Grade Expectations: Let’s Be Cautious Pushing High Schoolers To Choose A Career Path

graduation requirementsGrade Expectations is a weekly look at education from a parent’s perspective. We’ll talk special needs, gifted & talented, and everything in between.

When it comes to education, there’s a saying about a certain state’s influence. “As goes Texas, so goes the country.” As the largest purchaser of school textbooks, the Texas curriculum has a huge impact on the books that the rest of the country uses to teach its young people. And with Texas’s educational influence firmly established, most of the decisions by the Texas Senate Education Committee deserve our fullest attention. So let’s dive right in to their newest idea about high school graduation requirements.

For Texas, like most states, high school graduation includes meeting a set of basic curriculum requirements in English, math, science and social studies. There is a single uniform diploma that each student receives. Maybe an Honors diploma for attending a gifted and talented program or achieving a certain GPA. But all students have the same basic graduation requirements.

Texas is looking to change that. The state would like to make it easier for schools to focus on vocational and job training for students that aren’t interested in attending college but still want to be able to get a decent job upon graduation. It would lower the requirements for basic subjects like literature and mathematics, giving kids more time to focus on vocational training, instead of college prep.

At it’s face value, I think this sounds like a good idea. It would create four different “avenues” to a diploma. So you could receive a “Foundational  Diploma,” or a specialized business and industry, arts and humanities, or math and science diploma. Students would be able to focus on their primary interests and pursue their education in that field.

So much of me wants to applaud this move, which could help students that excel in certain areas but struggle with others. It makes me happy to see that we’re attempting to help students who might not feel that college is right for them.

At the same time, I’m so hesitant to ask students to decide what they’re going to do with the rest of their lives the minute they enter high school. Presumably, these kids will be choosing their graduation “avenues” when they start choosing classes as freshmen. School counselors will have to sit down and lay out a path with them that might be very difficult to change once you’re further into your education.

As a teenager, I was positive that I wanted to work in international business. Economics was my favorite class. I excelled at foreign languages. I didn’t really learn to enjoy writing until an amazing and influential teacher named Mr. Pukrop convinced me to pursue some advanced literature classes. Even through college, I stayed on my business-minded path. I got a job in business and data analysis.

Then, at the age of 25, I switched careers and became a writer. I found the job that I was meant to do. And it wouldn’t have been possible if my curriculum hadn’t forced me to delve into various subjects, if I never had a teacher who challenged me to keep writing, no matter what.

If we pigeonhole students into certain specialties or certain diplomas from their teenage years, we could have a lot of midlife career changes from people who never had the opportunity to explore other avenues. We could have a lot of unhappy workers who stuck with their adolescent idea for their life because the whole thing was laid out so neatly.

I applaud Texas’s attempt to make it easier for students who aren’t interested in college. But I would caution them, and any state that follows in their footsteps, make sure that kids still get to explore other areas. Make sure that there are pathways for students who change their minds. Do not expect every teenager to know exactly what they want to study or where their true talent lies. Education is about exploring and learning. It’s not just college prep or job readiness.

(Photo: ARENA Creative/Shutterstock)

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  • CrazyFor Kate

    I think there should definitely be options along the line (for example, my high school had introductory courses in various trades which would give you credit at the local community college), but for reasons similar to yours, I don’t think the full streaming is a good idea. People change so much in their late teens and early 20′s, and they should allow themselves as much room for flexibility as possible.

  • Nat

    As a junior in high school, I both love and hate this. I also live in Texas, but it looks like I’ll have graduated before this becomes a thing. Anyway, I hate the basic system because it forces students into classes they don’t care about and subsequently fail. But I can see your point because I’ve changed career goals like three times now. I went from writer to architect and now I want to be a lobbyist. But I do think there can be a compromise. Maybe students are allowed to pick whatever classes they want that interest them. With the rule that they have to at least take an introductory math, science, English, and history class and an arts class. Right now you have to take 4 years of each core(M, S, E, and H) and one year of arts, one year of technology, a semester of health, and a semester of speech, and a year of PE or a sport, and two years of foreign language(three to get a Scholar Medal at graduation). Then enough electives to equal 26 credits. I really hate math. Like a lot. So I’d love to get out of algebra and precal and trig and calculus, especially since most of the stuff I’ve learned will never be used again. I’d love to get out of physics. I think students would enjoy school more if they could take a majority of the classes they want to take rather than be forced to take classes that won’t help them excel later in life.

