Multiple Pathways Can Better Serve Students

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SUMMER 2014 / VOL. 14, NO. 3

Traditionally, we have thought of our high schools as having a three-part mission: to prepare students for further learning, work, and citizenship. While we still pay lip service to the work and citizenship parts of the mission, the reality is that our high schools have become increasingly focused on a single mission: college preparation. We have allowed a very important idea—that all students need a solid foundation of core academic knowledge and skills—to morph into a not-so-good idea: that all students need to be prepared to attend a four-year college.

So what’s wrong with the idea of making the four-year college-prep curriculum the default curriculum for all students, as some states have done, or making completion of the curriculum required for admission to a state’s four-year public university system a condition of high school graduation, as several large districts in California have done? Isn’t it true that virtually everyone will need a college degree in order to survive in the 21st-century economy?

Let’s begin with some basic facts. If we follow a cohort of 8th graders, roughly 2 in 10 will drop out before high school graduation, and another 3 will graduate high school but choose not to enroll in postsecondary education. Of those who do go on and enroll in four-year institutions, nearly 4 in 10 will drop out before attaining a degree. Of those who enroll in community colleges, roughly 7 in 10 will drop out. The bottom line: by age 25, only 33 percent of the cohort will have attained a four-year degree, and another 10 percent will have earned a two-year degree.

And what about the rising skill requirements of the 21st century? While it is absolutely true that two-thirds of jobs projected over the next decade will require education beyond high school, and that as a general proposition the more education you get the greater your lifetime earnings, it is also true that for the foreseeable future there will continue to be many good jobs that require some education beyond high school but not necessarily a four-year degree. A recent study from the Brookings Institution, for example, argues that half of the STEM jobs are in this “middle skills” category, requiring some education beyond high school but not necessarily a four-year degree. The average salary for these jobs is $53,000.

I certainly don’t mean to suggest that projected earnings should be the primary basis on which a young person should select a postsecondary pathway, or that career preparation is or should be the sole purpose of higher education. But given the rising costs of college and the uncertain return on that investment, it shouldn’t surprise us that there is increasing interest among policymakers in developing a much stronger set of career-focused pathways into two-year postsecondary programs to sit alongside the dominant pathway into the university sector.

What are the implications of this analysis for the organization of high schools and for their curricular requirements? First, we need to pay much more attention to providing all students with systematic information and advice about the broad spectrum of careers and the education and training requirements associated with them. This should begin no later than middle school and should include opportunities for exposure to a wide variety of workplaces and the adults who work in them. This is especially important for those most at risk of dropping out, for we know that one of the two main reasons dropouts tell us they leave school is that they can’t see any connection between what they are asked to study and any future life they can imagine for themselves.

Second, we need to build a strong set of career pathways in such high-growth, high-demand fields as information technology, health care, and advanced manufacturing that begin in high school, continue seamlessly into two-year postsecondary education, and culminate in a degree or certificate with value in the labor market. These pathways need to provide substantial, sequential opportunities for workplace learning culminating in paid internships or apprenticeships in order for students to see and test the application of academic concepts in a real-world setting and to demonstrate that they are “career-ready.” While these pathways need to combine rigorous academics with relevant career and technical preparation, it is not at all clear why the course sequences in these career pathways need to be the same as those for students in the four-year college pathway.

Adapting the European Model

While one should be mindful of the usual caveats about the relevance of European experience in the U.S. policy context, the typical European division between lower- and upper-secondary education is useful here. In most countries in northern Europe, all students pursue a common curriculum up through grade 9 or 10, and then choose between an academics-only pathway leading to university and a more applied-learning pathway leading to a vocational qualification. In the strongest of these systems (e.g., Switzerland), the vocational pathway opens postsecondary options leading to a degree from a university of applied sciences, as well as crossover options back to the classical university system.

So how would an adaptation of this division between lower secondary and upper secondary help in the U.S. context? First, it would enable us to concentrate our attention and resources in pre-K through Grade 10 primarily on preparing all students to meet the requirements of the Common Core State Standards. Ideally, this is the point at which the last common assessments in English language arts and math would be administered.

