Life-ready education

Published by Lori Pickert on March 23, 2010 at 03:01 PM

Even in these days of partisan rancor, there is a bipartisan consensus on the high value of postsecondary education. That more people should go to college is usually taken as a given. In his State of the Union address last month, President Obama echoed the words of countless high school guidance counselors around the country: "In this economy, a high school diploma no longer guarantees a good job." Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, who gave the Republican response, concurred: "All Americans agree that a young person needs a world-class education to compete in the global economy."

— Time: The Case Against College Education

To give you an idea of how competitive American schools are and how U.S. students performed compared with their European counterparts, we gave parts of an international test to some high school students in Belgium and in New Jersey.

Belgian kids cleaned the American kids’ clocks, and called them “stupid.”

We didn’t pick smart kids to test in Europe and dumb kids in the United States. The American students attend an above-average school in New Jersey, and New Jersey’s kids have test scores that are above average for America.

Lov Patel, the boy who got the highest score among the American students, told me, “I’m shocked, because it just shows how advanced they are compared to us.”

The Belgian students didn’t perform better because they’re smarter than American students. They performed better because their schools are better. At age 10, American students take an international test and score well above the international average. But by age 15, when students from 40 countries are tested, the Americans place 25th.

To talk about college this way may sound elitist. It may even sound philistine, since the purpose of a liberal-arts education is to produce well-rounded citizens rather than productive workers. But perhaps it is more foolishly elitist to think that going to school until age 22 is necessary to being well-rounded, or to tell millions of kids that their future depends on performing a task that only a minority of them can actually accomplish.
It is absurd that people have to get college degrees to be considered for good jobs in hotel management or accounting — or journalism. It is inefficient, both because it wastes a lot of money and because it locks people who would have done good work out of some jobs. The tight connection between college degrees and economic success may be a nearly unquestioned part of our social order. Future generations may look back and shudder at the cruelty of it.
— Time: The Case Against College Educationhat tip Joanne Jacobs, who says “‘College- and career-ready’ is the new mantra.”

Ten years ago, Facebook didn't exist. Ten years before that, we didn't have the Web. So who knows what jobs will be born a decade from now? Though unemployment is at a 25‑year high, work will eventually return. But it won't look the same. No one is going to pay you just to show up. We will see a more flexible, more freelance, more collaborative and far less secure work world.

It’s the American way to try to make as much money as possible. And it’s said that the way to earn more is to get the best education you can afford. But in today’s economy, where so many overqualified people are competing for fewer jobs, the promise of a big payoff from a college diploma can be misleading.

— ABC News: Some Debt-Laden Graduates Wonder Why They Bothered with College

A few thoughts…

At what age do our children start equating education with future income?

When our young adults graduate from high school, are they capable of crunching the numbers and determining whether a college degree will pay off for them?

Are they conditioned to think critically about what career they will pursue, whether college is necessary, which college will give them the best return for their investment?

One of these quotes predicts in the future we’ll see a “more flexible, more freelance, more collaborative and far less secure work world.” Are we producing young adults who are prepared to thrive in that environment?

If it’s our goal, as a society, to have our students “college- and career-ready,” what about life-ready?



Comment by amy on March 23, 2010 at 07:51 PM

Well, obviously I want my kids to be able to support themselves when they grow up, but I also want them to be able to do so in a way that makes them as happy as possible. I don't see college as a be-all and end-all, and I really do think it's stupid and inefficient to require college degrees for certain jobs. (Are you watching the new NBC show Parenthood? Did you catch that Lauren Graham's character didn't get a job for which she was qualified because she lacked a college degree?) And then there is the sense of entitlement, of "I went to college and thus I deserve a starting salary above a certain threshold." I went to college, as did my husband, and our starting salaries were dust. Geez, kids these days. ;)

So, I don't actually care if my children go to college, and I sure as heck don't care WHICH college. My husband and I both went to our state university. At the time, did I want to be exiled to a rural-ish, isolated university? Not so much. I'd have preferred to go to college in a city. On the other hand, we are both doing far better, financially, than my Ivy League-educated sister. In the end, education is what you make of it. The degree may have opened doors (justly or not) that wouldn't open for someone without the degree, but it didn't turn us into the sort of employees we are. Well, was, in my case. :)

Comment by silvia on March 23, 2010 at 08:32 PM

Very thought provoking and interesting article. Your questions are very relevant to what we do, YES, we definitely hs our girls to have them 'life ready'

Comment by Lieve on March 23, 2010 at 08:53 PM

I'm not sure the school system here in Belgium is so great ... and in my experience, there's a tendency towards more tests and assessments, even in pre-school.

