, went to college, and got a degree, he'd be a second-class citizen with no career future. So perhaps not surprisingly, despite our mentoring efforts, Danny was constantly in trouble, dropped out of high school, and is unemployed.

My dream is a Student's Bill of Rights that would include students' right to an informed choice between two high school paths: a high-quality pre-college path and a high-quality, non-dumping-ground career/tech path--which could include community college, apprenticeships, etc. What does "informed choice" mean? Each student would know, for each path, how much growth similar students have made in their reading, writing, thinking, mathematical reasoning, and employability.

Why, increasingly, don't we give kids choices in their high school education--including a high-quality, non-dumping-ground career-prep option so they feel there is hope for them even if they're not academically oriented? It's largely the colleges' fault. We like to think of universities as beneficent nonprofits, partly because you and I are their success stories: we have good jobs that we probably couldn't have gotten without degrees, we may have liked college and grown from it.

But as someone with a Ph.D. from Berkeley in education evaluation who has taught at four universities and been consultant to 15 college presidents, I must reluctantly admit that universities too often act less like beneficent non profits than like businesses--and not the most honorable ones. I'm not talking about community colleges here. It is mainly universities and their lobbying/marketing organizations that too often use unsavory, sophisticated tactics to get as many students to enroll as possible, whether or not a student would be better served somewhere else: for example, at a community college or in an apprenticeship program. Examples:

¨ Universities' marketing and media relations machines trumpet the terribly misleading statistic that college graduates earn a million dollars more over their lifetime. Why misleading?

-- For starters, even the College Board, whose customer is the colleges, admits that it's only $600,000.

-- Far more important, that million-dollar-more statistic hides the fact that the pool of college-bound students is brighter, more motivated, and has better family connections than the pool of the non-college-bound. So you could lock them in a closet for four years and they'd earn much more than the non-college bound.

-- Perhaps most important of all, that statistic is retrospective--reporting what past generations of college students earned. That bears little relation to what today's college graduates will earn over their lifetime. Why? Back in 1970 we only sent 40% of high school graduates to college. Now it's 70%. --so colleges accept many weaker students. As a result, professors so dumb down classes and/or focus on teaching their arcane research rather than the basics undergraduates need that even the half of freshmen that graduate (and half do not, even if given six years!) graduate with frighteningly poor skills in reading, thinking, etc. (See the summaries of Pew Studies and data reported in the president's Spelling Commission report in "America's Most Overrated Product: Undergraduate Education,' which appeared last year in the Chronicle of Higher Education.)

So, we now have many more college-degree holders but who have far weaker skills than previous generations of college graduates have at the same time as employers of white-collar workers are demanding ever higher-level skills and those employers are therefore hiring ever more foreign workers on H-1B visas, offshoring ever more white-collar jobs, and turning ever more of the remaining jobs into temp and part-time jobs, and automating still others. Virtually no expert expects those hiring trends to reverse. Indeed, over the lifetime of today's graduates, those trends will likely accelerate.

For example, most experts agree that soon, most jobs whose work product can be sent over the internet will be offshored to low-cost countries, for example, China, India, and Viet Nam, where the work can be done for 50 to 90% less--decreasing the demand for U.S. engineers and computer science majors. Even some U.S. journalism work--copy editing--is being offshored. (Important side note: Our leaders are wrong in calling for increasing our number of scientists and engineers--Even if we don't project into a future of greater outsourcing, there already is an oversupply--even our PhDs are having a hard time finding work.)

So in guiding a high school student whether to attend college, it is crucial that that student consider not what college accomplished for past generations but what it's likely to accomplish in their lifetime.

Of course, for many high school students, college still is a wise choice. But that's far less often true for the 200,000 students that the so-called four-year colleges admit each year who graduated in the bottom 40 percent of their high school class. According to Clifford Adelman, who until recently was senior researcher at the U.S. Department of Education, two-thirds of those students will not have completed their bachelor's degree, even if given 8 1/2 years! And even if they defy the odds, most of them will have graduated near the bottom of a not-prestigious college's class, and majored in minimally marketable majors, for example, sociology or art, en toto rendering them minimally employable.

