This week, in my school district, all 8th graders are submitting their course requests for high school next year. In my home, this is how it played out with my 8th grade daughter:
When I looked at her worksheet, I noticed the usual sections for English, Math, Science, History, World Languages, Visual and Performing Arts, and P.E. classes, but also Career and Technical Education (CTE) classes, which sounds like what they used to call Vocational Training. In my time in high school, that would have been something like Automotive Repair or Cosmetology (preparation to work in a salon, with hair, nails, or makeup)–basically, for kids who were not going on to college.
My 8th grader put down all her requests for her core classes: Honors Language Arts, Math, Honors World History, and Biology. P.E. is mandatory. That gave her two electives to work with.
My daughter picked two classes from the Career and Technical Education section that sounded interesting to her: Introduction to Biomedical Sciences, and Foods. She likes to cook, so she thought the Foods course would be a way to do that in school. As her parents, we were dubious. Wouldn’t Foods be something more like Nutrition, with nutrients, portion sizes, and calorie counting?
We wondered about the Intro to Biomedical Sciences, too: wouldn’t that be preparing students for some sort of career in something like Phlebotomy, which requires a certificate training program but not a college degree?
So what is Career and Technical Education? According to our school district’s web site, among other reasons, CTE is for students if they
- they want to be ahead of their classmates by earning an industry certification
- they like hands-on and project-based instruction instead of memorizing facts for a test
- they want an additional endorsement on their graduation diploma
- they want to develop life-long marketable skills for employment while in college
- they want to earn high school credit for work-based learning experiences
This is the point at which my husband put his foot down: he did not want her to take two Career and Technical Education courses in one year, because that might put her in the CTE track rather than the college track. I wondered if that would really happen; he was sure it would. (Let’s call that Tracking Trap #1.)
We asked our 8th grader why she was interested in the Biomedical Sciences course, and she said it was because she was possibly interested in becoming a doctor, and she thought this was the closest kind of class she could get to it in high school. We told her that if she wanted to go to medical school, the standard way to do that would be by taking Biology rather than the CTE course. Still, I was all right with her taking it if she wanted to.
But why, we asked, did she not choose a world language class or a music class for her electives? She has enjoyed both in middle school. Or what about drama, or dance or visual arts? It turns out that she thought that taking any arts or humanities electives would track her as an “Arts” kid, and she was afraid that would be a problem for her in going pre-med in college. (This is Tracking Trap #2.)
“No way!” I said. “Your electives do not all have to point to whatever you think your major will be in college. In fact, it’s better if you are well-rounded and have more interests.”
She said, “You say that, but is that what colleges will think? Good colleges?”
“Not only is that totally untrue,” I said, “why should you be worried about that now? You have so much time ahead of you, and you should be trying new things, finding out what you like and don’t like, and doing things that build the whole you and that feed your soul.”
But the school counselors keep telling the kids that high school will be over really soon, and then they’ll be in college, and then they’ll be looking for a job, she explained.
In the end, my daughter completely abandoned both of the CTE classes, although if she were truly interested in them I believe she should have taken them. Instead, she selected a world language class, and bumped up her regular Biology class to the Honors version (in addition to the Honors Language Arts and Honors World History she had already selected); and then signed up for a study hall to make sure she would have the time to do the homework for those Honors classes. She asked if she could take music lessons outside of school, and we said yes, of course.
I still have misgivings about her high school course schedule. I don’t like the separate track systems in schools; and I don’t like the idea that kids get stuck in their tracks and can’t cross over. I also really don’t like the pressure she and other kids feel to meet the expectations colleges and future careers have for them.
The Tracking Traps that I have listed may be true or false. The way to get to the bottom of it is to talk to the high school guidance counselors and to some college admissions offices, to find out what is really true. But the thing is, because tracking does very much exist in the first place, that gives the concept so much power that it drives our beliefs and fears about what our child should and should not take in school–and hers, too. Our 8th grader was willing to cut music and world languages out of her schooling for fear she wouldn’t be accepted to a “good college” in preparation for medical school–and however misguided that idea was, she is a straight A student who wants to do all the right things.
And what about a child who has been tracked into the non-college prep track from the beginning? What chance would they have to switch over, should they want to? Would it be impossible, or just really improbable? College isn’t for everybody; but I feel there should be room for changing your mind, at any point; and support to do so. The decisions you make at 14, or that others make about you even before then, should not have the power to shape the rest of your life. As I reminded my husband, he switched college majors three times before graduating; shouldn’t our child have the same freedom to do so in high school? But maybe he’s right; maybe that freedom to change your mind with minimal repercussions doesn’t exist in high school, the way it is structured now. It seems to me that’s the biggest trap of all.