It’s in the upper-secondary years, grades 11 and 12, where the case for a differentiated curriculum is strongest. If we do the job right in the pre-K–10 years and supplement a thoughtful, untracked implementation of a common core–aligned curriculum with a systemic, sequential program of career information and exposure, young people and their families should be in a position to make an informed choice among a set of pathways, all of which lead to some form of postsecondary education or training, but only some of which lead directly to a four-year college or university. Progress in meeting the requirements of each upper-secondary pathway would be measured by end-of-course assessments. College readiness would be measured by the successful completion of at least one dual-enrollment college course, preferably taken on a college campus. Work readiness would be measured by the successful completion of an internship or other form of workplace learning, as certified by a workplace supervisor.

Implications for the Curriculum

For those who choose career pathways other than those leading to a four-year university, their curriculum choices should be guided by the requirements of their pathway. In mathematics especially, it is absurd that the views of university mathematicians should drive the curriculum requirements for all students. If only 11 percent of jobs even in STEM fields require advanced mathematical knowledge, why should we force march all students through a mathematical sequence leading to calculus?

In my view, the vast majority of students in two- and four-year institutions would be much better served by getting a solid grounding in data, statistics, and probability in high school. In recent years, promising courses in statistics and quantitative reasoning have been developed and field-tested by researchers at the Dana Center in Texas and the Carnegie Foundation in California to address the remediation problem in community colleges. If these courses could be offered to students in grades 11 and 12 as dual-enrollment courses, it would provide a more relevant, engaging math option for those not heading for math-intensive majors or careers, and in the bargain get more students launched on college-level work without the need for remediation.

Four-year colleges and universities for too long have exercised an undue influence over the high school curriculum. Why should a set of institutions that are effectively serving only one young person in three be setting the requirements for what all students are expected to know and be able to do in order to become productive participants in civic and economic life? If we continue to communicate to young people that the principal reason for completing high school is to sit in classrooms for another four years, we will continue to lose an unacceptably large percentage of them along the way. We need multiple pathways to get many more young people through high school and on to a two-year postsecondary credential with value in the workplace.

Robert Schwartz is professor emeritus at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and coleads the Pathways to Prosperity Network.

This article is part of a forum on college preparation. For another take, please see “All Students Need Common Foundational Skills,” by Cynthia G. Brown.

Comment on this article
  • Anne Clark says:

    Force march all students through a mathematical sequence leading to calculus? No evidence for this in the US.

    Views of university mathematicians drive curriculum requirements? Nope – no evidence for that either.

    Courses in statistics and quantitative reasoning to address CC remediation? You may find it helpful to know that a huge number of those doing remediation in CCs can’t add or subtract. Their problems are not with Algebra 2.

    Too many kids can’t do elementary school math, and the CCSSs don’t prepare kids for STEM majors in college.

    We aren’t aiming too high – we’re not delivering on basic math.

  • Jamison says:

    All I can think about while reading this is are you saying the same thing to your own kids?

    Would you encourage your own kid to not take the college prep track? To not go to college and focus solely on pre-professionalism for economic attainment?

  • Mary Mitchell says:

    All Kids need all the schooling they can get .

  • Mary Mitchell says:

    Foundation skills is the most Important part of an education.

  • Dana Diesel Wallace says:

    I scored about 1000 on the SAT (when 1600 was the top score). I graduated from high school with a 2.0 GPA. I barely made it through Geometry and never took another math class. I earned a doctorate from an Ivy league school.

    Let’s stop asserting we know what constitutes intelligence and who can and cannot be successful in secondary and post-secondary pursuits. Instead, as Schwartz suggests, let’s focus on ensuring our students have solid foundational skills and multiple opportunities to apply them to find a path forward.

  • Anne Coulter says:

    All I can ask after reading this article is how many years did your kid (kids) spend
    at college level education, graduate education? How about
    yourself? How many years did you have? Why?
    Your other family members? Wife? What do you wish for
    your grandchildren? Technical skill level education? Only going to school for 2 years after high school?
    Are you not interested in truly changing the educational
    system to improve it or are you just advocating to corporate
    level job interests?