Think of how many bright degree holders you know that are not earning a middle-class living. Indeed, millions of bachelor's holders return to community college--144,000 in California alone last year--for career training because their bachelor's degree couldn't land them a job. The situation is far worse for the many college students each year who graduated in the bottom half of their high school class. Most of them end up dropping out of college, with a mountain of debt (that you cannot discharge through bankruptcy,) having learned little, having devastasted self-esteem with often terrible consequences to them and those around them, and with no more than a McJob.

Instead, if they had attended a career-tech program in high school and perhaps at a community college, they would likely have acquired a marketable skill--for example, the massive number of Obama-created jobs that are needed to rebuild America's infrastructure. The colleges have been doing such an effective job of deceiving students into believing they'll be second-class citizens if they don't go to college, that we have shortages in many technical and trades fields--for example, machinists, welders, masons, etc., careers that are honorable work and pay a lot more than what the average sociology major is earning today.

Of course, universities do far more than just trumpet misleading statistics to try to build their enrollments and coffers. I could talk at length about the deceptive techniques that universities use to market to students and parents but today, I just want to point out two of their particularly potent under-the-radar tactics:

¨ Universities pull strings to get their professors key roles on state K-12 curriculum selection committees. These professors are masters at manipulating statistics and bury the other committee members with reports packed with deceptive statistics such as "You'll earn a million dollars more" thereby "proving" that college-prep courses are crucial for all.

¨ The same professors who are masters at using statistics when it serves the universities' purposes, use lame excuses (they claim, for example, that error variance in feasible study designs limits validity. In fact, that has only a modest effect) to claim it's impossible to provide useful statistics on how much value-added comes from attending college: how much growth in reading, writing, thinking, etc., derives from the undergraduate education at their institution. They particularly bury statistics about how much learning accrues for the 200,000 students each year that "four-year" colleges admit from the bottom half of high schools' graduating classes. Or even their four- and five-year graduation rates? Let alone how well employed their graduates are? A linchpin of a Student's Bill of Rights is to provide that crucial consumer information to all prospective college students. After all, we require tire manufacturers to mold into each tire's sidewall, its tread life, temperature, and traction ratings yet we allow students to make arguably the most important (and most expensive) decision of their life based on the colleges' sales material: Madison-Avenue-inspired brochures and websites, and highly trained salespeople: tour guides and the misleadingly titled admissions counselors. All but the top 5% of colleges are minimally selective and their "counselors" will rarely counsel a student to attend a college other than their own let alone a non-college alternative, such as an apprenticeship.

Exacerbating the misleading "everyone-to-college" movement, EdTrust, uses bumper sticker rhetoric such as "High standards for all students." Unfortunately, the data does not support such a simplistic prescription. For example, the just-released major study conducted by Stanford University researchers of the effectiveness of forcing more students into a college prep curriculum-- requiring all California students to pass an exit exam consisting of college-prep material--showed a significant decline in student achievement and a decline in high school graduation rate. Ed Trust presents its own data which leads to the opposite conclusion but I would be remiss if I didn't point out that a wide range of experts have called Ed Trust data misleading, even dishonest. I would have thought that such criticism would most likely come from right-wing groups but most of the outcry has been from Democrats. For example, respected liberal U.S.C education professor, Stephen Krashen wrote an article entitled, "Don't Trust Ed Trust." Gerald Bracey, who for two decades in the prestigious Phi Delta Kappan has authored reports on the state of education, wrote an article in the Huffington Post called "The Education Trust's Disinformation Campaign." A Democratic member of the California State Board of Education, Jim Aschwinden said "Everyone knows Ed Trust is a sham. Go talk to Carol Liu, a Democratic senator who wanted to investigate Ed Trust and was stonewalled but eventually found out that the statistics EdTrust reports about its poster-boy program--San Jose Unified School District--were bogus." Dr. Barbara Nemko, Napa County Superintendent of Schools, the 2004-5 regional Superintendent of the Year, and her congressional district's 2009 Woman of the Year, has had first-hand dealings with Ed Trust and visited their so-called model program in San Jose. She is in the audience. Dr. Nemko, raise your hand. Feel free to talk with her after the presentation.

