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.