Should High Schools Offer More Job Training?

Some states are rolling back high school graduation requirements to help prepare students who will enter the workforce after graduation.
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Just seven years ago, the Texas Legislature mandated that all high schoolers pass two algebra courses and geometry to graduate. This summer, the state reversed course, easing its strict math, science, and social-studies requirements to free up class time for job training.

Texas legislators want to create a more flexible system that helps students who aren't headed to four-year colleges enter the workforce. And it’s not just Texas. State legislatures nationwide are enacting laws to promote career and technical education and workforce training in high school.

But that approach carries risks. While it’s true that not all students will go on to college, pulling back on college preparatory coursework has to be handled carefully in a state like Texas, with its hundreds of thousands of low-income and minority students. They’re the students who would benefit from college the most—and who need the most help getting there.

New laws in Texas, as well as in Florida, de-emphasize Algebra 2, the math class required for admission to four-year colleges and placement into college-level math at two-year institutions. Knowledge of Algebra 2 is considered an indicator of college readiness under the Common Core standards, which have been adopted by 45 states, including Florida.

More than half of public-school students in both states are nonwhite. Fifty percent of Texas students and 56 percent of Florida students qualify for federally subsidized lunches. It’s particularly important that low-income, Hispanic, and African-American students leave high school qualified to further their education—even if they don’t plan on doing so right away. A college degree is the most important driver of social mobility. By 2020, 65 percent of all jobs will require some kind of postsecondary education, according to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce.

Practically speaking, Texas’s earlier college-prep coursework recommendations didn't fit reality. Despite the high bar, only about half of the state’s high school graduates immediately headed off to college of any kind. “We wanted to give students and parents more flexibility, to not only be college-prepared—which I think we’re doing a pretty good job of—but perhaps to expand that preparation to folks who may not be going to college,” Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, a Republican who chairs the Texas House’s Public Education Committee, says of the revision. The goal isn't to dumb down the curriculum, he says, but to let kids pursue a path that might not have been open to them before. The state’s education-accountability system still rewards schools when students demonstrate college readiness.
Rather than a recommended four years each of math, science, and social studies, Texas students now need just three credits in each and must take five end-of-course tests rather than 15. Students will be able to earn “endorsements” in areas such as public service, arts and humanities, and business and industry. The State Board of Education is currently debating which endorsements will require Algebra 2.

Florida’s new law rolls back the requirement (signed into law in 2010) that students take Algebra 2 and either chemistry or physics and allows some industry-focused courses to satisfy subject-area requirements. Students who earn advanced academic credits will receive a “scholar” designation on their diplomas, while students who earn one or more industry certifications will earn a “merit” designation.

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Sophie Quinton is a staff reporter for National Journal.

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