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Dr. Jill Biden Wants 14th Grade to Be Free for All. Fixing the Education System Would Do More Good

AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

Dr. Jill Biden wrote her thesis and earned her questionable title by touting the importance of community college. Now she is suggesting this opportunity should be free for everyone.

It would be fair to assume that this is the first step to making college-level education compulsory, mainly because of our broken K-12 public school system. Performance gaps are widening, and school closures related to the pandemic accelerate this trend. According to USA Today, the latest nationwide scorecard showed that America is in trouble:

American high schoolers are approaching graduation with less of a grasp on reading and still-low math scores – and that’s before factoring in the pandemic. The average reading score for high school seniors dropped between 2015 and 2019, while math scores for those soon-to-be-graduates remained flat, according to the latest round of national test results released Wednesday.

And just as in many other aspects of American society, the divide between the academic haves and have-nots keeps growing. The most-proficient 12th graders – those with scores at the top of their class – are scoring better in reading than they did nearly 30 years ago. The least-proficient 12th grade readers are even further behind than they were in 1992, with scores that declined in that time period.

The results for math are similar. This trend is distressing, considering our society’s need for a reinvigorated ability to innovate to meet our growth obligations. Tacking two more years on the end of high school does nothing to solve that problem. How do we know? According to a report called “Complete College America” from the Institute for Higher Education:

More than 50 percent of students entering two-year colleges and nearly 20 percent of those entering four-year universities are placed in remedial classes. Frustrated about their placement into remediation, thousands who were accepted into college never show up for classes. With so many twists and turns, the road ahead doesn’t seem to lead to graduation.

Remediation at the collegiate level has cost states. Students spent $3 billion on these courses in 2012, and they don’t work if the goal is graduation:

Graduation rates for students who started in remediation are deplorable: Fewer than 1 in 10 graduate from community colleges within three years and little more than a third complete bachelor’s degrees in six years.

The recommendation from the researchers? “Strengthen high school so that students are actually prepared for college.”

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What an idea. But a more comprehensive solution may be to reform the public education system that was built to prepare students for the industrial economy of the 1950s. The modern system needs to prepare students for a rapidly-changing economy that requires continuous learning. Teaching children how to be curious, to independently look for answers, to think critically, and to challenge assumptions is how you make more Elon Musks.

Yet, what is the Department of Education under Joe Biden doing? Focusing on “equity” and going back to the Obama-era administration philosophy that disparate outcomes are prima facia evidence of disparate treatment. This theory includes behavioral standards that make schools less safe for everyone and more difficult for children to learn in. Restorative justice in school disciplinary programs is coming back, even though it has had devastating effects on safety and learning.

Innovation is required to recover a high-performing education system and to prepare children for careers that require lifelong learning. This idea should animate any educational program funded by taxpayers, rather than a social justice curriculum that creates activists and reinforces the horrible notion that society operates solely on a struggle for power.

First, we need more school choice, not less. The only current system that oppresses black and brown children is the one tying them to failing schools based on their zip code. In New York, Success Academies proves this thesis by accepting children on a pure lottery basis from some of New York City’s poorest neighborhoods.

Success Academy operates 47 schools serving 20,000 students in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. Across the network, 78% of students are from low-income households; 8.5% are current and former English Language Learners, and 15% are current and former special needs students. About 53% of our students are black, 30% are Latino, 7% white, 5% Asian, and 5% multiracial or other.

Their results speak for themselves. In 2019, the last year New York administered statewide testing, Success Academy students scored in the top 1%. Yet, they have to fight Mayor Bill de Blasio and his administration for additional space continually. Educators around the country should be studying what Founder and CEO Eva Moskowitz and her team are doing. They have done more to close the income and racial performance gaps in education since 2006 than the Department of Education, the teachers’ unions, and Mayor de Blasio and his useless commissions combined.

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Likewise, secondary education needs reform. Here, technology companies lead the charge with programs that allow you to learn a skill that enables you to enter a fast-growing field with above-average pay. These programs do not require you to pay for your training until you find a job. Many set these repayment terms with a minimum salary and at a percentage with a cap. Most are complete in well under the standard two years required for a community college degree and offer a better career path.

Apprenticeships are not just for the trades. There is no reason companies cannot develop programs to bring in motivated and high-performing high school graduates and train them in professional skills the way apprentices receive training in the trades. Several retail environments do this with excellent results and use specific college coursework to augment their in-house programs. The participants avoid college debt, begin making a decent salary, even while saving for retirement at a young age.

We need to get back to a world in which colleges and universities focus on research and innovation in the STEM fields and provide education for those professions that require a specific set of technical knowledge for board certification or testing. Community colleges are great places to augment apprenticeship learning, such as with nursing and other health professions. Even Enterprise Rent-a-Car, which hires the most college graduates every year, finds the preparation at the university level lacking:

Enterprise – which hires more entry-level college graduates annually than any other company in the U.S. — likes recruiting college athletes because they know how to work on teams and multitask. “We see a lot of transferable skills in athletes,” Marie Artim, vice president of talent acquisition at Enterprise, told me.

Even so, Enterprise, like many employers, still finds today’s college graduates severely lacking in some basic skills, particularly problem solving, decision making, and the ability to prioritize tasks.

“This is a generation that has been ‘syllabused’ through their lives,” Artim said, referring to the outline of a class students receive at the beginning of a college course. “Decisions were made for them, so we’re less likely to find someone who can pull the trigger and make a decision.”

So, Dr. Jill Biden, the data tells us we need better education, not two more years of one that is outdated, co-opted by social justice, and painfully lacking.

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