The teaching profession is my third attempt at a life-long career. And I think I’ve found my work for the rest of my life. My first profession as a truck mechanic lasted five years, and my second profession, as a professional advertising photographer, lasted 10. For my generation, I was the exception to the rule—the rule that said that while you might have numerous jobs, they would all be in the same profession. Today, for our graduating high school students, having numerous careers in different professions is the expectation. This is why we need to ensure that regardless of where students go after high school, they have skills that can lead them to college or directly into the work world. The skills necessary for both options are the same. This is why we should be very wary of tracking students while they are in high school.
A quick look at the Common Core State Standards or the new Next Generation Science Standards shows that the skills necessary for high school graduates will allow students to navigate between making the decision to go to college or directly into the work world without having to have made that decision while in high school. New expectations for our high school graduates demand that students be able to connect concepts between disciplines and to react to and think critically about new situations.
Look at a job description that a company owner passed along to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman in a piece he wrote about the paucity of trained American workers. The company owner was looking for a welder and was complaining about the quality of some who had applied:
They could make beautiful welds," she said, "but they did not understand metallurgy, modern cleaning and brushing techniques" and how different metals and gases, pressures and temperatures had to be combined. Moreover, in small manufacturing businesses like hers, explained [Traci] Tapani, "unlike a Chinese firm that does high-volume, low-tech jobs, we do a lot of low-volume, high-tech jobs, and each one has its own design drawings. So a welder has to be able to read and understand five different design drawings in a single day ... I can't think of any job in my sheet metal fabrication company where math is not important. If you work in a manufacturing facility, you use math every day; you need to compute angles and understand what happens to a piece of metal when it's bent to a certain angle.
Does that description sound like the industrial worker of yesterday? It reads more like what we’d expect from a chemistry major. In fact, we already have a majority of high school students taking chemistry classes. In 1990, only 49 percent of high school graduates had taken a chemistry class, with another 21 percent having had physics. In 2009, 70 percent of high school students had taken chemistry and 36 percent physics. Because we have high standards for all high school graduates, they will be ready for college or to go directly into the workplace.
To track students while in high school into vocational or college tracks would be a step back in time. Back when I graduated high school in 1976, the job of educators was to rank and sort students into those going to college and those heading right into the work world. Each track held students to different expectations. I was a C student tracking into college who decided to take a more circuitous route. Along the way I needed to pick up skills I missed while in high school. It wasn’t easy, but I made it. Today’s high school graduates should be able to make the leap into either direction without having to worry if they have the skills to be successful, since the skills needed are the same. Tracking students into vocational tracks is a relic of the past and it should stay there.
Mark Sass has been teaching high school social sciences for 16 years, for the past 12 years at Legacy High School in Broomfield, Colo.
The opinions expressed in Teaching Ahead: A Roundtable are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.