In contrast, a number of studies from neutral researchers rather than from advocacy groups support the value of career-prep programs for not-academically-oriented students. (These are listed on the Research Fact Sheet on the Association for Career and Technical Education website:

  • CTE graduates are 10-15% more likely to be in the labor force, and earn 8-9% more than graduates of academic programs, according to a Russell Sage Foundation study. [i]
  • In a Gates Foundation report, 81 percent of students who dropped out said that “more real world learning” may have influenced them to stay in school. [ii]
  • Seven years after graduating from high school, CTE students had earnings that increased by about 2 percent for each additional high school CTE course they took. [iii]
  • A ratio of 1 CTE class for every 2 academic classes was shown to minimize the risk of students dropping out in a National Research Center for Career and Technical Education (NRCCTE) report. [iv]
  • 90 percent of respondents to the Skills Gap Report indicated a moderate to severe shortage of qualified skilled production employees, including front-line workers, such as machinists, operators, craft workers, distributors, and technicians. [v]

Let's move beyond statistics to the human. Especially when so many factors affect graduation rates, let alone success-in-life rates, despite my having completed 30 graduate level credits in statistics, I believe that sometimes, common sense is a wiser guide than statistics for setting education policy. So imagine you were a kid entering high school and you were still reading on a sixth grade level, had lots of trouble with basic math, and to top it all, you felt unmotivated to do schoolwork. Burned out on school, you had heard that your high school was one of the 340 in California to have a Partnership Academy (, school-within-a-school, with a family atmosphere, designed mainly for the at-risk and not-academically oriented, in which many of the courses were in a career path of your choice--perhaps health care, the arts, green construction, or business, where you learned reading by, for example, reading a book on how a boy grew up to become a wonderful nurse, and in which you went on lots of field trips to see people at work in a range of occupations--from chef to heart-lung-machine technician. You also heard, correctly, that not-academically oriented kids in Partnership Academies ended up with higher reading, writing, and math scores, and better career prospects than if they had to take a standard college-prep curriculum filled with geometric theorems, the halide series of chemical elements, and--you who is reading on a sixth-grade level-- Shakespeare.

But now, all of a sudden, you're told that this consulting group, Ed Trust, had come to your district and convinced the district (for a $40,000 fee) to take that option away from you--You'll have no choice but to be force-fed a curriculum full of the sociopolitical causes of the Peloponnesian Wars, stochastic processes in chemistry, simultaneous equations, etc. How would you feel?

You're told it's good for you. So you try but reading on a sixth-grade level and not very motivated to do schoolwork, when you relentlessly experience the frustration of not understanding the classwork and seeing other kids understanding, might you be tempted to feel like a loser and give up, and perhaps like so many kids, turn to drugs or alcohol, join a gang, or drop out? Forcing a one-size-fits-all education down the throats of even not-academically-oriented kids is likely the core cause of the decline in student achievement and increase in the dropout rate when California tried an experiment in which you couldn't get a high school diploma unless--no matter whether you're academically-oriented or not--you passed an exam filled with college-prep material.

Ironically, a one-size-fits-all curriculum, which was intended to avoid minorities being tracked in dumping-ground classes has resulted in that very thing. For example, in EdTrust's showcase district, the San Jose Unified School District, if a student cannot succeed in its one-size-fits-all curriculum in its regular high schools, the student is shipped to one of its many alternative schools or an adult school--which have disproportionately high percentages of students of color.

