Recently, I wrote about the great distance between our rhetoric and reality on vocational and technical training. Despite our oft-expressed enthusiasm for “multiple pathways,” we force nearly all high school students to take what is essentially a college-prep pathway. Instead, I argued, we should reserve this path for students “who love and excel in school,” and let kids with other strengths focus on preparing for their careers. Yet in virtually every state, the numerous and demanding academic requirements (four years of English, three years of math, etc.) make it nearly impossible for high school students to devote much time to real on-the-job training. .
As expected, I was attacked for calling for a return to 1950s-style tracking. To my surprise, however, even my colleague and mentor Checker Finn criticized me on these grounds! In the last week Education fly show podcasthe instructed me to take a “back to the future” approach.
And you know what? I am guilty as charged, at least on some counts.
No, I don’t want to go back to the old way, where the system decided who could take college prep courses and who had to “work with their hands.”
And no, I don’t want The System to make these decisions based on students’ skin color or zip code.
But do I think there should be a follow-up in American high schools? Yes. More specifically, follow-up in our secondary schools is just a fact and we would do well to stop pretending otherwise or believing that it could be otherwise. At the very least, we should allow divergent paths after the tenth year. We also need to completely rethink our approach to our lowest performing children.
Consider this: According to the latest (pre-pandemic) data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the gap between the 10th and 90th percentiles of public school students in eighth grade reading was 96 points (on a scale from 0 to 500). In approximate figures, this is equivalent to six school levels. Math is even worse, at 101 points. Thus, some children enter high school at the fifth grade level, others at the eleventh grade level. Does anyone think we can effectively teach students with such extreme degrees of academic preparation (or lack thereof) in the same class and serve them well? Or that we can’t predict which group is likely to do well in college and which will need to find a job after high school, either immediately or upon leaving college?
So, yes, the high schools follow the students. It is a practice, by the way, which a recent American Compass survey found is hugely popular with parents of all socio-economic groups, which explains the fierce political backlash when policy makers embark on the path of war against the advanced path, as seen recently in Virginia.
* * *
At the time of the 50’sJames Bryant Conant High Schoolas Checker called it, there were four leads: “There were honors, for those who thought they might want to go to Duke or Wellesley,” Checker explained. “There was College Prep for those who wanted to go to public school nearby. There was Voc-Ed for those heading into a trade. And then there was something called the general track… and frankly [those students] weren’t prepared for anything when they came out of high school. (Of course, at the time, many general track students had never do until high school graduation, as they dropped out long before and often found acceptable employment anyway.)
All these years later, after decades of “testing” policies and the like, we really just lumped those four tracks into three:
- The track of honors. This remains, largely intact, although in many high schools it now carries a heavy AP and IB course load, and fortunately serves a larger number of students. That’s because of reforms to encourage more schools to create AP programs, efforts to reduce gatekeeping to those courses, and the growth of America’s upper-middle class, which is most obsessed with AP. idea of getting their children into (and able to afford) selective and highly selective colleges, even those who are far from home. High school course requirements are usually not a problem for students in this track, as they would take four years of most academic courses anyway. Estimate that this track now serves about 20% of all students.
- The College and Career Readiness Track. This is where the big change happened. Essentially we tried to merge the old College Prep track and the old Voc-Ed track into one. And in some ways it’s for good reason, since we’ve learned that today’s tech jobs typically require at least some post-secondary education, which means getting students to a relatively high level of reading readiness, in writing and math, as well as various social and emotional skills that are valued in the modern workplace. As I wrote two weeks ago, however, we have loaded student schedules with so many academic course requirements that we have crowded out most of the time that could be spent on technical training. So, students in this track are really doing college prep most of the time, sometimes including a handful of AP, IB, or dual-enrollment courses, while also perhaps taking a few CTE electives. This track serves the bulk of students – probably about half – typically those in the 30th to 80th percentile of achievement nationally.
- The credit recovery trail. Of course, we don’t call it that, but we should. Students in this stream are often enrolled in “level” courses, but this is a trick. These are the children who enter high school with very low levels of academic preparation, who struggle to meet the demands of their academic courses, accumulating many failures along the way. Unlike the old General Track, most of these students stay in school – a kind of success and the result of state policies that hold schools and districts accountable for increasing graduation rates. But since many of these students were so ill-prepared to begin with, we had to invent workarounds, especially credit recovery programs. questionable value (except maybe for-profit companies reap juicy financial rewardsand administrators who have used it to increase their number of graduates), plus the “reforms” that make it easier for students to get passing grades. None of this helps these students, and it probably devalues the high school diploma as well. I would estimate that 30% of American high school students are in this stream; that’s about the number the NAEP considers “below baseline” in math (32%) and reading (28%) upon leaving eighth grade.
Certainly, today’s system is in some ways an improvement over yesterday’s. The collapse of College Prep and Voc-Ed streams means more students are being pushed into high-level work, which is certainly a good thing. The double listing, at least when done correctly, seems to show special promise to bring more children on the way to university. Efforts to help children earn technical degrees while still in high school are also encouraging.
But there are also compromises. This means that we don’t give students time for real vocational training while they are still in high school, as we see in Austria and Germany, where their junior and senior counterparts can spend virtually all day learning. or in technical courses. Are we so sure that career-minded students would be better off spending their time studying Spanish, Fine Arts, and English IV rather than, say, an internship in a hospital center or restaurant kitchen or a top-notch electronics factory? A better approach is that taken by Kirwan Commission of Maryland, whereby students who demonstrate mastery of key skills for college and career by the end of the tenth year are allowed to move on to either genuine college preparation or genuine vocational training. This would again split the College and Career Ready track in two, but after tenth grade.
My biggest concern, however, is with what I call the credit recovery trail. Yeah, it’s good that most of these kids don’t drop out. They are safe and warm, fed and cared for in high school, and off the streets. It’s not nothing. But I wonder if the approach we’ve taken is the best we can do – which is to put students through lots of failures, then have them click through a bunch of boring computerized makeup programs, and finally have them handing in a diploma they can barely read, with no plan or training for what happens the day after graduation.
I will explore other options in a future article.
What is undeniable is that we continue to follow the children, and until we send many more children to high school at much higher levels of achievement, we will continue to follow the children until the end times, whether or not we admit that this is what we are doing. The only real question is what the tracks look like and where they go. The sooner we are honest about this, the better.