Comment by Cristina on March 23, 2010 at 09:50 PM

Whatever happened to apprenticeships? Did the colleges eat them. :o)

This is somewhat timely for our family. My 16 year old has been asked about college since she was 14. Family members and friends think they are being helpful when they send her information on this program or that. For my own reasons, I prefer not to rush her. I was so sick of school by the time I was her age I took a year off after I graduated. We spend so much time trying to reach some imagined destination (financial security, for example) we miss the whole point of education!

Comment by BOATBABY on March 23, 2010 at 11:17 PM

Fabulous quotes and fabulous point! I always say I sadly wasted my dad's $$ on my college education. Lucky for him and me, I managed to graduate with a double major in just 3 years. But my career has nothing to do with either degree (law and government studies with a minor in econ). I am a TV producer/ director/ writer. And I knew I wanted to be that by second semster freshman year. But I had to push through, get out, and get that piece of paper. Why? I truly didn't need it for my career. Not even majoring in communications would have helped things. In fact, I've been quite successful and scored a fabulous job in TV before I graduated, but I did it because of working hard and moxie and knowing how to write and how to commnicate with people. That was all learned in high school deabte. Truly, college was a waste for me. I think old fashioned apprenticeships are not utilized enough. And letting young people use their creative wits to make their own way is becoming truly lost.

Comment by Sheila on March 24, 2010 at 11:01 PM

Are they conditioned to think critically about what career they will pursue?

A while back, my son was involved with a group that used the principles from the Thomas Jefferson Education people (it's a variation of the classical model of education, with their own ideas on everything, as these theories tend to do). At a parent meeting one of the adults said something that always stuck with me: "I tell my son that I am not raising him to be a teenager; I am raising him to be an adult." That statement seemed in that instant to address the whole peer pressure/teen alienation thing so sensibly, and I've always remembered it for that reason. It might be one reason why so many kids aren't able to cope sensibly with the idea of a career: their parents, who perhaps watched them most assiduously when they were little toddlers in the playground, are now pretty much leaving them to figure it out for themselves once they become teens. Kids need mentors and lots of attention no matter how old they are. And parents are for the most part not there when the kids come home from school. They're out working full time by that point.

I'm certainly overgeneralizing, but in my day to day experience I see this all the time. The parents just aren't there once the kids get older. And kids, despite what Bart Simpson says, can't do everything on their own.

Comment by jen on March 25, 2010 at 02:11 AM

The thing that stuck out to me when I read this was the quote that said, "Though unemployment is at a 25‑year high, work will eventually return. But it won't look the same. No one is going to pay you just to show up."

I thought, "Well, if that's the case, we better stop giving our nation's children an attendance award and calling it an education!"

As a teacher, the only reason I ever had an administrator think there was reason to hold back a child was because of attendance. While I never wanted to hold back a child and don't necessarily think it's a good thing to do, I think that fact is telling.

I also flew through so much of my high school and college education with profs who took attendance then read to us from the text. I had one prof that literally took points off for attendance in college.

As a homeschooler I know that one of the things that is required (as proof that parents are indeed educating their children) by many states is attendance.

So now I sound all down on attendance, but really I'm just sad that we (as a nation) aren't asking more of our children when they are capable of so, so much more . . . and will be required to do so, so much more. Our children might need a college education, but even more so they will need the skills to figure out how to get through life, how to be flexible, how to put a shoulder to the grindstone and push really hard until the job is done, and how to smile (and maybe even enjoy) while doing so.

(all sweaty and dizzy and with a sheepish grin) Hope I get it together and figure out how to do just that before they are too old!

Comment by Luisa on March 25, 2010 at 03:46 AM

Thank you for writing this article. You're very brave for putting this information out there. What happened to life strategies for kids? Well it's being dissected out of the curriculum and it's being replaced with testing and prepping for testing and college prepping at the elementrey schools. As my son calls it "crazy college talk"
Of course it doesn't stop there imagination and childhood is also being dissected out of children so they can be accelerated to college and adulthood. What I'm wondering why is everyone in these systems so sure all these kids going to college. What about real life skills aren't those important and if someone doesn't go to college they won't be successful and happy? Hmmm I may not homeschool yet but watching this unfold before my eyes is actually jaw dropping.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 26, 2010 at 01:29 AM

amy, i thought this was an interesting follow-up to the idea that school is supposed to function as job training. then i read an article today that said a large percentage of incoming freshmen have to take remedial English and remedial math because their high school degrees weren't up to par. mmm...

