You don’t need a four-year college degree to get a good job. But you have to be able to read, and many high school students have never had an effective education.
Manufacturing jobs — those that only require a high school diploma but still pay a living wage — are fast disappearing, despite promises to save them. At the same time, other types of jobs are on the rise: those that pay well and require something more than a high school diploma, but less than a bachelor’s degree. In 2018, it was estimated that there would be 16 million such openings by 2024, with most paying more than $55,000 a year and many more than $80,000.
Training programs have emerged for these “skilled” or “medium-skilled” jobs. The Hechinger Report recently described the three-year, tuition-free Williamson College of the Trades in Pennsylvania, where students can earn associate degrees in fields such as carpentry, masonry, machine tool and power plant technology. States like Utah, Georgia, and South Dakota have seen increased enrollment in skilled trades programs at a time when overall undergraduate enrollment is declining. Employers facing labor shortages and an exodus of retirees are flocking to newly certified candidates.
This is great news for students who have no interest in spending four years – and lots of money – on a traditional college degree. It could also be great news for incarcerated people who can take advantage of federally funded courses in areas like welding and skilled construction. It has been found that inmates who participate in education are up to 43% less likely to return to prison. “This is the first time I feel like I have a chance,” an Idaho inmate told The Washington Post. He took courses in carpentry, masonry and office work. A similar program in Michigan has a 2% recidivism rate.
But too many adults, through no fault of their own, lack the skills to succeed, not just in four-year college, but even in shorter vocational training programs. Courses offered at the Idaho prison require a high school diploma or GED — or at least the pursuit of one — and about a third of inmates arrive without either qualification. A GED is not necessarily easier to obtain than a traditional high school diploma.
I tried a GED social studies practice test and got several questions wrong, despite having a graduate degree in history. For example, one question provided an excerpt from Thomas Jefferson’s inaugural address in 1801 and asked which ideology best described his political philosophy: “republicanism, federalism, anarchism, or fascism.” Excerpt praises “a wise and frugal government, which will prevent men from hurting one another [and] otherwise leave them free to regulate their own activities of industry and improvement.
I chose “federalism” because in its modern sense the word implies a limited role for the federal government. Wrong, I was told: the correct answer was “republicanism”, because Jefferson was the leader of the Republican Party at the beginning of the 19e-incarnation of the century. And yet, the primary definition of “republicanism” is support for a republican system of government. (When capitalized, the word is associated with the Republican Party. But all of the GED test terms were capitalized, suggesting it was a matter of style rather than substance.)
Even if the question were better phrased, it is not clear that the ability to analyze Jefferson’s inaugural address is related, for example, to the ability to become a good welder or carpenter. Ideally, all Americans would at least know who Jefferson has been– for example, that he wrote the Declaration of Independence. Maybe the GED should ask questions like that, but because K-12 schools don’t do a good job of teaching history, a lot of people don’t even know those kinds of basic facts.
The problem is even deeper. Many high school students, including many who manage to graduate, struggle to read even simple text. A few years ago, a scandal erupted in Washington, DC after the local public radio station revealed that educators at very poor high schools had pressured unqualified students into increasing graduation rates. A teacher at one of the schools said he saw a number of 12e– pupils who “could neither read nor write”. In another indication of the extent of the problem, a former DC teacher I know tested all 150 9e students from a very poor school a few years ago and found that the average reading level was 3e class. Secondary school teachers have not been trained to teach basic reading skills, so these students rarely get the help they need.
Even students who have mastered the basics often cannot decipher words easily enough to achieve the “fluidity” of reading, which is a key factor in comprehension. On national reading tests, 30% of 12e students score below the “basic” category, which translates to approximately 1.35 million students. There is not much information about what this means, but a recent study of 4e-students found that what distinguished “below baseline” readers from others was their inability to read words fluently.
Students who score below baseline are disproportionately black, Hispanic, and from low-income, less-educated families. A full 50% of Black 12e-students fall into this category, as do 44% of those whose parents did not complete high school.
It is not that these students can not to learn how to read. If schools used methods backed by scientific evidence, an estimated 95% of all children could learn to read or “decode” words. But for complex reasons, teacher training programs have failed to equip teachers to teach reading effectively.
And while jobs in the skilled trades don’t require academic text analysis, they will likely involve mastering new technologies or learning new requirements. This will involve reading instruction manuals or other technical documents, which may require not only fluency, but also knowledge of sophisticated vocabulary and familiarity with complex syntax.
The state’s Common Core Standards, which are sometimes criticized for focusing too much on preparing students for college, include an appendix of “examples” of complex texts that students should be able to read at each grade level. school. In grades 9 and 10, one such example is a federal government document on recommended insulation levels. In grades 11 and 12, there is an executive order on “Strengthening Federal Management of the Environment, Energy, and Transportation.”
Both of these documents use vocabulary rarely found in everyday conversation, such as “outside” and “required by law.” People might assume that all high school graduates understand terms like these, and many do. But when I tutored students from a very poor high school, I found it was hard to predict what they knew. A boy didn’t understand the word “admirable,” and a girl seemed unfamiliar with the concept of “percentage,” a word that appears frequently in both copies.
Again, it is not that these students could not learned these words. The problem is that schools fail to systematically acquire knowledge of this type of vocabulary through a content-rich curriculum starting in the early grades, diving deep into the subjects so that children have the context that will allow them to to absorb and retain the meaning of words.
It is not impossible to fill these educational gaps once people have graduated from high school or have dropped out. But it is a challenge. One thing that might help is allowing those with poor reading skills to listen to recordings of textbooks or instruction manuals rather than having them decipher them on their own. Ideally, adults who cannot decode words will also receive the instruction they need in basic reading skills like phonics. And it would help if there was a version of the GED for those who plan to enroll in a four-year college and another for those who don’t. (After complaints about the test’s difficulty, the departments administering it set a higher passing score to signify college readiness, but there’s still only one test.) is a serious obstacle.
The long-term solution is to fix our K-12 education system so that it no longer produces as many struggling teens and adults. Unfortunately, the effects of the pandemic are further aggravating this dire situation.
The best news is that a growing number of schools and districts are adopting programs that provide children with systematic instruction in phonics while simultaneously developing sophisticated vocabulary. If we want all students to have a decent chance of succeeding in life, with or without college, we must do all we can to make this approach universal.