Frequently Asked Questions about Pathways-Part 2

A few weeks ago, I talked about two of the most frequently asked questions I receive about Pathways – whether students can change their pathway and if a pathways program is inappropriately asking a teen to make a career decision.  You can see those questions addressed here.

Today, I’m going to address three other common questions I receive and how I answer them.   The three questions are:

    • Are pathway programs really preparing students for low-skilled careers instead of college?
    • If most “jobs of the future” haven’t yet been created, why should we focus on career preparation?
    • Is preparing students for a job really the mission of schools?

Question: Are pathway programs really preparing students for low-skilled careers instead of college?

Answer:   First, we can be honest that, in past decades, vocational education may have focused on lower-skill occupations but that has changed significantly.  Most CTE programs now are aimed at in-demand and well-paying careers in automotive technology, information technologies, welding and machining, health care, and construction careers, among others.  Further, we should recognize that some pathway programs may not actually be considered official “career and technical education (CTE)” programs. In addition to CTE programs, pathway programs in schools often include a multitude of options including liberal arts, journalism, performing and fine arts, social service, social justice, business and finance, etc. Students and parents should be made aware, however, that all pathway programs, including those considered CTE, are designed to develop career, and life readiness, which means they are ready to succeed in postsecondary education and training. In fact, many high-tech, high-demand sectors such as information technology, engineering, and advanced manufacturing fall under the career and technical umbrella yet require a college degree. And another myth-buster — according to the U.S. Department of Education, about 75 percent of CTE students who take three or more related CTE courses already attend some form of postsecondary education and training.[i] 

Optimally, pathway programs should be designed with three potential destinations (sometimes referred to as off-ramps and on-ramps): an industry-recognized certification, an associate degree, and a bachelor’s degree. This design makes the pathway program relevant for the learner who wants to enter the workforce as quickly as possible and also for the student who wants to attend a two- or four-year college.

Question:  If most “jobs of the future” haven’t yet been created, why should we focus on career preparation?

Answer:  There really is no evidence that this notion is based in reality yet it seems that many people have heard it passed along as gospel truth. As an example, consider a researcher and writer who included a statement in her 2011 book purporting that “65% of children entering grade school this year will end up working in careers that haven’t even been invented yet.”[ii] This author wasn’t the first to make this claim and certainly not the last. Yet, research does not support it.

First grade students in 1999 would be approximately in their mid-twenties today and the majority of careers available to them did in fact exist then they were young. This includes retail, information technology, manufacturing, marketing, sales, finance, accounting, teaching, public safety, and skilled trades. Yes, there will be some jobs in the future that don’t exist right now.  More importantly, these long-standing careers that still exist are evolving incredibly quickly with new technologies and business models that require higher level thinking, problem-solving and communication skills.  The job titles may stay the same, but the skills mix is much more demanding than in the past.  Our pathway programs must address both today’s technical skills, but also learning competencies and the transferable employability and life skills students will need to successfully navigate their careers.  I would caution, however, that the danger with statements such as “the jobs of the future haven’t yet been invented,” is that it subtly undermines the will to help students understand careers and prepare for career and life success today.

Question:  Is preparing students for a job really the mission of schools?

Answer:  From the earliest days of public education, there has been a tension between two values: the need for the individual to be a productive working member of society and the aspiration to prepare an individual for a life of learning, thinking, and personal growth. Through the decades, education has veered between two extremes. The first is tracking students into clearly delineated social and work roles while the other extreme is a focus on general knowledge and skills that is devoid of career-relatedness.

The student-tracking model of the mid-20th century made the mistake of training some youths for jobs, rather than also preparing them to be learners who could better adapt to the changing needs of the workplace. In a regimented tracking model, only the college-track students were held to high expectations for abstract reasoning and problem solving. Other students were readied for low-skilled or semi-skilled employment, and when the world started changing rapidly in the 1970s and 80s, many of these workers couldn’t adapt.

In today’s economy, which values higher-level thinking and problem solving as well as marketable technological and business-process skills, a fusion of the two approaches is needed. The two goals – developing adaptive learners and preparing for careers – are not incompatible, in fact they are both essential. Educators and the community-at-large are responsible for holding the two values in a productive tension.


When you think about it, you can see that these questions are all aimed at a more fundamental concern, that perhaps career exploration and career application really shouldn’t be included in the realm of schools.  Adopting a career pathways model embraces careers development, pathway programs, and linkages to employer and community partners as important for all students, and this is a very different way of approaching education than what we see in a traditional high school model.  When you hear these frequently-asked questions, you may actually be hearing a question relating to the fundamental purpose of education.  It will require a good dialogue for some folks to let go of the traditional model and begin to understand the value of the pathways approach.  Make sure to address the immediate question at hand, and see if you can also address the underlying issue about the benefits of adopting a pathways approach.

[i] U.S. Department of Education (2013) National Assessment of Career and Technical Education: Interim Report, 2013, U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development, Policy and Program Studies Service, Washington, D.C., 2013.

[ii] Davidson, C. (2011), Now you see it: how the brain science of attention will transform the way we live, work, and learn, Viking, New York

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