Families, Children, Schools,
and the Workplace
Richard J. Altenbaugh
Without education you can't get a job.
Many poor and working-class urban students no longer view schooling as either an intellectual experience or a socialization mechanism; rather it simply represents an institution designed to prepare them for work and possibly serving as a mode of social mobility. While the perception of social mobility claims historical precedent, the work preparation view does not. Children, for better or worse, have always had access to the workplace; but in recent decades this has changed. The avenue to work now runs through schooling.
This represents the most consistent finding of in-depth interviews of fifty-eight Pittsburgh "stopouts," that is, dropouts who have resumed schooling. Rough national data indicate that 10 to 35 percent of all dropouts return to school and that 90 percent of these continue their education onto postsecondary levels.1 One hundred percent of the Pittsburgh narrators, when asked why they decided to return, responded that they "needed" to complete their general equivalency diploma (GED) and obtain some job training. "You need your education to get a job," they typically stated, or "I just wanted to have my GED and a trade."2 The irony here was that these school leavers, who once found schooling so distasteful that they chose to abandon it, now conveyed an almost desperate tone, seeing their economic survival dependent on schooling. They needed jobs and saw no other alternative. Many observers would not express surprise by this response; some may even applaud it. However, as the students perceived it, schooling represented the only institutional bridge to the workplace. How can we explain this phenomenon?
These dropouts' comments need to be placed within a historical context. This chapter argues that transformations in American political economy, characterized