Both from a logical point of view as well as in looking fairly at the data, I cannot imagine a worse approach to helping all children to live up to their potential than to insist on one-size fits-all education. It's ironic that EdTrust says it values diversity yet insists on a one-size-fits-all education. Imagine that someone told you that in order to renew your membership in EWA, you had no choice: You had to have college-prep-level expertise in math and science. Mightn't you think that was unfair--forcing everyone into a narrow box determined by some out-of-touch entity? Mightn't you drop out of EWA? That's what one-size-fits-all education is doing to our children, our future.

When you hear educational leaders spout politically seductive bumper sticker slogans like, "All students can learn to high standards" and "Everyone to college," I encourage you to do what you learned in J school: Dig. Go visit high schools with large numbers of the kids we're talking about --sub 50%ile SAT scores and less than B averages--See them in a randomly (not principal-selected: one great teacher isn't scalable.) Usually, you'll discover how that the classes are college-prep in name only--they're dumbed down, depriving the students in those classes who should be preparing for college with a rigorous education. Or if the class is rigorous (geometric theorems, etc) many kids in the class are getting little out of the course, much less so than if instruction was more practically oriented--estimation, conflict resolution, budgeting, using databases, and of course, career-related instruction.

I urge you to visit those inner-city schools in which EdTrust says most kids are satisfactorily completing a rigorous college-prep curriculum.. See if common sense really is defied--Decide for yourself whether it's really wiser that kids who can't read sixth-grade level material be taught Shakespeare instead of learning to read a manual that will enable them to install solar panels on our roofs.

Compare Ed Trust's showcase schools with the new generation of non--dumping ground career and technical programs in high school. For a master list, see

Ask colleges, "How many students do you admit each year from the bottom half of their high school class? What percentage of them graduate in 4 years? 5 years? How much growth do they make in reading, writing, thinking? What percentage of them are, after graduation, employed in work requiring a college degree rather than in a McJob? Ask the college why it doesn't disclose that information in their recruitment brochure and prominently on their website? Universities are supposed to be benevolent non-profits serving students--Shouldn't they offer the same level of disclosure that tire manufacturers must?

As part of a Student Bill of Rights, bachelor's-degree awarding institutions should offer such information and high schools should provide similar information for its college-prep and career-prep programs. Imagine if a physician recommended you undergo a treatment that would require many years and cost a fortune without disclosing the odds of its success and its negative side effects. He'd be sued and lose in any court in the land. Yet colleges routinely do this yet we not only don't punish them, we reward them with ever more tax dollars in the form of Pell Grants, Stafford, and Perkins loans, which merely allow the colleges to raise their tuition yet higher.

Of course, no one wants a child to become a plumber if they could have been happier and more successful as a journalist or physician. Nor do we want to see a student who could have profited as a human being more from attending college than in an apprenticeship. But a one-size-fits-all education ensures that many, many children will be less likely to enjoy career and life success merely so they can learn elitist material irrelevant to their lives: quadratic equations or they don't graduate, Spanish 3 or they don't graduate, the causes of the War of the Roses of they don't graduate, the intricacies of table of chemical elements or they don't graduate. We are forcing many, many students down the path to life failure--unnecessarily.

Educational leaders are at the moment of truth: deciding whether to perform yet another Tuskegee experiment on children: forcing them--without even disclosing the risks--into a one-size-fits-all curriculum that is worse than risky.

I dream of an America in which students, with the help of their parents and counselors, will, with full disclosure, be able to choose the path more likely to enable her or him to flower. Especially if your child was struggling in school, wouldn't you want that for your child?

[i] Rosenbaum, J. E. Beyond College for All. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2001. (as cited in Stone, J. Career and Technical Education and Student Engagement, Achievement, Transition, and Labor Market Outcomes DRAFT.)

[ii] Bridgeland, J., et al. The Silent Epidemic. Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, 2005.


[iii] National Assessment of Vocational Education: Final Report to Congress, p.110

[iv] Plank, S. et al. “Dropping Out of High School and the Place of Career and Technical Education”. The National Centers for Career and Technical Education, 2005

[v] National Association of Manufacturers. “Skills Gap 2005”

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