cPaths As An Alternative Success Sequence

I often don't see eye to eye ideologically with writers for Education Next but I do find their articles provocative and compelling and tend to agree with elements of them, albeit often for different reasons than the authors or editors espouse.  

In a piece entitled, “How Can Schools Address the US’ Marriage Crisis” in the Spring 2015 Education Next, Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute asks what U.S. schools can do about the growing number of out-of-wedlock births and the well-documented travails of children raised in single-parent low income homes.

Petrilli summarizes the promising progress made within certain parts of this issue: teen pregnancy has fallen 50% from its 1990 peak, and high-school graduation rates have risen from 65 to 80%.  But unfortunately one-third of low-income students who start college don’t finish – and the number of unmarried mothers now mostly in their early 20s continues to rise, resulting in outcomes for themselves and either children diminishing.  Petrilli posits that the problem is that too few young people are following the “success sequence” outlined by Isabel Sawhill and Ron Haskins: Get at least a high-school diploma, work full time, and be married and at least 21 before having children. While people like me might bridle at this traditionalist formulation, Sawhill and Haskins estimate that 98% of those who follow this sequence will not be poor and 75% will be solidly middle class. Conversely, they note that statistically those who don’t follow any of those norms will be poor, and almost none will make it into the middle class.

Of course young people who fall off the sequence don’t intentionally plan to do so; instead, researchers find that they “drift” into early parenthood by “not working very hard to prevent it,” ascribing positive connections to children (unconditional love, opportunities for a fresh start), and not seeing the almost inevitable hardships and handicaps they are setting up for themselves and their children.  

Now remember that this is the right leaning Education Next and I'd posit MUCH more complex causal factors for what’s at root, but I do agree with some of Petrilli’s “prescriptions" for how to tackle this.

The most effective way to break this cycle, he notes, is for young people to have hope and purpose – a realistic plan for a life trajectory that is more attractive than babies – and he asserts that the essential first steps are higher education and decently paid work.  I would color this by noting that higher ed, or even the prospect of it, is WAY too late.  Climbing early steps in the ladder of success in MIDDLE SCHOOL –and being able to taste the fruits of further success—can provide a powerful incentive for the effective use of birth control during the formative window of young people’s identify formation in early adolescence.  Furthermore, “the success sequence” has to be broadened and differentiated.  In this iGeneration, with customized playlists and booklists based upon interests and previously successful choices, I think customized success sequences, spanning from middle school through careers, are what's most needed and this is of course what CityPathways aspires to provide.

Petrilli rightly notes that the push for higher education needn’t be limited to four-year college, particularly since 30% of employment opportunities in the coming years will be “middle skills” jobs in fields like health care and information technology, requiring community college and career and technical education (CTE) degrees. Employers regularly struggle to fill these roles and increasing attention is being paid to them by the philanthropic and education sectors.  Petrol highlights small CTE learning communities within comprehensive high schools with strong links to local businesses as a successful model, citing a Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC) study that found that career-academy graduates were 33% more likely to be married and living with their spouse than those in a control group (I’d like to read more about the other benefits accrued by this as marriage is far from an inoculation.)

Petrilli wisely points to the essential role of elementary and middle schools in equipping students for success in either college prep or CTE programs, and the importance of building both academic and character skills during these years.  I particularly appreciates that he underscores the importance of robust extracurricular activities, though he emphasizes them because they “keep students busy after hours” and “leave them so exhausted they can’t possibly get in trouble” while I would emphasize that good extracurriculars enable students to try on “possible selves” and tap into parts of themselves that might otherwise not get activated.  To his credit, Petrilli does note the value of extracurriculars in engaging young people “in meaningful athletic, service, and creative roles.”

Petrilli is interested in fostering marriage and so am I: the marriage of youth to pathways they are passionate about.  As with the other kind of marriage, “dating”—through exposure and exploration of different kinds of opportunities—is an important precursor.  Here's to helping young people play the field, and build and broaden their schema for success.