Wandering Off the Single Diploma Path

The more I think about it, the more amazed I’m that my state of Tennessee offers only one diploma path. I mean, really, are all our students supposed to be heading in the same direction? And is that direction supposed to be to a four-year university? Apparently so. Now, don’t get me wrong:

1. I’m all for making sure that everyone who wants to follow a university prep path is given high quality preparation to make sure they succeed.


2. I’m all for making sure that everyone who wants to pursue a career path is given high quality preparation to make sure they succeed.

Here’s what I don’t hear people acknowledge much, though: The preparation for those two paths isn’t the same.

I have spent the past few months learning about the many and varied pathways open to post-16 students in the UK. I have visited vocational training programs in high schools, further education settings, on-the-job apprenticeships, and other work-based learning programs that are far more intensive than any I’ve ever seen in the US. UK schools also take career guidance much more seriously and implement it more systematically. Even so, I have listened to educators and business people here in the UK complain that their system doesn’t do enough to encourage vocational education and prepare young people for careers. They point to more developed vocational systems in countries like Germany and Switzerland. I have been reading about the well-developed vocational pathways in Singapore and Finland, among others. If you don’t understand what I mean, check out the complicated flow chart of potential paths from Singapore’s Ministry of Education guide for parents of secondary students.

Here are the changes Tennessee made to our diploma requirements in 2009, from the Tennessee Department of Education website:

The Tennessee Department of Education has raised standards and aligned graduation requirements to best prepare students for college and the workforce.
Following the implementation of the Tennessee Diploma Project in 2009, high school students must complete 22 credits to graduate. They also will be tested in core subject areas with End of Course exams, part of the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, or TCAP. Their performance on these exams will factor into their semester grade for the course.

Credit Requirements

Total Credits: 22

  • Math: 4 credits  – Including Algebra I, II, Geometry and a fourth higher level math course (Students must be enrolled in a mathematics course each school year.)
  • English: 4 credits
  • Science: 3 credits – Including Biology, Chemistry or Physics, and a third lab course
  • Social Studies: 3 credits
  • Physical Education and Wellness: 1.5 credits
  • Personal Finance: 0.5 credits
  • Foreign Language: 2 credits
  • Fine Arts: 1 credit – May be waived for students not going to a University to expand and enhance the elective focus
  • Elective Focus: 3 credits – Math and Science, Career and Technical Education, Fine Arts, Humanities, Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB)

Now, 4 math credits is actually more than most universities require. And the workforce? According to the Diploma Project’s own documents the state developed the requirements with the “Tennessee Business Roundtable, a statewide organization of CEOs to gather input from key business leaders across the state regarding their observations and expectations of high school graduates’ skills and knowledge.”

Here is what the Business Roundtable recommended to the Diploma Project:

“Graduates need:

• stronger math and science skills but especially have mastered basic math; in addition, post-secondary school or work requires that students be able to think critically toward a focused solution
• stronger communication skills, including both verbal skills and writing skills
• to be able to work in teams to solve real world problems
• to be able to think, apply, and use what they know
• to have a strong work ethic; be at work regularly and be on time”

So, do Algebra II and a fourth, higher level math class teach the mastery of basic math? No. We have classrooms full of students who truly need to master basic math, but there is no time. Their days are spent struggling through these upper level math classes, while they have no opportunity to learn or practice the basic math skills they need to hold real jobs.

Do the course requirements give students time to work on applying what they know to real world problems or learn a strong work ethic that will actually transfer to the workplace? No. They teach students to take exams.

Achieve and The American Diploma Project propose that increasing the graduation requirements will “hold schools accountable for graduating students who are college and/or workforce ready..”

But the very compelling Harvard Pathways to Prosperity report claims that an “unpublished analysis by James Stone III, director of the National Research Center for Career & Technical Education, shows that half the states that are part of the Achieve network…experienced a decrease in the percentage of high-school completers between 2003 and 2007.”

A somewhat dated, but I think relevant, report from Cornell in 2003 compared 12th grade achievement in high schools with low graduation requirements to those in schools with high graduation requirements. While they found that students were taking higher level coursework and gaining the credits in schools with high graduation requirements, there was no direct effect on their achievement.

