Las Vegas Sun: Building a better education in the post-recession world

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Building a better education in the post-recession world

By Ric Anderson 

While job prospects have improved for many Americans since the recession, Martha Ross says the recovery hasn’t been so kind to those who didn’t graduate from college.

“Most of the jobs that have been created to make up for the jobs that were lost during the recession have gone to people with a college degree,” said Ross, a labor policy and unemployment expert at the Brookings Institution. “So if you had less than a bachelor’s degree and you lost your job during the recession, there has not been much job growth to help you get a new job at your education level.”

That being the case, Ross’ work is especially important. Among her areas of emphasis are strategies to increase workers’ skills and prepare young people to enter the workforce.

During a visit last week to UNLV, Ross discussed the recession and other topics with the Sun. Edited excerpts of the conversation follow:

You’ve done extensive research examining how the recession affected various demographic groups. Which groups have been hit hardest?

If you look at people with less than a high school diploma who are 20 to 24 years old, only a little more than half of them are working, compared with almost 9 out of 10 with a bachelor’s degree.

It narrows when they get older but it’s still pretty stark. There’s a 27 percentage point difference between less than high school and BA.

That’s huge. And for people with high school diplomas, it’s a 15 percentage point difference.

Thankfully, fewer people are in this category of having less than a high school diploma. But still, if you’re going into the labor market and you have less than a high school diploma, you are likely going to have a harder time finding a job and getting out of a low-wage job.

So education has a lot to do with this.

How would you like to see this addressed in schools?

I would like to see the world of education, K-12 and postsecondary, become less insular, with only an academic focus.

High schools are not judged on internships or alternate employment outcomes. They’re judged on test scores, graduation rates and college-going rates.

But high school students are at a stage in their lives when they’re thinking about who they want to be as adults and what they want to do.

And what we’ve done is put them in a big building surrounded by peers and with teachers and counselors, but they only ever interact with these adults as students, not as people who can contribute in other ways.

In apprenticeships, for instance, there’s a strong mentoring component, but the apprentice is also contributing to a shared project and has responsibility in a way that a student doesn’t.

A student may fail his or her paper. But just to pick an example, say we’re building a web page and you didn’t do that part, so now we don’t have a drop-down menu.

There are other developmental experiences about interacting with the world that high school students and a lot of college students aren’t getting as a part of formal education.

There are schools that do that; some schools build in apprenticeships or work study, or have a meaningful career day.

What’s a better approach to career days?

Thinking about a career day as a one-day thing that is dropped in with no real preparation to it and no follow-up to it, you’re immediately going to lessen its effectiveness.

But there are still relatively low-touch ways that you can make it more effective. Over the course of a semester, you can have people come in from different industries and speak about their own career paths, which would create a more interactive element. Students could ask if there are summer jobs or internships in areas in which they have an interest.

It’s a little bit more baked in, with the students being less passive receptacles.

Can you give an example of a high school that is taking the kind of approach you’re suggesting?

There’s a program in D.C. called Urban Alliance that works with high school students. They aim for the B and C students who are not superstars but are not the most alienated or at-risk. They’re the ones who might fall through the cracks. They’re not causing any trouble, and they might need help but since they’re not being disruptive, they might not get it.

So they recruit these students in their junior year and they put them through some soft-skills training over the summer, a lot of which is about code-switching. There are rules of the game in operating in any work environment. So the rules of operating in a white-collar environment are different than if you are lower-income and in a tough neighborhood. You have different attitudes about authority and about helping other people.

So you have to learn the rules of the game, and it has to matter to you, which also involves helping you think, “I could be there.” You know, some confidence?

And then they place them in paid corporate internships through the school year, where they work either four or five days a week. So they gain technical skills. They get familiarity with Excel or Word or more familiarity with email, but what is more valuable is they build relationships and social capital. And ideally they have mentors — someone who can guide you and give you kind of a low-stakes chance to make mistakes and learn from them.

But one of the problems is it’s a lot of work to convince employers that it’s worth their while to take on a high school student as an intern. Our culture just looks at teenagers as maybe you can do something if you can remember to get up on time.

But if you look at what teens are doing in programs in places like Switzerland or Germany, they’re helping with customer service in banks. They’re responsible and they’re doing real work. It is possible.

How do you feel about technical schools?

I’m a huge fan of what’s now being relabeled as career and technical education. It used to be called vocational education.

That got kind of had some bad connotations of being for students who weren’t “college ready” or “college material.”

So they have a huge role to play, and I’d love to see them become stronger.

But the really good ones are not looking at the high school diploma as an end point. Because even if you’ve had a good internship and good work experience and relevant skills, a high school diploma is only going to take you so far.

So what they’re doing is preparing you for some kind of postsecondary. It could be a four-year college, a two-year college, an apprenticeship.

I read someone who said high school is the new middle school. It’s an important and necessary step, but it doesn’t have intrinsic value as an end point. What it does is it prepares you for the next level.

What would you like to see in terms of public policy that would make it easier for low-income people to get beyond high school?

We’ve been sending a message that everyone should aspire to college, which is a good message, but does have downsides.

One downside is it implicitly devalues other paths of learning and skill-building. And we don’t always match that aspirational goal with preparation and knowledge of how to find a school that is a good fit, how to navigate financial aid processes and how to make sure you’re actually ready for college-level work.

So I would like to see an increased focus not only on scholarships and financial aid, but more attention given to how programs are designed to increase chances of success.

The federal role in that could be providing discretionary or competitive grants to try out different approaches, to support learning communities.

None of the changes that would be helpful are groundbreaking, but they do require institutional change.

So for instance, when you go to community college and maybe a four-year college, you take a placement test. And it determines whether you’re ready for college work or if you need to go into remedial or developmental work.

Students don’t typically know that that test exists. They just think there’s college; they don’t understand there’s another filter that they have to get through if they’re going to earn credits toward a degree.

So a natural thing to do is to make sure students are prepared to take and pass that test. That involves the university or college working with the high schools to align their curriculum and their teaching.

That doesn’t require legislation or a whole lot of money, but it does require a change in internal practices and different people working together.

Another example is that people who are funneled into developmental or remedial education, a lot of people don’t make it out of there. They don’t go on to credit-bearing courses. They pay money, and they may use up their Pell grants, but they haven’t gotten closer to their goal when they go in.

Nobody goes into college and says, “I want to learn how to write a five-paragraph essay.” They go in and say, “I want to get an associate’s so I can transfer to a four-year, or I want to be a nurse.”

So we need to do a lot of rethinking and experimenting in how we serve those young people and get them prepared for college-level courses.

Have you come across any specific universities or programs that are helping low-
income students get a leg up?

There’s a university in D.C. called Trinity University. It’s a small school that has embraced this wholeheartedly. It went from being a women’s college that served mostly middle-class students — Nancy Pelosi went there — and it’s still women but it now serves mostly lower-income, first-gen and people of color.

They looked at who was dropping out and when, and they developed what they called an intrusive advising system. So the approach is to not wait for someone to tell you they’re having trouble, but instead have a counselor or a professor monitor whether you’re coming to class, whether you’re in trouble, whether you’re having money problems that may make it seem like you’re going to drop out.

The idea is to handle things that with students who come from a middle-class background or aren’t first-gen, either the problems wouldn’t arise or there wouldn’t be the sense of, “Maybe this place isn’t for me, or maybe I’m not cut out for this.”