Vocational Education: A New Track to College
Susan L. Forman and Lynn Arthur Steen
An "Op-Ed" column in a theme issue on "tracking" of a new quarterly publication of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM): Mathematics Education Dialogues, November 1998, p. 10.
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Perhaps the most radical recommendation of the NCTM Standards is that all children should learn a common core of high quality mathematics. Yet even as "mathematics for all" has become the mantra of reform, most parents' worry is not that all children learn, but only that their own children learn--and get into the college of their choice. Parents' anxiety about ensuring their own children's success has rapidly transformed an academic debate about tracking into one of the more contentious issues in education.

One tap root of tracking in U.S. mathematics education is the tradition, dating back to the nineteenth century, of separating students who appeared capable of college study from those whose appropriate vocation seemed to be unskilled farm or factory work. These two tracks had very different purposes. College-bound students were introduced to a full range of geometry and algebra, while those in vocational tracks were expected to master only arithmetic. Since algebra wasn't needed in the world of work, it wasn't taught to students in these lower tracks. This vocational tradition of low expectations (and low prestige) is with us still.

However, the world of work has changed, and with it the demands on vocational education. From advanced manufacturing to precision agriculture, from medical imaging to supermarket management, competitive industries now depend not just on arithmetic and percentages but on raw data, spreadsheet analyses, and graphical representations. Quantitative business models, statistical quality control, and computer-controlled machines are the keys to America's renewed competitiveness. Anyone who works--which is virtually everyone--needs to be prepared to deal with these kinds of mathematical tools.

Today, virtually all jobs require some form of postsecondary education. So vocational tracks must leave students well prepared for higher education. Effective vocational programs set demanding mathematical standards that include the kinds of higher-order thinking heretofore found only in the academic track. In fact, the strongest vocational programs find that as many as 80% of their graduates go to college or technical institutes. For many students a vocational program may be the best route to a college education.

This may appear ironic, but it is not surprising. Mathematics in the workplace offers students opportunities to grapple with authentic, open-ended problems that involve messy numbers, intricate chains of reasoning, and lengthy multi-step solutions--opportunities that are rarely found in traditional college-prep mathematics curricula. By deploying elementary mathematics in sophisticated settings, modern work-based tasks give students not only motivation and context, but also a concrete foundation from which they can later abstract and generalize.

Traditional vocational tracking certainly must end, since it leaves far too many students unprepared for the contemporary world of work. But there is merit in dual tracks--vocational and academic--that impose equivalent expectations for substance and depth. For many students, perhaps the majority, a modern vocational program offers the best of both worlds--preparation for college and for employment. It could become a parent's dream.

Copyright © 1998. Contact: Lynn A. Steen URL: http://www.stolaf.edu/people/steen/Papers/99voced.html