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SIMMONS: Path to success has fork in road

- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 3, 2011

A report by Harvard University has resurrected the 100-year-old old argument that pits intellectual W.E.B. DuBois, co-founder of the NAACP, against the occupational-trades-minded Booker T. Washington, a Hampton University grad who went on to become the first president of Tuskegee University.

The crux of the age-old debate is this: Is the college-for-all pathway the only road to success?

President Obama doesn't seem to think so, and the proof is smacking us in the face.

Fifteen-year-olds in South Korea, Japan, China, Singapore and Hong Kong are outperforming our children in mathematics, reading and science, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. And fewer than half of our youths are proficient in science, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

In other words, we're leaving our own children behind.

With an estimated 14 million jobs expected to be available between now and 2018, that means that what happens over the course of the next few years will determine whether supply meets the projected demand for such industries as health care and construction, as well as manufacturing and natural resources.

And the thing is that not all of those jobs will require a four-year college degree.

Mr. Obama, bless his progressive heart, signed legislation about a month ago that encourages our military veterans to avail themselves of community colleges and online schools, on-the-job training, and vocational, certification and apprenticeship programs. The changes take effect this fall.

It's hard to admit, but college isn't for everyone.

Check the unemployment and high school and college dropout rates in Any State, USA, and you'll face the facts.

What you might not see, however, is the history.

A brief background: For generations, U.S. school systems had separate academic and vocational tracks. The former readied youths for postsecondary educations, while the latter produced high school grads who could move directly into careers in the building trades and hospitality industries, and even become entrepreneurs as woodworkers, auto mechanics and bookkeepers.

World War II couldn't have been won without such skilled laborers and the Rosie the Riveters who stood in their stead during our nation's time of need. But progressives said the track system was cheating black and poor children out of an academic education.

So, instead of better infusing academics into vocational education, we eliminated voc-ed and put everybody on a college-for-all path. Bad move.

"We are the only developed nation that depends so exclusively on its higher education system as the sole institutional vehicle to help young people transition from secondary school to careers, and from adolescence to adulthood," said Robert Schwartz, academic dean and professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, and head of the Pathways to Prosperity Project. "Unless we are willing to provide more flexibility and choice in the last two years of high school, and more opportunities for students to pursue program options that link work and learning, we will continue to lose far too many young people along the path to graduation."

As Americans from all points of view honor Black History Month, it's worth noting that DuBois was the first black to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard and that Washington, who was born a slave, merely sought different means toward the same end. Washington advocated for skilled labor — and who now would reject his stance?

Every homeowner knows that electricians, landscapers, carpenters, plumbers and other such highly skilled and hourly wage earners don't come cheap.

We are at the crossroads, dear readers, and if we're sincere about education reform, then now is the time for the seismic shift to begin forging new and necessary pathways to success.

One size fits most, but never all.

Deborah Simmons can be reached at dsimmons@washingtontimes.com.

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