Watching students move through it, America’s education system can seem to be functioning passably well. Most students complete high school on time. Most high school graduates go on to college. Most college enrollees will complete a degree. Most college graduates find their degrees useful in the labor market. But gazing back along the pipeline’s length yields a starkly different, distressing picture.
America’s education system, from kindergarten through the state university, is designed to produce college graduates. Those who stop short of at least a community-college diploma are widely regarded as failures, or at least victims of a failed system. Yet most Americans fall into this category, and current trends offer little hope for improvement. Politicians and policymakers are finally paying attention to this population—which, roughly speaking, comprises the working class—and calls for more vocational education and apprenticeships have become fashionable. But a more fundamental reordering of the nation’s misshapen educational infrastructure is necessary if alternatives to the college pipeline are to take their rightful place as coequal pathways to the workforce.
There's a real problem with the argument that people don't understand how good things are. If the economic data are saying that things are wonderful and people in the country are saying things are not, we need to ask what the economic data is missing.
The current system is not really trackless; it offers a single track, tailored toward those most likely to succeed anyway. If there is to be only one track, why not switch the default? Design the local high school for the needs of the median student, who won’t complete even community college. Those aiming for college could enroll in an after-school enrichment program three towns over. If that’s how 'no tracking' looked, many of tracking’s opponents would probably come around.
This particular bout of American exceptionalism is a mistake. What sense does it make to treat the vast majority of high-schoolers as if they were prospective college graduates when they are not; to pretend that the sudden divergence of outcomes after high-school graduation did not in fact begin long before? Indeed, the best way to understand the U.S. system is not as trackless, but rather as committed to a single track tailored toward those most likely to succeed anyway.