  • Jacob Mendez says:

    It’s a great idea to provide students with these pathways like they do in the UK. Every person has different interests and contain a certain amount of understanding so why should they take classes that won’t help them in their careers? They should be able to understand the things that they want to. Being back in high school, I can see that the principal forced the school to take AP classes as a requirement for graduating. It was a way to motivate students to go to college. His plan flawed though because you can’t force anyone to go to college. They must be motivated from the start just what Schwartz states here. Two years after high school is good enough in order to live a reasonable life in the US. This accommodates the basic needs and one can move up in this chain so we should contain different pathways to motivate students to take at least a 2 year education post high school.

  • Reese Rosenbrook says:

    Your whole argument is based on the idea that we should change the curriculum for our high schools because by the age of 25, only 33 percent of people will receive degrees from a four year school. You say that because most people don’t end up getting a four year degree, we should just give up on them and restructure our educational system to better fit them? That’s ridiculous. We should be focusing on trying to get more people to graduate with a four year degree instead of giving up. We can’t just set the standards low and then set them even lower when the people seem to be sinking even lower. Also, for claiming to be in interest of improving education, you seem to be prioritizing in corporate job interests much more than you seem to be in learning, just as Anne Coulter says in the comment before me.

  • Colton Likarich says:

    The idea of implying the UK’s educational program where you can pursue a general education, and then decide if an applied education is more your style. Personally, I don’t like the idea of forcing classes that aren’t required and don’t want to be taken. Students in high school should have the opportunity to take classes that they are interested in. For example, if they want to be an English teacher, they shouldn’t be forced to take Calculus. I understand that there should be a common core standard, but the classes shouldn’t get way to advanced for high school, or they will come into college wondering why they are wasting there money on classes. For many incoming college students, they don’t realize how much effort and work it takes to excel. High school students have the ability to find themselves and college gives the chance to experiment with their interests.

  • mckenzie culp says:

    This idea about reaching out to more kids rather than focusing on that one poster child presumptions is brilliant. We need to create more paths that are available to the future of our economical uprises instead of having tunnel vision because I don’t believe there is only one right way to succeed in life.
    Instead of cramming in information that doesn’t match their set of skills we should help promote children making them feel valuable and confident in their future. While I believe this is a promising idea, what are the cost; will parents have to pay a fee or have to place their child be placed in a school specific for this concept? How will this new approach reach kids; will teachers be appointed to attend workshops? How are we going to make this happen financial and realistically? Altogether, I believe its a phenomenal idea it needs a course of action; a play book per say, but it is a needed attribution and hopefully someday this will be a reality.

  • Mario Hernandez says:

    So kids that are not cut out for more rigorous courses should take these lower level pathway courses? I understand that not every kid will want to go to college or not be as motivated as other students, but I think it is still important for education systems to push their student to take more challenging classes and achieve their future goals. I think college should be something all students look forward and work hard to get to, instead of opting out for these pathway courses that are being suggested.

  • Tyler Musilek says:

    I believe that the writer is correct in the fact that we do need pathways because many students do loose track and find no reason in why they should keep attending high school or even go to college when they can make great money coming right out of high school in a trade. In my experience over the summer working that many of the guys realized once they got out of high school that they could make good money immediately without getting a college education. They also did not find any interests in anything in school to make them want to continue there education. Pathways is a great thing and should definitely be brought over to the United States and implemented into our society so that we have more kids that want to continue there education in what they want to do for a career.

  • Rebecca Leech says:

    The comments of Anne Coulter and her supporters reflect the underlying elitism that is the primary stumbling block to helping America progress. While she implies that 2 year and technical paths are inferior to a university education, if her house were on fire, she would put her life in the hands of a firefighter. She would assume the firefighter was highly trained and competent in his or her technical skill, and probably wouldn’t care if he knew details about Beowulf or quadratic equations. The problem lies in our lack of respect for the technical pathways that support our economy and improve our lives. These pathways require intensive and specific training and should be held in high regard. We should be proud of our own children when they choose these pathways, as well.

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