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Beyond Tracking: Multiple Pathways to College, Career, and Civic Participation

reviewed by Michael D. Usdan - February 05, 2009

coverTitle: Beyond Tracking: Multiple Pathways to College, Career, and Civic Participation
Author(s): Jeanne Oakes and Marisa Saunders (Eds.)
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 193474204X, Pages: 280, Year: 2008
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Beyond Tracking makes a persuasive case for radical reform of the American high school through a multiple pathways approach designed to meet the divergent needs of an increasingly diverse student population. Beyond Tracking compellingly calls for transformative changes in the fundamental structures and processes of secondary education.

High school reform has been a persistent issue for decades. The issue has a contemporary saliency, however, that makes this volume particularly timely. The country is faced with virtually unprecedented domestic and international problems. The global economy is increasingly competitive, and Americas worldwide economic and political hegemony is undeniably diminished.

Demographic changes are profoundly reshaping the nations population. Definitions of majority-minority are shifting as school populations are increasingly of color, particularly in urban areas and in large megastates like California, Texas, Florida and New York. The numbers and impact of these new populations make the need for school improvement and equalized educational opportunity an imperative not only for reasons of equity and morality but also for sheer self interest.  

As the still majority white population ages and has a lower birthrate, demographic projections make it abundantly clear that unless the schools serving minority children improve rapidly, our workforce will be unable to compete in the global marketplace. Too many of our contemporary high schools are too big and impersonal and lack rigor and relevance. This is particularly the case in high schools serving minorities and economically disadvantaged youngsters.  

Thus, issues like school reform, college readiness and K-12 higher education transitions are of growing import and national significance. As the chapters in Beyond Tracking cogently document, the current dropout rates are intolerable and new definitions of comprehensive high schools must be developed that meet the multiple academic and career needs of an increasingly diverse, multi-lingual student population. The authors persuasively urge the development of programs that stress both challenging academic offerings and greater emphasis on field-based learning.

While one might quibble with the term revolutionary used by the authors in describing the changes they advocate (these points have been stressed by reformers for decades), one cannot debate their thesis that all students must be well prepared to succeed in both school and careers. The dysfunctional nature of the false dichotomy between academic and vocational education has been debated for years. The authors of the chapters are quite candid about the deterrents to the changes they espouse. They are, however, guardedly optimistic that their movement to promote new ways of thinking about high schools is gaining some traction.

Indeed, Beyond Tracking is an excellent compendium and synthesis of current thinking about high school reform. The rubric Multiple Pathways captures the essence of predicating high school offerings on multiple options stressing project based learning and the expectation that rigorous learning standards should be common to all programs as diverse as they may be.

The challenges confronting the Multiple Pathways reformers in bridging the academic-vocational chasm, i.e., creating a balanced curriculum which values both quality hand and brain work, and linking cognitive components into fieldwork experiences, are complex and candidly discussed.  The volume written by an interdisciplinary team of authors focuses on the nation-state of California and does not underestimate the confounding and perhaps even intractable political, cultural, and technical obstacles confronting the Multiple Pathways movement. In fact, the authors openly acknowledge that their approach is not a panacea and requires support from all sectors of society. While the evidence is promising, implementing Multiple Pathways high school reform will be extremely difficult politically and complex operationally. It is encouraging that the authors were able to make their case before legislators in Sacramento. Efforts such as this to communicate research findings to policymakers need to be intensified throughout the country if school reform concepts like Multiple Pathways are to be converted from academic rhetoric to political reality.

One of the most important highlights of the book is its emphasis on the civic role of schooling and the need for the countrys new populations to receive citizenship education. Civic education is too often bypassed as the country understandably focuses on the need to improve the academic and vocational/technical components and standards of schooling. The promotion of civic understanding, however, will become ever move important as the student population becomes more heterogeneous and the nations political stability and economy become more dependent upon the successful absorption of these growing immigrant populations into the mainstream of American democratic life.

Beyond Tracking appropriately pays considerable attention to the urgent need to bridge the abyss between K-12 and post-secondary education. At a time when most students will require some post-secondary education, be it academic or career oriented, it is essential that the traditional interlevel bifurcation be broken down. Interlevel transition issues will grow in significance and if the Multiple Pathways approach is to be viable and live up to its potential, new relationships will have to be established between K-12 and post-secondary education. The community colleges, in particular, which enroll almost half the students in higher education, can play a unique and very important role in bridging the bifurcated worlds of K-12 and post-secondary education. Fragmented college admission and placement practices, for example, must become connected to K-12 standards and curriculum.

Throughout Beyond Tracking, a number of the authors in promoting the Multiple Pathways concept stress the need to develop collaborative relationships with a host of agencies and institutions governmentally separated from school systems. The need is stressed to provide poor youngsters with the social, health and other support services essential to establishing the conditions and environment in which students can learn. In other words, the schools (even wonderfully reformed Multiple Pathways institutions) cannot do it alone. They must work cooperatively with a host of non-school system partners.  

This collaboration will require the breaking down of barriers which historically have separated schools from general purpose government. This traditional separation is being broken down at every governmental level. We have education presidents and governors. More and more mayors in problem plagued large cities are becoming involved in school governance and preempting the traditional roles of school leaders. These trends of breaking down the cultural and institutional separation of schools from the larger society can be capitalized upon by advocates of the Multiple Pathways concept who acknowledge the need for multi-sector approaches to student learning. Indeed, the political clout of mayors and the influential civic leaders they can recruit could go a long way in breaking down the political and structural barriers to school reforms like Multiple Pathways.

The Multiple Pathways approach should not be viewed as just another ephemeral education reform. It has enormous potential to radically restructure and improve high schools. Hopefully, this important volume will stimulate public understanding and national discussion of the concepts great potential.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 05, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15515, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 5:32:44 AM

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About the Author
  • Michael Usdan
    Institute for Educational Leadership
    E-mail Author
    MICHAEL D. USDAN served as President of the Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL) from 1981 through 2001. As of July 1, 2001, he became a Senior Fellow at the organization.
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