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This past March, the San Diego Unified School District proposed mandatory new career and technical education courses. The courses were apparently in areas like accounting and website design, and would supplement the existing high school curriculum. Students would need to complete a certain number of these mandatory ‘tech-ed’ courses before they graduated and moved on to university and college.

Although this curriculum revision sounds easy on paper, it was anything but in practice. Shortly after plans to introduce the tech-ed courses were announced, parents protested and voted unanimously against the ratification. They criticized the fact that these courses emphasized practical, rather than academic skills. They suggested that by taking these courses, their children would have a poorer chance of being admitted into a well-known university or college.

I have some experience with streaming in high school, so I thought I’d put in my two cents. Early on in my high school career, the Ontario government introduced new streams in key subjects like Math, Science, and English. The three streams were Academic, Applied, and Workplace. Unless we knew that we absolutely didn’t want to go to university or college, we were all encouraged to take either Academic or Applied level courses.

Although it was mandatory for me to take courses in Career Studies and Civics, most of the practical and career skills I’ve learned—how to manage my money, create a resume, apply for a job—didn’t come from the classroom. They were learned through trial and error, and like most 20-somethings, I’ve made some mistakes along the way.

Personally, I think that tech-ed courses are a great idea in high schools. They have the potential to help students navigate the often unfriendly waters of post-secondary life with a little more confidence. I’m also encouraged by a statistic from the U.S. Department of Education which suggests that students who take career and tech-ed courses are actually more likely to graduate from high school.

Of course, I do think there are still questions to be answered about the place of tech-ed in high school. Two questions I’ve been thinking a lot about since reading this article are:

1) Is there evidence to suggest that universities and colleges discriminate against students who take tech-based courses?

My understanding is that these tech courses would be in addition to the compulsory credits already offered by schools. In other words, they wouldn’t take the place of Math, Science, English courses needed to get into university. But I’m also concerned that students will now have less access to optional courses, like art, drama, and music. Depending on their interests, this could hurt their chances of getting into specialized post-secondary programs.

2) Is there a way to allow students who do not want to take tech-ed courses to ‘opt out’?

One of the problems with making these courses mandatory is that there’s simply not enough time in the school day. I can understand the concern of  students who do not want to take courses they are not interested in. I can also understand the concern of teachers over being assigned a course they have little practical experience in. Is this a place where online learning could come in? If the number of available resources is limited,  I could see an online module being a really useful substitute for classroom learning.

I realize that school curricula vary all over the world, so I’m only speaking from my own experience. What’s your take on career and technical education? Do you think it has a place in contemporary high schools?