Honest Question: Are Pathways a New Form of Tracking?

Are Pathways a new form of tracking students?  This is one of the first questions some will ask when they are presented with the need and opportunity to give students more options for career and life preparation.  It’s a fair question that we need to address directly.

In my new book, The Power and Promise of Pathways, I actively critique the notion of “college for all” or “university for all” that has taken hold of K-12 education in recent decades.  This is a tricky and sensitive subject.

The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations

First, and this is very important, I believe we MUST hold every student to highest possible expectations, and encourage them to reach as high as they can go.  The “soft bigotry of low expectations” is a very real phenomenon.

We have to recognize that, prior to the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Laws of the 1960s, racism and classism was openly tolerated and endorsed in American society, and it also was a real factor in our schools.  Many students were encouraged to take the easy track, the non-college bound track, and sometimes that become equated to getting enrolled in vocational education.  Vocational education was once considered high skilled training, but over several decades, vocational education was watered down to become simply job training or something mostly for low-performing students, not preparation for a skilled career.   Many adults today clearly remember being told “you’re not college material,” even though they wanted to go to college.  Tracking decisions by educators for children, based on their perceived ability and their place in society is a painful, and not distant, memory.

That’s why people who carry these memories have some natural hesitations to pathways.  Are pathways really a form of “tracking” with a new label placed on it?  God forbid!!

Today’s Workforce Reality

The data on today’s workforce is clear: most careers that offer decent incomes require some sort of postsecondary education, training and/or apprenticeship beyond high school.  According to analysis from the Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, about 65 percent of current and near-future jobs actually require postsecondary education and training beyond high school.i  And to succeed in any decent career, whether or not it requires postsecondary education, the individual will need a strong foundation of excellent reading, writing, mathematical, problem-solving and interpersonal skills.  These skills and knowledge are also indispensable for personal life success and civic engagement.

We can’t be too clear in communicating with our youth, “You need strong skills to get ahead in careers and life.  If you think you can just coast through school, you’ll have a very rude awakening and lots of regrets when you enter adult life.”

The High Expectations Message Goes Astray

In the early 2000’s when I was at the U.S. DoE, we launched a program called “State Scholars” which was based on a business-led program in Texas called “the Texas Scholars Program.”  Through this initiative, business volunteers would go into middle school classrooms, particularly in schools that had a high ratio of under-privileged students whose parents had not experienced college.  The message of the business volunteers was, “push yourself to take challenging academic courses so you can get into college.”  Around the same time, several states (Indiana’s Core 40 program comes to mind) were enacting policies so that a challenging college-prep academic course route was set as the “default” program, meaning students would be enrolled in that program unless they actively opted out, with parental consent and sign-off.

The core message communicated through this program was great – work hard, take challenging classes, don’t drift down toward the path of least resistance.

However, in retrospect, I think there was another message that was implicit and problematic – “going to a four-year college/university is the best route to success.”

The “university for all” message doesn’t fit with today’s reality.  The truth is there are many good careers that provide a path to social mobility that DON’T require a four-year degree for entry.  So should the four-year degree really be the default expectation for every student?  Even very bright students may not find a university education is the best fit for their aptitudes and interests.

Getting Our Message Straight

Instead of promoting a one-size-fits-all message that “everyone goes to university” and anything less is second-class, we should articulate a more fact-based approach that helps youths consider all of their career options, and then make a personal decision about what kind of education and training they want and need after high school.

Let’s have an honest dialogue about this in our schools and communities, and with our students and parents.  Success should not be measured by how many students enroll in a college or university, but by how many students make successful transitions to career and life success over the long term.

i Carnevale, A. P., Smith, N., & Strohl, J. (2010)Recovery: Job growth and education requirements through 2020 [Executive summary, page 4]. Retrieved from https://cew.georgetown.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Recovery2020.ES.Web.pdf 

Adapted from, The Power and Promise of Pathways, by Hans Meeder.

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