what you say re: job vs. happiness is what i was getting at in my earlier posts .. i think education has the power to raise everyone's standard of living. it can introduce people to art, literature, music. it can educate them about finance and help them learn how to make good decisions. it can show them how to work with and understand each other. it can help them find their own path in life.

but .. not only does it rarely accomplish those things .. it seems the people steering the boat don't even see them as an important part of what school is for.

thank you, silvia!

lieve, you must be doing something right. ;^) at least re: test taking! ha

i don't know anything about education in belgium; please feel free to tell us more!


you said "We spend so much time trying to reach some imagined destination (financial security, for example) we miss the whole point of education!"

ah, i agree, and not just about education .. about life, too. :^)

i just want to raise my sons to be thoughtful consumers of packaged, profit-based education. if they want to pay someone to teach them something, they should know how to get their money's worth.

boatbaby, i started a business straight out of college, based on skills i got working my way through school. a big part of the problem is that we ask 18yo kids to choose careers based on .. what?! it was the work i did during school that pointed me in the right career direction. many (MANY) of my friends didn't realize what they wanted to do until they'd already paid for a bachelor's degree. talk about starting out in the hole.

sheila, yes, there seems to be a very accepted idea that teens will drift off and do their own thing (peers, school) and that's the way it's supposed to work. it would be so much better if kids could transition to adulthood more smoothly, taking on more responsibilities, making more choices, being in control more. i think teens need, and want, more meaning in their lives.

jen, sad but true re: attendance. you are so right.

and that *is* a tall order, but if we aren't in it to win it, why do it at all?! :^)

luisa, thank you. mm, i think they're so sure everyone's going to college because that's their big goal -- to get everyone to go to college. i think a better goal would be getting a high-school education back to the quality it was in the 50s and let people start working earlier, with no debt, if they don't really need a college degree. but hey, that's me. :^)

Comment by Sheila on March 27, 2010 at 01:31 AM

i think a better goal would be getting a high-school education back to the quality it was in the 50s and let people start working earlier, with no debt, if they don't really need a college degree. but hey, that's me

It's become a one upmanship, hasn't it? I remember arguing with my SIL who was insistent that her 2 kids go to uni. no questions asked; she even put huge amounts of $ into uni. bank accounts for them. And my dh teaches at a uni. where half his students are only there because their parents pay their tuition.

I agree, I'd love to see a return to more for less. I have a zillion talents I could parlay into something but most of them have been acquired without a degree. But I would argue that my practical knowledge goes farther than a college diploma might (ie: gardening). How did we get to this point? Is it a matter of too many people in one area? Snobbery?

Comment by Bonnie on March 27, 2010 at 01:27 PM

The connection between attendance and retention, I believe, is made because attendance is a black-and-white matter. Either you were there or you weren't. It's readily defensible for the administrator who faces a parent or a higher administrator who challenges the retention. "Readiness" for the next grade level is a much fuzzier matter to measure.

I fear that our consumer mentality dominates our understanding about higher education right now. I hear tales of instructors who feel pressure to give grades not earned because parents and students are paying so much for their courses. College tuition is moving beyond the reach of typical families, unless they strap themselves and their children with debt. That debt in turn may limit the employment choices a person can make after college.

I don't favor rushing adulthood per se, but the notion of "teenager" is a relatively recent cultural creation. The teen years can be spent learning life skills for responsible, independent adulthood. In lower economic groups, they often ARE spent that way. Money earned at part-time jobs goes to help support the family. With appropriate preparation, 18yos can make good choices about their higher ed needs and their work options, but not if they have been at the mall for the last four years.

We need opportunities to find our passions and we need to learn how to learn. Whatever gets in the way of that does us great disservice.

Comment by Dawn Suzette on March 28, 2010 at 06:21 PM

Wow... so many thoughts here!
As a high school teacher I was fortunate enough to teach Life Skills classes. Funny thing was that only kids that were NOT "college bound" took my class (mainly because the "college bound" kids could not fit it into their schedules because it was not college prep and because their schedules were filled with extra curricular activities that colleges were looking for).
The sad thing was that these were skills that parents should have been passing on to their kids... budgeting, family planning, etc.. Some of my students did not even know that their parents had to pay for garbage collection or why they had a period (menstruation) and these were 17 year-old kids!

