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Elliot Washor

Elliot Washor

Posted: July 26, 2010 01:44 PM

High School Education: Multiple Pathways and Student Choice

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The terms "vocational education" and more recently "career and technical education" have served historically as codes for programs or schools serving young people--often poor and minority youth--who are judged not capable of going on to post secondary education and, therefore, must be provided with a set of skills so that they can enter the workforce directly from high school. This judgment has created a two-tiered caste system of college-bound and work-bound education that is hardwired in our collective societal consciousness as the latest in a sorrowful lineage of caste systems that schools have created to funnel youth into pathways and bins based on such characteristics as disabilities, race, and class.

Those caste systems are defunct.

The world has changed. The economy has changed. The nature of work and the workplace have changed. Most everyone understands that there is, or certainly should be, a "career" and a "technical" aspect to all learning, just as there is, or should be, an applied, "hands-on" aspect to all learning. Can you imagine high school students aspiring to be architects, doctors, or lawyers who would not want to learn about the career and the technical aspects of their preparation for those professions? All high school education is, in large part, career education, just as all high school education is preparation for post secondary--make that lifelong--learning.

Consider what many see as essential features of excellent career and technical education.

  • A personalized learning program focused on each student's career interests.
  • A thoughtful integration of academic and technical skills development.
  • Opportunities for each student to engage with adults working in the student's career interest area.
  • Requirements that students exhibit skill and understanding through authentic performance demonstrations.
  • Opportunities for students to obtain, in addition to a high school diploma, multiple forms of certifications and credentials in their career interests.
  • All of the above provided in the workplace and community as well as the school.


You might conclude, as we have, that all high school students would be well served by programs with such features. Few high schools, however, offer them.

Consider also the by-now familiar list of skills employers want in their new hires, whether they arrive with a high school diploma or a two- or four-year college degree.

  • The ability to construct and apply new knowledge across varying work activities.
  • The ability to generate innovative solutions that require predicting, analyzing, forecasting, forming perspective, and recognizing patterns.
  • The ability to communicate, using a variety of tools in multiple situations and cultures, particularly as a member of a team.
  • The ability to integrate knowledge from multiple disciplines, including both the arts and sciences.
  • The ability to transition across projects, firms, disciplines, and work/learning experiences.
  • The ability to organize work and persist in its successful conclusion.


Again you might conclude, as we have, that all high school students need to demonstrate competence in these skills by graduation. Few high schools, however, teach or assess them. Even in our Big Picture Schools, focused as we are on learning in the workplace and the community, we are challenged to do so.

Observing the new world economy, we are reminded that it is not the career we choose that provides job security but our ability to use these essential skills, always prepared to make the inevitable shift to new work, perhaps in new industries, which the new economy will require.

All high school students need to have access to diverse program options that match their career interests and the ways they wish to pursue them. And within those programs, they need choices that allow them to customize their learning plans. Such programs will go a long way toward eliminating the caste system and turning America's promise of universal equity and access into programs and practices for all youth.

Might educators and policy makers, therefore, eliminate the increasingly useless separation between traditional college preparatory and career and technical education programs? Might it be more productive to envision one high school system with a continuum of multiple pathways and choices for students, all incorporating those features listed above, and leading to multiple destinations, not just traditional four year colleges, but community colleges, technical schools, even work or, in some cases, a year off for travel?

A small number of school districts throughout the country already provide multiple pathways through career-themed programs of study. Many more high schools need to follow their lead and go beyond that focusing on individual interests, essentially wrapping a career academy around each learner. Offering such choices will keep many more students from leaving school before graduation and ensure that many more graduates are prepared for success in their post secondary learning and careers.

The caste system is defunct. Let's get over it.