Decades ago, there were many ways to train for work, good work, and educational tracking played a role. Proponents of the practice said it let instructors focus on the needs of students at specific levels of ability and prevented "teaching to the middle," which didn’t sufficiently challenge advanced students.
But by the 1970s and ’80s, civil-rights advocates and education researchers were pointing out that minority students were disproportionately set on lower-level tracks, taught by weaker teachers, relegated to rote learning, and burdened with the perception that they were dumb. Studies found that those students scored lower on tests than they would have if they’d been tracked higher.
The GI Bill and the explosion of community colleges in the 1960s had already expanded the understanding of whom college was for, and in 1983 the presidential report "A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform" was the "educational equivalent of a declaration of war," says Mr. Carnevale, of Georgetown. Comparing students’ performance on standardized tests in the United States and other countries, the Reagan administration sparked an obsession with achievement, the dismantling of vocational tracks, and the mantra of college for all, he says. To remain competitive and stem a moral and economic decline, America needed to raise its standards.
Schools began to push general education as preparation for college. "In a fit of progressiveness, we threw away vocational education," Mr. Carnevale says. Instead, he says, the curriculum favored "ever higher levels of abstraction in subject matters where it is not clear why you learn them at all until you are ready to go to college."(Emphasis added.)
As is so often the case in the US, the legacy of our racist original sins is so bitter that even the fixes wound us (as pointed out in the emphasized part.). As much as I support, at least in principle, some sort of European-style tracking system that gives equal respect to vocational and academic preparation, in the back of my mind there's the nagging acknowledgment that America has never been good about separating its people into different groups and treating them differently. We have a lot of baggage there. OK, Europe has the baggage of its class system, anti-Semitism, and countless bloody wars on their soil, but the class system and anti-Semitism both separated their societies into a large group and a fairly small group. Educational tracking, dividing the society into a few groups of roughly comparable size, doesn't really hit the same notes. OTOH, racial segregation in the US divided society into two groups of comparable size. (Yes, African Americans are only 12% of the population nationally, but in the areas where most black people live they are a much larger percentage of the population.) And the other original sin, against the Native Americans, involved expulsions of pretty large groups of people.
And there's more than just ancestral guilt and bad baggage here. One thing that we Americans have always done well is assimilate immigrants. We're amazing at it, which is pretty strange when you consider just how much racist baggage we have. Nonetheless, we're really, really good at it. So good at it that we get scolded for favoring assimilation over diversity. (This is usually said by somebody using a PC jargon that is itself a distinctively American thing, once more showing just how awesome we are at assimilating people.) Giving people chances to break with the past is what we do and we do it better than anyone else. So it's woven into our cultural DNA that your fate shouldn't be decided in middle school.
So I can comfortably say that we've gone too far with "College for Everyone", but then I pause and realize that all of the other options, if taken too far (and this is America, the land of Big Gulp sodas--we take everything too far) could put us on some bad paths.
ADDENDUM: Some more choice quotes from the article.
Our economic and social problems stem more from the wide gap between rich and poor, and jobs sent overseas, says Ms. Ravitch, than from too few people pursuing a bachelor’s degree. We’re projecting economic insufficiencies onto the education system, she says. "The college-for-all talk is like fairy dust sprinkled over the conversation."Yes, as I keep saying, you can't make education the sole fix for economic problems.