Not too long ago I was talking with my husband’s grandfather about this issue of college. Hs is a Stanford grad but came from a VERY poor family (long and amazing story there). We discussed the idea that many jobs in the past could be acquired through apprenticeships and did not require a college degree. He was distressed at the trend toward the requirement of a degree for jobs best learned on the job.

I have discussed this many times with my husband. We both have degrees but would have done things much different if we had been encouraged in our teen years to explore areas of work that were interesting to us. In my early 20’s I did a lot of volunteer work and that helped me rule out some work I thought I might like but I just did not have enough time to discover my true interests before I had to “declare a major”. I changed my major so many times my dad just said “when you graduate tell me what you finally decided for your degree”. I wish I had been pushed more in my early teen years to start shadowing business people and taking on short-term apprenticeships so I could really SEE what people in the working world did. My brother quit high school (took his GED) and starting working as an electrician apprentice. He is now doing a whole lot better than I am financially and I am the one with the degree! Hummmmm! And on top of that, he loves his work!!!!
We are going to encourage our children to explore more career options while they are teens. I don’t think it is “making them grow up too fast”. I think it is preparing them to transition to adulthood. I like the quote above about that… so good! We are also going to encourage them to take a “gap year” if they are not sure if college is right for them. Maybe even use that year to learn a skill than can always fall back on. A college friend did Cosmetology school while in high school and cut hair while she was in college to help pay for her “education”… how smart was that! And no matter what she does in the future or how bad the job market gets she will always have a skill that people need and that she can perform anywhere!

I could go on and on but I won’t. This is a great topic. So important. Thanks Lori!

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 28, 2010 at 07:14 PM

sheila, i think it's just marketing. education is crucial to your child's success in life. a college degree is necessary *and* it will increase your child's income. (no mention of debt...)

it's all a *business*, just as public education is a big ol' business, but people don't like to think about it that way. it makes them uncomfortable. a great thing about hs'ing is, you can teach your kids that discomfort is a signal to pay more attention, not less.

and .. on the same topic ..


parents *should* have a consumer mindset, since, after all, they are in essence buying a degree. we all know that. what a person gets out of college varies wildly depending on what they put in. and it is possible to put in virtually nothing and come out with a diploma.

you're singing my song re: the teen years. i believe in a slow, deliberate transition into adulthood. i think teens deserve real, full lives and meaningful work. i think if the teen years were spent pursuing a serious interest, then young adults could make more meaningful choices about where to go for further education and what career direction they should orient themselves toward.

the "appropriate preparation" is what's lacking.

and forget about the mall .. what about high school? it's not about transitioning to adulthood; it's about artificially extending childhood.

dawn, HA. i of course love the irony that life skills are only needed for the kids who won't go to college .. presumably they will be "living" a lot sooner .. and of course those college kids will pick up those skills somewhere .. right?

"The sad thing was that these were skills that parents should have been passing on to their kids..."

so true, except .. how many of our adults are prepared to teach h.s. kids about budgeting?! they teach them by example .. to feel entitled to things they can't really afford .. to shoulder a lot of credit card debt .. etc. oop, sorry .. bit grouchy there.

teenagers have those partially formed brains and exposure to media wrestling with their good sense; if *someone* doesn't lay it out for them, they're never going to understand compound interest and how it can work *for* you .. or *against* you.

"We both have degrees but would have done things much different if we had been encouraged in our teen years to explore areas of work that were interesting to us."

re: time to explore .. see, this is very interesting to me. i have a lot of friends in their 20s. what i see is that they don't get the chance to even *start* exploring their interests or learning about the real world until college .. or even worse, *after* college. how can you choose a career path if you haven't worked in that area? (including internships, volunteering...) too many people end up with the "wrong" degree and only figure out what they really want to do when they are approaching 30 .. and if they want to get the right degree, they're going to incur even more debt. not to mention years they won't be earning/saving.

"We are going to encourage our children to explore more career options while they are teens. I don’t think it is “making them grow up too fast”. I think it is preparing them to transition to adulthood."

agree, agree, agree. this is a *meaningful* transition .. so that when they are 18 or 20 they actually can look back on their own experiences to make decisions about their future! even if the work kids do in their teens does not end up being their life's work, they will draw so much on that experience. it is really giving them a powerful resource to draw on -- something education should do but often doesn't.

i worked my way through college and the experience was invaluable. i knew so much about the work world when i graduated and i had figured out what i should be doing. a huge, huge advantage over my classmates.

re: your friend who can cut hair .. i felt that way about knowing how to type! when i was working in my late teens i realized i already had enough skills to support myself as a secretary, and that was a very powerful feeling. i could move on toward what i wanted to do knowing that i could fall back on my skills.

thanks for your great comment and personal stories!