  • K.

    I’m of two minds on this one.

    As a HS teacher, I strongly believe that HS is not–nor has it ever been if taught properly–about knowledge acquisition. No one really “needs” to quote Hamlet or solve for X or use the subjunctive tense in French. It is about training your brain how to think. But not in any one specific way; it’s training the brain to think critically, analytically, deeply. In order to develop all those different modes of thinking, you need to teach different subjects that emphasize divergent learning processes. The “use value” of writing essays, for example, is not just so students can write essays in college (although of course, they will). I hear “who writes essays outside of school?” all the time and my answer is very few–but that’s not the point. The practice of writing an essay demands that a student synthesize information, organize that information into an argument using rhetorical strategies, and articulate or translate ideas into language. It is also one of the few assignments in HS that a student has to create, completely and independently, from start to finish. It’s thereby not really about “the essay” so much as it is developing all those crucial cognitive skills. So, suffice it to say, I’m that sort of teacher for whom any kind of “function-based and function-directed” education plan kind of gives me the willies.

    Now, as a former college prof, I also kinda think that vocational training would have benefited quite a few of my students because (and I’m probably going to get flamed for this, but whatever): not. every. kid. should. go. to. college. And it’s OKAY for a kid to skip college if it’s not directly required for that kid’s intended career–you need college if you want to be a doctor or a lawyer; you don’t need it if your dream is to be a private detective. Or to build houses. Considering that college these days can set you back well into $100K, a student SHOULD be pretty darn sure that they have reason to be there, especially if they’re taking out loans, and it seems unfair that we’ve made it an economic necessity for students to attend college (and spend all that money), when there are careers out there that they could be more successful at doing via vocational training and apprenticing.

    I’m not aware of the success of non-success of say, the European system, but I do know that a lot of countries over the pond require students to specialize fairly early. They’d be a model to look at.

  • Sara

    I would advocate for a system in between what we have now and what Texas is proposing–students would simply take either a “college-prep” track or a “technical-vocational” track starting in ninth grade. If they choose college prep, there shouldn’t be a requirement to focus on a specific area, because as the author and other commenters have pointed out, a high school student is likely to change his or her mind and should be able to explore different areas. But it should be academically rigorous–part of the problem with the “every kid must go to college” approach we have now is that every kid SHOULDN’T go to college, as K. pointed out. And by trying to cram every kid into the same mold, we have to manipulate the standards and curriculum so much that academic rigor tends to go down the tubes and we end up with kids who show up for their freshman year of college totally unprepared for college-level work. The college-prep track should actually PREPARE students for college, and staying in it should require an ability and willingness to do the work. The tradeoff is that students wouldn’t show up for their freshman year needing to take 47 remedial reading, writing and math courses that cover the material they should have absorbed in high school.

    Students in the voc-tech track should be able to choose a specific trade in which to focus, because the idea should be to graduate with specific, high-level skills in a marketable trade that they can use to immediately start earning a living.

    But I think a big part of the problem is that in this country, the idea of NOT going to college is stigmatized, which prevents more schools from creating excellent, practical vocational programs, utilizing partnerships with local companies, for example. This stigma (I believe) is preventing a lot of schools from creating excellent vocational-ed programs; it’s like admitting that a percentage of their grads AREN’T meant to go to college is some sort of a failing.

    The high school that I went to loves to tout its statistic that “85% of our graduates go on to four-year colleges”–in fact, they don’t even offer any vocational ed. and they’re proud of it! Unfortunately, that means that the 15% of graduates who DON’T go to four-year colleges slip through the cracks. But the even worse statistic, which the district is much less willing to share, is the number of kids who do indeed “go” to a four-year college, only to flunk out or drop out within the first year because they’re totally unprepared for the rigors of college.

  • Tracy Vanden Dungen-Archibald

    A lot of European countries already have a system like this. There are plenty of kids (I hope!) that want to be plumbers, mechanics or electricians (or any one of a myriad of other professions that are apprenticeship based), and not go on to college. If they can graduate High School with a portion of that education done, I think it’s fabulous. They get into the workforce sooner with a better job. But on the flip side, we need to ensure that it’s easy for them to get any upgrading if they decide later in life that they want to get a university education.

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