Two-track High School a Must for Education Reform

September 13th, 2010

By Dr. Jim Taylor

There’s a whole lot of talk and even more money being bandied about these days in the name of public education reform (read public education for the poor). And some of the words that cause educators’ hearts to go “THUMP, THUMP” (some with excitement, others with trepidation) are accountability, testing, value-added, and charter schools. Unfortunately, two words that seem to be largely missing from these discussions (and funding) are students and curriculum which, in my view, are the most important.

Students because, in theory, all of the efforts and dollars expended over the last 50 years have, ostensibly, been devoted to helping that particular segment of the population get a better, ahem, public education. Though you would never know it from all the sound bytes you hear about public education reform, students have been the supposedly fortunate recipients of the appalling results (road to hell) that came from good intentions (paved with them) for decades.

Curriculum because, despite all of the arguments for other so-called innovations for reforming the horrendous state of public education, an effective curriculum is an essential contributor to actually providing a quality education and closing the oft-mentioned achievement gap. A superior curriculum provides students with the knowledge and tools (metaphorically and literally; more on that shortly) to go on to college, establish a career that provides a living wage, and become responsible citizens.

Perhaps because few educators (at least those in power) seem to fully appreciate the importance of curriculum, it seems to have gotten stuck in a time warp back in the middle of the last century. Sure, there have been changes to curricula over the years with courses added to reflect our changing demographics, but, for the most part, the same basic subjects have remained unchanged for years.

Now is the time to reconnect curriculum with the reality of 21st century America. That reality is that not everyone, despite the aspirational protestations of some, wants to or is capable of going to college (whether intellectually or financially). Another reality is that there aren’t enough seats in college classrooms available for every high-school graduate. Given these realities, I propose a shift in curriculum to offer a two-track education in high school: one track preparing students for higher education and the other track preparing students for a skilled trade (e.g., carpenters, electricians, plumbers, automotive technicians, welders, pipefitters, etc.).

I realize that this idea is not novel; it has been on the table (though a side table) for years and some forms of a two-track curriculum have been implemented to varying degrees around the country (i.e., shop class, car repair, home economics). But this notion, which actually considers the needs of students, hasn’t received the attention it deserves, though it has gained some converts following the release of a report indicating that there will be a shortage of skilled trades people in the coming years. And, given the mass exodus of manufacturing jobs in recent years, the skilled trades are one of the few non-college-degree careers remaining that can’t be outsourced (you can’t have a plumber in Mumbai fix your leaky faucet) and that can still provide some semblance of a middle-class existence (have you seen the hourly rates for plumbers and electricians lately?!).

Resistance to a two-track curriculum comes from two primary mindsets. First, many people hold to the notion that a liberal arts education, which is comprised of a wide-ranging curriculum that includes history, literature, languages, philosophy, mathematics, and the sciences and arts, and which high school curricula pretty much offer, is important for all students. I am a huge believer (and recipient) of a liberal arts education, but we need to get with the times (of economic upheaval, uncertainty, and disparity) and admit that a liberal arts education, especially in high school and even at the college level, is a luxury that most students can ill afford. Why? Because it just isn’t useful.

Though Shakespeare and Renoir and Descartes are fascinating to study, they are not going to prepare many students for life in the real world (though, admittedly, there are many life lessons, albeit indirect, to be learned from them). Instead of economics, most students need courses in finance. Rather than history, most students need courses in the nuts and bolts of our political system. In place of biology, most students need courses in health, nutrition, and sex education. Instead of literature, most students need courses in reading, writing and speaking. And, of course, every student needs to be proficient with computers.

In an ideal world, I would love for all high school graduates to be well versed in the liberal arts. But few of us live in that ideal world. And, for the sake of our young people and our society as a whole, the real world needs to take precedence over our fantasies of a utopian order in which all young people have the opportunity, freedom, and interest to study the Classics and its brethren.

Perhaps accepting a utilitarian rather than intellectual view of education goes against our “American Dream” sensibilities. At the same time, so does unemployment, and the Humanities won’t pay the bills for many high school graduates.

