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Published in Print: May 12, 2004, as Where Do ‘Multiple Pathways’ Take Us?

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Where Do ‘Multiple Pathways’ Take Us?

Clarifying a new catchphrase in high school reform.

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Clarifying a new catchphrase in high school reform.

In discussions of high school reform, the term "multiple pathways" has been popping up at an increasing rate. Usually, it is met by the audience with an accepting nod that says: Yes, we need to make the routes to success clearer and more effective for the poor and minority youths who are struggling in the current system.

Over the past nine months, I have been trying to clarify what reformers mean by multiple pathways and where those pathways are supposed to go. It should perhaps come as no surprise that the definitions of, and destinations for, reformers’ multiple pathways are ... well ... multiple. The varied use of the term is concealing the real issue that we need to confront: namely, how the current models of high school reform should change the actual day-by-day instructional processes, which will result in students’ staying in school and learning more.

The Holy Grail of high school reform is to get students to spend time and mental energy grappling with problems that, over time, increase in complexity. That’s how people learn; the goal is what the scientists call "deep cognitive engagement … attentiveness and active problem-solving that will promote learning, understanding, and the development of new skills." This learning process is most obvious in mathematics, where the skills and knowledge build in a hierarchical way: Mastering one level makes it possible to pursue the next. But it is also true in other disciplines. History lessons begin rather simplistically, with heroes and villains and the events that they were a part of. But study of history evolves toward a much more nuanced understanding of the personalities and the conflicts that have led to our current place in the world and will influence our future. For learning to occur, students need to practice some discrete skills, but also need to spend time reading, thinking, talking, and writing about the subjects of their studies.

Knowing how people learn doesn’t make it easy. Just as we cannot force people to engage in aerobic exercise to improve their health, we cannot mandate where and how students address their mental energies. That’s why reform strategies focus on creating conditions in which students are most likely to exercise their brains. To accomplish this, change efforts tend to focus on one or more of what I call the three R’s of high school learning: relationships, relevance, and the rigor of the curriculum.

Relationships are important because students are more likely to stay engaged when they know that somebody—especially an adult—actually cares. That’s why small schools are an appealing reform: Teachers know nearly everyone, the students know each other, and the teaching staff can communicate with one another about students and the school’s progress. Parents, too, may feel a closer personal connection to the family-like atmosphere of a small school environment. Overall, it is a more caring, humane, and communicative place for everyone.

Relevance is important because students learn better when the topic is connected to something that they know or are interested in. Schools and programs with career themes are obviously one way to bring relevance to academic subjects. Teaching is also more effective when individual lessons are connected to the students’ pre-existing knowledge and interests.

But relationships and relevance do not a good school make. The learning experts point out that students can enjoy what they are doing in school, and feel close to their teachers and peers, yet not make meaningful academic progress. "[U]ltimately, we need to achieve the more ambitious goal of promoting deep cognitive engagement that results in learning," says a National Academy of Sciences report. Indeed, many of the early small schools got the reputation for creating pleasant climates but not fostering serious academic work.

That brings us to the need for rigor. A rigorous curriculum is one that guides students through progressively deeper interactions with subject matter. It is not only about difficult subject matter; it also refers to the type of instruction. Aiming students toward high levels of achievement, rigorous instruction requires using a variety of mechanisms to determine whether students are understanding and making progress. By doing so, effective teachers decide when to review material, when to move on, and how to revisit a difficult concept. When it’s done right, the experts say that a more demanding curriculum actually increases student motivation and engagement in ways that are more powerful than the other two R’s. It makes a difference to focus on learning.


The call for multiple pathways usually is a call for help, a plea to find a different way of providing relevance, or rigor, or both. Often, the call is in reaction to the inadequacy of "college" as a motivator for some students. Particularly in communities where college has not been the norm, it is just not enough to tell kids that spending time on an assignment or taking a particular course "will help you in college," or will prepare the student for an entrance exam. As a motivator, college too often fails the relevance test.

The fact that students tune out does not mean that they need to be taught something different. It means that they need to be taught differently.

One solution is to identify some destinations beyond high school that can give students more reasons to try harder while they are in high school, such as career-apprenticeship systems, community service, and the military. These approaches can bring relevance to all students, but particularly to those students who might otherwise drop out or barely engage in school. Some have referred to these postsecondary goals as multiple pathways.

In discussions among education leaders and experts, we have probed further to determine whether these students—who see themselves aiming toward someplace other than a traditional college—should be expected to pursue a set of skills in high school different from what other students pursue. In other words, is the pathway different during the high school years, or just after? The answer, after some discussion, has been that these students still need, and should take, the core academic subjects that college-bound students take, but the content should be customized, to the extent possible, to fit the theme of the school or program.

So far, so good. The experts and the advocates seem to generally agree. But it is the next step that makes some people nervous: identifying the courses that are supposed to provide the skills, such as this list that the Center for State Scholars says should be the norm nationwide:

  • Three years of math: algebras 1 and 2, and geometry;
  • Three years of science: biology, chemistry, and physics;
  • Four years of English;
  • Three and a half years of social studies, including economics; and
  • Two years of a language other than English.

Some of the smartest, most seasoned, and caring reformers, even the ones who agree that all students need college-prep skills, see these courses and they say, "Students are dropping out and they need something different, not more of the same." Course names and seat time worries them.

The response is completely understandable. Extolling the wonders of algebra doesn’t seem like the most effective way to prevent a teenager from dropping out. But the impulse to trash the course list is wrong, for two reasons. First, the fact that students tune out does not mean that they need to be taught something different. It means that they need to be taught differently. The courses can be (and in some places are) taught in creative ways that are more relevant. Second, the core courses may not be perfect, but there is currently no adequate replacement. We should think of the list of courses in the same way that Winston Churchill described democracy: the worst solution except all those others that have been tried.


The term multiple pathways is being used by some to suggest that there are alternatives to youths’ putting mental energy into the traditional core subjects, that there are some different, equally rigorous subjects that would somehow better serve low-income and minority students in our urban high schools. But all I have found behind the rhetoric are wishes that there were something. If those pathways (or courses) exist, they are elusive. And the suggestion of their existence can divert school leaders and teachers from the task of figuring out how to engage more students in mastering the core subjects that we can identify today.

There might be rigorous courses of study that could some day replace some of the ones on the list, but let’s figure out what they are before denying our most vulnerable young people the benefit of the ones that have already been identified. And in our discussions of high school reform, let’s stop talking about multiple pathways and start focusing on how the reforms are supposed to affect teaching and learning of core courses, and whether they are having the effects that are intended.

Robert Shireman is a senior fellow of the Aspen Institute, working with its program on education and society in Oakland, Calif.

Vol. 23, Issue 36, Pages 35,44

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