May 22, 2009

Every Student Deserves to Go to College: An Argument Against SB 381

By Marqueece Harris-Dawson
New America Media

For five years beginning in 2000, Black and Brown parents from South and East Los Angeles fought for the right to have access to the rigorous college prep coursework known as the A-G classes. “Let Me Choose My Future” was the chant heard across the city, leading up to their triumphant campaign win of an A-G Resolution in 2005.

Senate Bill 381, introduced by Sen. Rod Wright, threatens to undermine both the community’s historic win and the hope for a better future for all of California’s students. SB 381 mandates that any school district raising graduation requirements to meet the University of California (UC) / California State University (CSU) admission standards must also offer an alternative graduation path that requires an equal amount of Career Technical Education (CTE) classes. It is a huge step in the wrong direction.

If passed, SB 381 will hinder district reform efforts to improve college-going rates, placing a stranglehold on districts taking courageous steps toward increasing rigor for all students. It will require the costly addition of new courses, new teachers to teach them, and new facilities to house them. Because a school will need to locate resources for additional CTE classes, its ability to provide advanced course offerings for high performing students and intervention and support classes for struggling students will be severely limited.

Worse still, it flies in the face of what parents and students say they want and need. Nearly 90 percent of Latino, African-American, and Asian California parents expect their kids to attain at least a four-year degree, according to a 2006 New America Media poll. California’s parents have been crystal clear on what they want for their kids: Their goal is college.

And what of those students who are currently on an A-G track, already preparing themselves for college? Are we going to say to them, “Kids who look like you don’t get calculus. Kids who live where you live get cosmetology and auto shop.” Are we going to relegate students striving for success to the service sector? Demographics do not determine destiny, or at least they shouldn’t.

Both research and the experience of powerful educators show us that when students are asked to do more, they deliver more. Students don’t drop out of school because they are being challenged. They drop out of school because they are bored. They absorb the low expectations that adults set for them and then lower themselves to meet them.

If we ever hope to stem the tide of drop outs and crime in our communities and increase the numbers of successful high school graduates, our first priority must be to improve access and success in the rigorous courses that truly prepare all students for both college and career.

The A-G course sequence, we know, does that. It prepares and equips students with the choice to go to college or enter the workforce with marketable skills and knowledge. Even jobs once thought of as non-academic-construction, engineering, plumbing, auto-technicians, manufacturing-all require rigorous academic preparation.

No doubt, if done right, CTE coursework can be a valuable supplement to a student’s education. But that is exactly what it should be — a supplement. At best, CTE can offer a student a carpentry class that emphasizes geometry in the cutting of right angles. At worst, it is a culinary arts class with no kitchen.

By making CTE the end goal, SB 381 pushes low-income students and students of color farther away from the American Dream and further into the margins of American society. As the economy becomes more and more complex, students will need to know more and be able to do more than ever before. Increasingly, careers that pay a living wage require a post-secondary education, and the jobs that don’t are disappearing.

Indeed, if trends persist, a report from the Public Policy Institute of California reveals that by 2025, we will have far fewer working-age Californians with a college degree than our economy will require.

And let’s be clear: SB381 is not about promoting CTE. It is about attacking A-G access. Not every district requires an A-G-For-All policy to ensure access to a rigorous academic curriculum. But some do.

It is not the students in the Hills of Oakland, the Palisades of Los Angeles or other affluent suburban neighborhoods that will feel the brunt of this bill. Those districts don’t need a policy to do what is best for kids. They know and act on the premise that in order to maximize opportunities for kids upon graduation, you must maximize their opportunities for rigor in school.

The students SB 381 will impact are primarily Black and Brown youth that have traditionally received the short end of the stick in our public schools. It is the flatlands of Oakland and the Jungles of South LA that desperately require forceful policy in order to increase rigor and improve student outcomes. These districts have been plagued by the disastrous cycle of low-expectations begetting low-achievement begetting even lower expectations. This bill will deter those districts, and the communities they serve, from enacting a policy that will prepare far more students for both college and career.

SB 381 will not improve opportunities for student success. It will maintain the status quo and codify an age-old tracking system that hurts our students, hurts our schools, and hurts the future of our communities.

Marqueece Harris-Dawson is the executive director of Community Coalition.

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