Work Instead of School: A Better Approach for Our Lowest-Performing Students?

A compromise between dropping out and staying in school would allow teenagers to move forward into the world of work, while remaining connected to the school system.

A restaurant worker chops vegetables

Several weeks ago, I asked whether America’s present strategy for serving our lowest performing high school students is really the best we can do. This wasn’t a rhetorical question; possibly the answer is yes. That strategy is to try much harder than in years past to keep such students from dropping out, while also allowing them to earn course credit through online credit recovery if they fail to pass their classes the traditional way. It’s a combination of doing more to encourage and support struggling students (hooray!) while also—let’s be honest—lowering the bar for what it takes to graduate (boo!).

The last half of that equation is regrettable. But it’s almost surely the case that most students are better off staying in school than dropping out, even if it means deflating the diploma’s value along the way—especially if dropping out means turning kids into “disconnected youth” with no involvement in the education system or the labor market. That generally leads to nothing good. So maybe we should simply celebrate the fact that our high school graduation rate was at an all-time high before the pandemic struck, and redouble our efforts on every strategy that was working to make it so.

But allow me to make the case for trying something very different for high school-age Americans who struggle mightily with academics—say, those in the bottom 10 percent of the national distribution—one that might provide a much better experience for them during their adolescent years and lead to better long-term outcomes. Put simply: Let these young people take jobs while still in high school—during the school day, during both their junior and senior years, full pay included, no strings attached—akin to Jobcorps or Jobstart, but before kids drop out.

I’m not talking about fancy apprenticeships or internships. That’s the European model, and it’s a great option for kids with relatively high levels of academic skills, generally leading to further education in technical institutes or community colleges and to bona fide certifications in well-paying careers. No, here I’m talking about teenagers who have been failed by the system, haven’t learned much in elementary or middle school, and are struggling in high school, too. And I’m talking about $10–$15-an-hour jobs, the kind that these students, for better or worse, have a realistic chance of attaining, in industries like food service, hospitality, caregiving, or construction. Let them get started on these jobs as soon as they turn sixteen, but under the guidance of a school-provided career coach/mentor/therapist, and with the hope that they build valuable real-world skills that will quickly lead to greater pay and more opportunities.

In effect, this is a compromise between dropping out and staying in school. It allows these teenagers to move forward into the world of work, while still remaining connected to the school system in a real way.

I know this idea will strike some as fatalistic and defeatist, if not classist or racist. It amounts to giving up on young people, they will say. I respectfully disagree. In my mind, it means freeing some young people from a prison of our own creation, from “credit recovery jail” that boosts schools’ graduation rates without doing much good for the kids stuck inside.

The time we make these kids spend in bogus academics carries real opportunity costs. Because, in today’s system, what we don’t spend time doing is actually preparing young adults to succeed on the day after high school graduation. We don’t help them find a job that is a good fit with their strengths and interests—a job that is actually available where they live or want to move. Once these kids are in the real world, they must try to figure out how to show up on time every day, manage through workplace challenges, deal with a difficult boss, figure out how to ask for a raise, and decide whether they should look elsewhere for better opportunities. But by then we’ve kicked them out of the school system. They are on their own in the jungle.

And many don’t survive. As AEI’s Nicholas Eberstadt has chronicled so effectively, the number of men, in particular, who are neither in school nor working has skyrocketed in recent years. The labor force participation rate for never-married American-born men who dropped out of high school now hovers around 50 percent.

The kind of “job study” program I have in mind would be appropriate only for a limited population, to be sure. It would be nuts to encourage most students to take this path, students who are great, good, or even just decent at school, and have the academic skills to succeed in high-quality college prep or career and technical education programs. For them, more formal education is well worth the time and effort.

Yet however much we wish it weren’t so, millions of teenagers in America do not fit this description. After suffering from years of low expectations in K–8, they entered high school three or four grade levels behind in reading, writing, and math, struggle to pass classes, and generally hate school and everything about it. It is these students who might relish, and benefit from, a ticket out.

I won’t sugarcoat it: The career prospects for such students in a knowledge economy are not great. High-tech sectors are out of bounds for them. Most professional settings will be a reach. Yet the American economy continues to create millions of job opportunities for people with limited academic skills. They don’t pay great. Though thanks to a hot labor market and rising minimum wages in many states and localities, they pay better than they used to. Our (more generous than most people think) social safety net further boosts the value of such jobs. And as low-wage workers gain on-the-job skills, they typically see their wages grow. Orderlies can become nursing assistants, and upward and onward from there. Dishwashers can move onto food preparation, eventually line cooking, and so forth. These aren’t easy paths, but they sure beat poverty or prison.

So the right question to ask, in my opinion, is how to help our lowest-performing students successfully make the transition into the world of work and get launched in a way that will help them make their way in the adult world.

Why not start the process while still under the tough-love care of high school educators? Isn’t that at least worth trying?

Imagine if we spent the $15,000 or $20,000 or $25,000 that we currently plow into their education every junior and senior year, and invest that instead in adults, working for the school system, whose job it is to help these students successfully transition into the workplace. We might even subsidize local employers for taking on the students as workers or for supplementing their pay. The students would spend most of their week at work—say, thirty hours or so—and would also meet a few times a week one on one and in small groups with their mentor/counselor/career coach. If they want to participate in school sports and extracurricular activities, that could be worked into their schedules. Think of summer jobs programs, but during the school year instead.

No doubt, we would need to work out a ton of programmatic details. Which students should be eligible to participate? Should we start with a pilot? Should we give these students a standard diploma, a GED, or something else?

By embracing such an approach, we wouldn’t be giving up on kids’ college dreams. College was never in the cards for high school students who are reading, writing, and doing math at the 10th percentile. The real question is whether a job is a better alternative for these junior and seniors than simply dropping out or painfully trying to follow the “credit recovery track” so many are on today. It’s a question worth answering.

Michael J. Petrilli is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, and an executive editor of Education Next.

This post originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College