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A former professor who spent two years teaching in a high-poverty DC Public Schools high school advocates separating students into a college prep track and other tracks that would lead directly to jobs. But to really know who belongs in which track we need to revamp an elementary school system that has left almost all poor students woefully unprepared for a college prep curriculum.

The old practice of separating students into academic and vocational tracks has fallen into disfavor. That’s because traditionally, school systems often funneled white and affluent students into college prep classes while relegating poor black ones into classes intended to prepare them for jobs in fields like auto repair and cosmetology.

Education reformers have generally insisted that all students follow a college prep curriculum. But some are beginning to recognize the value of what is now called career and technical education in engaging disaffected students and providing them with practical skills.



Some school districts, including DCPS, are beefing up their formerly anemic vocational offerings with new Career Academies embedded within neighborhood high schools. Two new ones, focusing on engineering and information technology, are opening this year at H.D. Woodson High School in Ward 7.

But these academies—and much of the vocational training finding favor among reformers—are an addition to, not a substitute for, college prep classes. The DCPS website explicitly says the expectation is that “all Academy graduates continue on to college before pursuing a career.”

A former teacher and others question whether “college for all” makes sense


Caleb Stewart Rossiter, a former professor at American University who spent two years teaching math at H.D. Woodson, proposes a different approach in his book Ain’t Nobody Be Learnin’ Nothin’: The Fraud and the Fix for High-Poverty Schools..

Rossiter says only about 20% of students at schools like Woodson are “within striking distance of high school standards.” And he argues that under the current system, those students will never be college-ready because they’re being held back by students who are disruptive or hopelessly behind.

In some ways Rossiter’s version of tracking differs from the paternalistic model that prevailed in the old days, when the school system decided which track a student should be on. Students and their parents or guardians themselves would choose either a college-prep or vocational track at 7th grade, with an option to reevaluate at 9th. Rossiter wouldn’t exclude any students who are highly motivated from college prep.

But, as under the old system, Rossiter wants vocational tracks to lead students directly to jobs rather than to college. And he wants schools to require students who are years behind to undertake intensive remediation before embarking on either track, although they might need less remediation for the vocational one.

Rossiter’s book details extreme dysfunction at Woodson (which he refers to as “Johnson” in his book), characterizing the “unspoken bargain of calm high-poverty classes” as “don’t push me to work and I won’t disrupt the class much.”  In addition to tracking, Rossiter wants extremely disruptive students and those far behind grade level removed from regular classes and getting counseling and non-credit remediation.


Rossiter isn’t the only one questioning the assumption that all students should go to college. When students are in 11th or 12th grade and still reading and doing math at an elementary level, subjecting them to a grade-level college prep curriculum appears to be a waste of everyone’s time.

And, as Rossiter argues, the supposed college-prep curriculum isn’t even doing a good job with the low-income students who manage to make it to college: 64.5% of low-income students who enroll in a two-year college need remedial classes, as do 31.9% of those who enroll in a four-year college. Only 9% of the poorest students complete a college degree—less than a third of those who enroll. Those who drop out are often left with huge debt and no degree.

True, poor and minority individuals who make it through college do far better than those who don’t. But college doesn’t seem to be the great equalizer that some had hoped for. A new study has found that black and Hispanic college graduates have far less wealth than their white counterparts.

So offering students the option of a track that leads to a job rather than to college makes sense. And there should be no shame in vocational education. Society needs beauticians and auto mechanics as much as it needs college professors and lawyers.

Vocational classes may solve some of the disciplinary problems afflicting high-poverty schools as well. As Rossiter saw when some of his most disruptive students eagerly embraced a challenging masonry task and excelled at it, some students are far more responsive and persevering when learning is part of a hands-on task.

Lately, some reformers—including the Obama administration—have modified the “college for all” mantra, saying instead that “all Americans need some form of postsecondary education,” if not college then at least a training or certification program after high school. But if we could embed that training or certification within a high school curriculum, and make it meaningful, we could save everyone time and money.


Before we embrace a version of tracking that allows some students to opt out of college prep, however, we should be aware of a couple of major caveats. One is that most decent jobs that don’t require a college degree still require a high level of accomplishment. Some people who skip college and complete an occupational concentration in high school manage to out-earn college graduates, but only if they did well in Algebra II and advanced biology.

Inadequate elementary school education may be masking students’ potential

More fundamentally, we may be overlooking a lot of undeveloped academic potential in low-income kids because of the education they get before they reach high school. Elementary education is currently so inadequate that we simply don’t know how many kids would be capable of handling a college prep curriculum if they were given the right kind of foundation.

Even before standardized tests became important—but even more so afterwards—elementary schools have been focusing almost exclusively on basic skills in reading and math. In reading, that means hours every day practicing comprehension strategies like “finding the main idea” and making predictions.

Elementary schools have spent little or no time building students’ knowledge of subjects like history and science. That’s particularly harmful for poor kids, who are less likely to acquire that kind of knowledge at home.

When those kids get to high school, they suddenly encounter a curriculum that assumes a lot of knowledge and vocabulary they don’t have. As a result, they can’t understand much of what they’re supposed to be learning. No wonder they become disaffected.

Of course, some teenagers will be disaffected even if we inject actual content into the elementary school curriculum—a slow and difficult process that DCPS is now beginning to undertake. And some students who are engaged in school still won’t be interested in going to college. But right now, we can’t know for sure which kids fall into which category.

In the short-term, the only way we might be able to tell is to offer motivated students intensive tutoring in the subjects they’re supposed to be learning—not, as Rossiter proposes, tutoring in “basic skills,” which will do them no more good than a skill-based curriculum did in elementary school. That would require a huge and most likely expensive effort, but it’s worth trying.

For the longer term, we need to revamp the elementary school curriculum so that poor kids are acquiring the tools that will allow them to access high school level work. Only then will students and their families be able to make a genuine choice between a path that leads to college and one that leads in a different, but equally fulfilling and possibly even lucrative, direction.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

Tagged: dcps, poverty

Natalie Wexler is a DC education journalist and blogger. She chairs the board of The Writing Revolution and serves on the Urban Teachers DC Regional Leadership Council, and she has been a volunteer reading and writing tutor in high-poverty DC Public Schools.