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Beyond Tracking: Multiple Pathways


Education reformers sometimes take on stances that carry good ideas to absurd lengths. One of those that has concerned me recently is the idea that the only acceptable outcome for a K-12 student is completion of a four-year college degree. This is what the jobs of the future will demand, we are told. But when I look at the shambles our economy is in, I begin to wonder who is better off, a college graduate with a degree in English and $50,000 worth of debt, or someone who has managed to get a strong set of skills as a carpenter, an electrician, or any number of technical positions that require training but not necessarily a bachelor’s degree.

There is little question that attending college confers advantages. Those with less education find themselves economically and socially marginalized. However, when we make college the ONLY choice in our schools, we seem to be losing a large number of students, who drop out when they cannot identify with that objective. Can’t we allow for some more options? And how can we do so in a way that avoids the trap of tracking?


A new book has been released that says, yes, we can. “Beyond Tracking, Multiple Pathways to College, Career and Civic Participation,” (Harvard Education Press, 2008), edited by Jeannie Oakes and Marisa Saunders, is a collection of essays that explains how.

Here are some of the key ideas from the book.

Jeannie Oakes and Marisa Saunders explain the basic elements of the Multiple Pathways approach:

1. A college-preparatory academic core that satisfies the course requirements for entry into a state’s flagship public university through project-based learning and other engaging instructional strategies. These strategies intentionally bring real-world context and relevance to the curriculum by emphasizing broad themes, interest areas, and/or career and technical education.
2. A professional or technical core well-grounded in academic and real-world standards.
3. Field-based learning and realistic workplace simulations that deepen students’ understanding of academic and technical knowledge through application in authentic situations.
4. Additional support services to meet the particular needs of students and communities, which can include supplemental instruction, counseling, transportation, and so on.

Mike Rose states,

Our notion of intelligence is strongly influenced by the IQ test and traditional verbal and quantitative school tasks. Doing well on such tests may indicate some dimensions of cognitive competence, but what about other ways that intellectual ability reveals itself? There is the plumber making a judgment by the feel of old pipes behind a wall. Or a hairstylist determining a style from a client’s imprecise description. Or the technician with an intuitive sense of how to use an instrument to its full capacity. Or the ICU nurse ordering and reordering the flow of tasks emerging in a dynamic, changing environment. A Multiple Pathways agenda could provide opportunity to move beyond traditional measures of intellectual ability through multiple high school curricula/programs that are at once academically rigorous and inclusive of the range of aspirations and abilities of a diverse student population.

Michael A. Stoll writes,

The Multiple Pathways approach, especially one that uses career academies as an educational option, can engage students and keep them in school by providing concrete links between schooling and career options. Academies can prepare students for multiple trajectories and changes in skills in the changing labor market, partly through an experiential learning curriculum that allows for reflection and problem solving in the classroom. Moreover, if designed appropriately, career academies can provide incentives and the institutional structure for students to move seamlessly in and out of training and career over a career lifetime.

But Stoll warns,

…tracking in any educational program that combines some form of work-based learning with general education remains a concern. These concerns can be allayed if career academies are fundamentally committed to preparing all students for college.

W. Norton Grubb suggests,

Motivation and engagement are enhanced when students have multiple paths to competence. In contrast to the monolithic college-prep curriculum, which allows only one path to success measured by grades and SAT scores, theme-based pathways can provide multiple avenues for success, including artistic success, success in making and fixing things, and success in developing competencies related to employment. Internships provide opportunities to master additional skills.

Mike Rose describes why this is such a challenging approach;

It is difficult. It means developing classroom activities that represent the authentic knowledge and intellectual demands of the workplace and, conversely, bringing academic content to life through occupational tasks and simulations. It means the house or the automobile could be the core of a rich, integrated curriculum: one that includes social and technical history, science and economics, and hands-on assembly and repair. It means learning about new subjects and making unfamiliar connections: the historian investigating the health care or travel industry, or the machinist engaging the humanities. It means fostering not only basic mathematical skill, but also an appreciation for mathematics, a mathematical sensibility, through the particulars of the print shop, the restaurant, the hospital lab. It also means seeking out the many literate possibilities running through young people’s lives – on the street, in church, in romance – and connecting them to the language of the stage, the poem, but the tech manual too, and the contract, and the Bill of Rights. Of course such teaching might well mean providing instruction in “basic skills,” but in a manner that puts the skill in context, considers its purpose, and pushes toward meaning beyond rote performance.

To me, this sounds like why I became a teacher in the first place.

In California there are several initiatives along the lines suggested here.
ConnectEd offers grants and ideas to districts interested in the multiple pathways approach.

The Buck Institute for Education offers training and resources in project-based learning.

The editors of this book have published an essay further describing their recommendations and citing more examples here.

What do you think? Should we expand multiple pathways for our students? Are there other resources you might suggest in this arena?


We have tracking--it's just that we only offer one track--college. We tell studens what we think they should want, and if they disagree with us, their only option is to drop out. It's like in a parallel universe where all students are expected to play professional sports, and those who don't want to do so, have no options. Our cookie-cutter approach (all students must be the same) isn't working, because it's not fair to students. We need to offer alternatives that meet *their* needs, not our "Big Brother" expectations.

This piece reflects the current campaign of the Campaign for Quality Education, a statewide alliance working towards educational justice in California public schools.

Our current campaign is called "100 Percent Prepared for College and Career" and strives to provide a multiple pathways curriculum for all students in all zip codes.

Too often, it's the suburban schools that get the options to choose a career and urban schools (with high numbers of immigrant students, low-income students, and students of color) have their career chosen for them due to a lack of opportunities and choices.


Clearly, this would provide more relevant, authentic and empowering education. And students would be more engaged.
...But I can hear the bureaucrats now: "How do we test that?"
...And, on the local level, there is not as much glory in training for trades as there is for college. Plus, it is a better sales pitch to parents and the community to to say, "We offer the education with the highest earnings potential, the path to college. And we can guarantee that for all of your children."
As a teacher it is painful for me to see students forced into learning activities they have no apptitude for, such as a movement -based child forced into desk tasks. (We don't have the same prejuidice in the other direction. Non-physical, scholarly kids have minimal PE classes or alternatives to those classes.)
Somewhere along the way those scholars who naturally liked to sit for hours and hours with books imposed their learning style as the predominant learning style. This is regrettable and inefficient.
Thanks for bringing this up, Mr. Cody.

Very fascinating post. I especially like Mike Rose's final comment. Multiple pathways can give people more diverse experiences rather than shunting people off into separate pursuits. I love the notion of the machinist engaging in the humanities or the historian in health care.

But he's right to say this is difficult. Too often, multiple pathways arguments founder on limited conceptions of "relevance," especially if outdated models of vocational education begin to take over.

The problem is when the same kind of students get tracked the same way--kids that "look" a certain way go to college and kids that look another way are trained to be laborers.

I agree that has been the pattern that has shaped our response -- which is to assume all will go to college, and make no space for any other pathway. But it seems to me this approach is not serving a lot of our students, and may be contributing to the dropout rate. If a student does NOT identify with the only pathway we allow, they do not have much choice.

My own son is eighteen, and just spent his first year at college, where he was less than inspired. I would rather he take some time and figure out where his passions lie than simply go to college because that is what is expected. I think we need to make room for students to find their own ways, and provide a range of programs that allow them to try out different ways of learning, and different ways of working. Then they will be better prepared to make choices that serve them when they leave high school.

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