The second concern about creating a two-track high-school curriculum is that it will further entrench the institutional racism and economic classism that currently exist in schools (and society as a whole). The worry is that disadvantaged students will be shunted into the “lower” track of the skilled trades simply because of the belief that they are incapable of higher strivings and that it is as good as they are going to get.

But a two-track system would actually benefit poor students because it would give them more realistic options. At present, those students who lack the wherewithal, drive, or support to even graduate from high school (and the size of that group is abysmally high) are left with no options (unless you consider joblessness and the lure of a life of crime an option). A curriculum that offers two tracks might also encourage underprivileged students to work hard in school because they would see the value of that education in their own lives. And, perhaps more importantly, it might inspire them to believe, as Arne Duncan asserts (quite unrealistically at present, in my view), that “demography is not destiny.” Yes, care needs to be taken to ensure that all children and their parents can choose which track is best for them. And, yes, we need to make certain that disadvantaged students who have the smarts and the motivation to pursue the “upper” track are given that opportunity and the support to follow that path. But maintaining the status quo is far worse in continuing the institutional obstacles that plague poor students.

Unfortunately, if history is any predictor (and it usually is), the plethora of “reform du jour” scenarios that are currently in vogue in the education stratosphere are likely doomed to fail. But a two-track high-school curriculum seems like a winner to me. And it sure would be nice to chalk up a victory, however small, for these children who see failure in their lives every day.

(This article was also posted at Dr. Jim Taylor’s Blog.)

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3 Responses to “Two-track High School a Must for Education Reform”

  1. Clarissa |

    “I propose a shift in curriculum to offer a two-track education in high school: one track preparing students for higher education and the other track preparing students for a skilled trade (e.g., carpenters, electricians, plumbers, automotive technicians, welders, pipefitters, etc.).”

    -That’s a great idea. In Quebec, we have a similar system of post-secondary education in the form of CEGEPs. After high school, students can enroll in a CEGEP that offers two types of program: one that prepares you for the university and anotehr that prepares you for a skilled trade. The great thing is that the skilled trade program offers a certain number of gen ed courses, so if students later decide to go for a college degree, they can definitely do that.

  2. Tom Carter |

    I agree completely, Jim. As I remember, a long time ago we had college prep tracks and vo-tech tracks in some larger high schools; there may still be some.

    No doubt some of the objections to this very practical idea will be based on class and family income issues, but the more difficult objections will be based on race/ethnicity. Everything we know tells us that whites and Asians will be tracked disproportionately to college preparation programs, while blacks/Hispanics will be tracked disproportionately to trades programs, regardless of other factors. No matter how objective the criteria and testing used in the process, there will be cries of racism, lawsuits, etc.

    Beyond that, the public education establishment has become so ideologically single-minded that getting them to support a program like this on a large scale will be difficult if not impossible. Generally, they just place too much emphasis social indoctrination, building self-esteem, and politics.

    It’s a great idea and it would do a lot of good, but too much present reality works against it.

  3. Brian |

    Dr. Taylor, except for the “living wage” thing (sorry, had to get that dig in), I couldn’t agree more. I think what gets lost in the shuffle on kids that end up in the blue collar world is that the opportunities for business ownership in the trades are nearly limitless, and that’ where the real money is for anyone who wants it. Sure, the opportunity to fail is great, too. But that’s the beauty of freedom.

    Sam Adams actually called this “the animating contest of freedom,” and entrepreneurship is exactly what Adams was talking about.

    Some people will always be satisfied with a life of punching the clock (in the white-collar world, too), and there’s nothing wrong with that. But too many people act like a career in the trades locks someone into the lower castes of society for life.

    My brother-in-law’s brother is a master electrician and makes 6 figures (and isn’t in a union). My BiL has a doctorate in pharmacy and doesn’t make as much as his “uneducated” younger brother.

    Opportunities in the trades abound. It’s stupid and arrogant to not encourage some kids to pursue those skills.

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