Comment by Paula on March 29, 2010 at 10:23 AM

‘Whatever happened to apprenticeships? Did the colleges eat them. :o)’ ,
Cristina asks. Well I think they did and it is us, home schoolers, that will miss them dearly.

I am Dutch, currently living in Belgium. Education in Belgium is formal and authoritarian. Home schoolers in Belgium find it too formal but Dutch parents see this as a remedy for all modern, educational illnesses and send their kids to Belgium schools.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 29, 2010 at 03:57 PM

paula, that is fascinating -- what do they see as the "modern, educational illnesses"?

re: apprenticeships, i think they disappeared when demand disappeared. if we bring up a new generation of kids who are interested in apprenticing themselves, i just hope there are still masters doing the work who will need them.

Comment by Lisa on March 29, 2010 at 09:29 PM

While I'm not one to harken back to the "Good Old Days," I do wonder, other than to keep down the unemployment figures, why it is mandatory for ALL to go to school till 18. It seems the average 8th grade graduate pre-World War II knew more and worked harder. Today we send kids to school till 18, then college till 22 or 23 or even beyond and yet they can't support themselves. By "can't support themselves" I don't simply mean kids from very high income families not being able to replicate Mom and Dad's life immediately. But they can't seem to understand starting at the bottom, working two or more jobs, SAVING money and delaying gratification. Coupled with this is truly the lack of jobs that let them pay rent, make a car payment [most of our country is NOT served by adequate public transportation] and pay off gazillion dollars of student loan debt. It's two edged.

As my son nears the end of high school, I wonder how he will cope. He doesn't care about academic work, but is achieving in martial arts [possibly teach in or own a martial arts school], art [possibly do graphics or advertising as well as create works of art] and mixing music [possible owner of a party DJ service]. All of these TOGETHER would give him a decent economic standard and satisfaction. The accounting and other classes he may need can be had very reasonably at Community College or thru the University I work for at zero tuition cost [that's not the norm I know!!] I don't feel I have to hold a whip over him to get thru an actual degree.

My daughter, too, sees multiple avenues--none of which require an Ivy League education and mountain of corresponding student loan debt. She'd like to be a teacher [again, either inexpensive at one of our state colleges or thru my employer for zero tuition + her housing at our main campus], wants to do hair [looked down upon by many but can pay GREAT if you have your own salon] and wants to run after-school art classes.

While I know many folks think "IVY" or nothing, I've built a decent life on a Big 10 education [thru Master's] supplemented by Community College and Continuing Ed classes when I've needed them. I think we let "degree status" equal "educated" even if they merely ground out the work and took nothing but the sheepskin away with them!

Comment by Arwen on April 1, 2010 at 12:43 PM


I just found out about where we should make our thoughts known on the common core. I thought you might want to pass this info along:

Comment by jen on April 3, 2010 at 03:00 AM

Have you seen this:,17159/

It totally cracked me up! (found the link at another homeschooling blog recently)

Comment by Lori Pickert on April 3, 2010 at 04:33 PM

Lisa, I agree with you 100%!

Thank you, Arwen!

Jen, I saw that and it cracked me up, too. Spot on, wouldn’t you say?

Comment by Angela on April 17, 2010 at 10:00 PM

I haven't read all the comments so someone may have already said this, but....
I am one of those people that always wanted to go to college, I saw it as my way to avoid having "my mother's life." I also want to go into research science where higher education is pretty much mandatory. We were told that going to college would open doors and blah, blah, blah...

Of course, now I am a SAHM mother (as was my mother) and I am certainly not making the big bucks. I have learned that no educational situation as they are currently structured will teach you about living life. I have also learned that most people by their mid 30s have realized that they aren't using that degree in the way it was intended. But what is really frustrating is knowing all this and seeing my younger siblings none who have gotten a four year degree lose out to people with degrees just because they have degrees. I feel like such a hypocrite to have to tell my brother he has to go into debt and go to college to do a job he can already do. Sometimes I am very bitter that college is still being sold as the key to the American dream when we all know that it isn't. So I homeschool, encourage my daughter to think about learning as something that never stop, talk about college positively because I do believe it can be a wonderful place but it can be very different for lots of people, and try to teach her all the skills for coping with life and relationships that she won't be learning in any classroom in the world.

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