How does that happen? Those of us in high schools know exactly how: We spoon-feed them through material that is far too difficult for them, ignoring the skills they need to learn to make progress, so that they can earn the credits they need for graduation. But they never truly learn the material because they don’t have the prerequisite skills.

Even if we could get all our students into a university after high school, I have a long list of reasons why I think this would be a bad idea. Here are a few:

1. Who would fix my plumbing, draw my blood, build my house, put out my fire, color my hair, clean my teeth, open a cool new restaurant in my area…need I continue? Our daily life just won’t work without a career-ready workforce.

2. Don’t we already have enough students starting university programs who never complete? I think the best data available suggest barely over half finish in 6 years. And with what level of debt, both for those who emerge with and without degrees? And now the LA Times and others keep updating us about all of those who did manage to finish 4-year degrees who aren’t able to find work in their degree area, so find themselves working in jobs that don’t require a degree.

3. Community colleges and vocational training centers provide valuable training pathways. The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce argues that the fastest job growth will be in areas that require either an associates degree or a post-secondary vocational award. Many of these pathways are likely to earn more money than pathways through a 4-year university. And they don’t require 4 years of math for enrollment or retention.

4. Some successful entrepreneurs (Steve Jobs, for example) have argued that the university path doesn’t adequately prepare young people for entrepreneurship.  Some of our brightest minds have benefitted from working outside the system.

5. Young people should have some choice in the path of their future. This isn’t tracking; it’s self-determination. There is nothing wrong with choosing not to go to a university.

Given these sorts of arguments, Harvard’s Pathways to Prosperity concludes:

“students who are bored and at risk of dropping out need to be engaged more effectively. They need to know that there are navigable pathways leading to rewarding careers in the mainstream economy. Our hope is that states will recognize the importance of providing such options and not make the mistake of mandating a narrow common college prep curriculum for all “(p24)

Young people who do plan to follow a career pathway need to have high quality, targeted training to help them get where they are going – and the skills they need are different from the skills needed to enter a university.


BISHOP, J. H., & MANE, F. (2003). Impacts of tougher graduation requirements on course selection and learning in high school and post high school experiences of vocational students.[ Ithaca, N.Y.], Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies, Cornell University.  http://digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1031&context=cahrswp

CARNEVALE, A.P., SMITH, N. & STROHT, J. (2013). Recovery: Job growth and education requirements through 2020. Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. [Washington, DC], Georgetown University.  cew.georgetown.edu/recovery2020

QUINTINI, G. (2009). Jobs for youth. Paris, OECD.

HARVARD UNIVERSITY. (2011). Pathways to prosperity: meeting the challenge of preparing young Americans for the 21 century. [Cambridge, MA], Harvard Graduate School of Education.

MINISTRY OF EDUCATION. (2013). Secondary school education: Shaping the next phase of your child’s learning journey. [Singapore], Available from: http://www.moe.gov.sg/education/secondary/files/secondary-school-education-booklet.pdf


6 thoughts on “Wandering Off the Single Diploma Path

  1. Hi, I read your article with great interest and plan to share it with my fellow teachers. On your Fulbright journey are you always ” on the go”? I’m just wondering how it will be for me with my two little ones in Singapore and managing it all.


  2. Hi Murchelle, I am excited to find out what you will be learning about the special education system in Singapore. I hope you are planning a blog. I have travelled a lot while I have been here because I wanted to see a mix of rural, urban, and suburban schools and wanted to see if there were differences in regions. Since Singapore is a lot smaller, I don’t think that will be as much of an issue with you. In my capstone proposal, I also said I would see the breadth of the service options available to students with special needs. Sometimes that has required traveling far and wide because I am always discovering some new option. Of course, I have also travelled more precisely because I do have two teens with me and want them to experience it all. Compared to the frantic pace and pressures of teaching, though, this role of researcher and writer has really been an opportunity to recharge and reflect. My first few weeks here, all I could do was marvel at how I kept up that pace for so many years. The world really does not appreciate how amazing teachers are, to do the job they do in our current teaching climate.


  3. Thanks for posting this, Becca. It chimes with an October 2013 article I recently found in the Wall Street Journal. In case you don’t know, the viewpoint in it claims the divide between job applicants and job openings is due to a lack of vocational training.


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