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Tenn. Is Latest State To Eliminate the General Track

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With the recent adoption of a new policy requiring all high school students to select a path that will prepare them for either college or technical training, Tennessee has joined a small group of states that are aggressively moving to eliminate the general track in high school.

The state board of education adopted the new policy this month, and also required that every student complete a more rigorous core curriculum.

"The concept is that all students will have a focused, purposeful plan of study that leads to something,'' said Karen Weeks, a research associate for the state board, "instead of nibbling and grazing at a lot of introductory-level courses.''

The plan will take effect beginning with the 1995-96 freshman class.

Students starting high school in Maryland this fall will also have to meet new graduation requirements that effectively eliminate the general track. Oregon adopted a similar proposal that its high schools must implement by 1997. And in Massachusetts, each school district must submit a plan to the state board by next September for abolishing the general track.

Other states--including California, Kentucky, Maine, New York, and Washington--are headed in the same direction.

An estimated one-third of high school students are now in the general track, as opposed to a vocational or college-preparatory curriculum.

Studies have found that such students are more likely to drop out of school, and less likely than other students to find jobs or move on to postsecondary education once they graduate.

In 1988, the Pittsburgh public schools became the first large system to abolish the general track. At the time, fewer than 1 percent of seniors in the academic track were dropping out, compared with 2.6 percent of those in the vocational track and 13.6 percent of those in the general track.

'School Is Irrelevant'

"We can't even keep these kids in school, because based on the way they're being taught, school is irrelevant,'' said Fred Monaco, the director of applied technology and career development for the Pittsburgh schools.

Since the district's pioneering move, numerous studies have called for replacing the general track with something more rigorous. This summer, the National Governors' Association published recommendations for states on how to reduce ability grouping and tracking.

But the Tennessee effort "probably is the most far-reaching yet to replace the general track with a solid, upgraded academic core and a concentration either on the academic side ... or on the vocational side,'' said Gene Bottoms, the director of the vocational-education consortium at the Southern Regional Education Board.

At least a handful of schools in Tennessee are already experimenting with such changes.

Claiborne County, nestled in the Appalachian Mountains, began phasing out its general track in 1989, as a member of S.R.E.B.'s "High Schools That Work'' consortium. Some 25 sites around the state belong to the consortium, which tries to strengthen the academic and vocational curriculum for all students. (See Education Week, June 23, 1993.)

Since joining the project, the district has reduced its dropout rate from 34 percent to 18 percent, and students' academic achievement has improved noticeably.

Ronald Shuford, the director of vocational education for the district and a member of the High School Advisory Task Force that proposed the changes statewide, attributed the improvements primarily to getting rid of the general track.

"In 1989,'' he said, "probably 80 percent of our students were in a general track. We had a shopping-mall high school.''

Today, about half of Claiborne County students receive a college preparatory curriculum and the other half choose one of four career pathways--medical science and technology, business education, manufacturing and construction, or engineering.

'Path of Least Resistance'

But Mr. Shuford and others acknowledge that obstacles stand in the way of their efforts to make high school more meaningful, particularly for the non-college-bound.

"We've been in a culture where a lot of our kids want to take courses that are the path of least resistance in high school,'' said David Crowell, the director of vocational education for the Lawrence County, Tenn., district, which has been attempting to phase out the general track since 1990.

"Getting those kids and their parents to focus on a career cluster and to stick with it has been the toughest part,'' he said.

The S.R.E.B. has conducted a series of interviews with principals who are carrying out its recommendations for upgrading the high school curriculum.

"The number-one barrier, as we went back and talked to high school principals who've been trying to do this,'' said Mr. Bottoms, "is the fundamental belief that these students can learn, on the part of both the students, the faculty, and the whole community.''

In addition, experts suggest, simply eliminating the general track is not enough. To make it work, schools must equip teachers with new instructional techniques, replace low-level courses with more challenging ones, provide more time for the integration of academic and vocational subjects, and supply extra support for students who need it.

Mr. Shuford said it also calls for a new attitude on the part of businesses, which often do not even require a high school degree from entry-level workers.

"Once you've dropped the general track,'' warned Mr. Monaco of Pittsburgh, "you have to seize the opportunity and add all kinds of things to students' lives to make it work. If you just drop [the general track], and don't put things of value in its place, you haven't done much.''

At least some people fear that states like Tennessee are, in essence, creating a dual-track system that asks students to shut off their options prematurely.

"If it means that 14-year-olds are having to make irrevocable life decisions about whether or not they're college material, then I think this is troublesome, because those distinctions ... often set into motion a real stratified set of opportunities,'' said Jeannie Oakes, a professor of education at the University of California at Los Angeles and the author of Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality.

How Easy to Switch?

Ms. Oakes argued that tracking in the United States often begins in 1st or 2nd grade and heavily influences students' future academic decisions.

But Ms. Weeks asserted that it will be relatively easy for Tennessee students to switch paths.

Although students and their parents must make an initial career decision at the end of the 8th grade, she said, each student will receive an upgraded academic core curriculum through his sophomore year.

"At the end of the sophomore year,'' she asserted, "they're still in a position to make a decision for or against college.''

In addition, both paths are designed to lead to postsecondary education. Only seniors would have a hard time earning the two credits of foreign language required for entrance into the state's universities if they switched paths, she argued.

But others view the board policy as a mixed blessing.

"It was a concession, as far as I'm concerned,'' said Joanne Smith, a member of the task force and the assistant principal of the Chattanooga School of Arts and Sciences. The K-12 magnet school, based on the Paideia concept, offers a single, college-preparatory curriculum.

"A single-track curriculum is the way to go,'' she asserted, "but this is the closest thing to that that I have seen, in terms of being state mandated.''

Some experts suggest that American high schools may eventually eliminate the traditional distinction between academic and vocational education, so that all students are exposed to a curriculum rich in both. But Mr. Bottoms described it as a "growth process'' that will not occur overnight.

"I think the challenge for Tennessee,'' he added, "will be how to make sure that the total academic core, that all those courses are high status. The courses in that core ought to be interchangeable, so they will differ less in what's taught and more in how students are taught.''

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