In my California town, I serve as treasurer of a nonprofit which, in the spirit of think globally, act locally, aims to combat climate change by changing the behavior of our friends and neighbors. The organization has already done good work like arranging a group purchasing program for rooftop solar + battery storage and buying electric blowers for gardeners who promise to jettison noxious gas blowers.
From the start, I’ve wanted to do something to promote biking. I grew up biking to school and to my job as a busboy and waiter. But there are no bike lanes here, not even on the main thoroughfare. Then one day I saw a petition on Nextdoor to establish a bike lane. I contacted the woman behind the petition and invited her to an upcoming meeting to discuss creating a new team focused on biking.
I built her up with the other board members: “Don’t forget, Bike Lane Lady’s joining us next week.” Everyone was excited to meet Bike Lane Lady. Then the day came. Bike Lane Lady showed up and shared her story. It turned out she wasn’t interested in biking at all. She wanted bike lanes because she drove her Chevy Suburban around town and had almost hit cyclists on numerous occasions. She wanted bike lanes so bikes would get the hell out of her way. There was an awkward silence until I thanked her for her time. After she departed, I apologized to the other members. Someone who’s only interested in establishing bike lanes so she can drive her gigantic gas-guzzling SUV unimpeded is clearly not the best candidate to lead an environmental initiative.
Likewise, the College Board is not the best candidate to lead a career initiative. As Paul Fain’s The Job reported last month, the College Board is talking up its commitment to careers in addition to college. Now when students open up PSAT score reports, they’ll see information about in-demand careers in their state. High school students can also avail themselves of a new career quiz and search tool. And in three cities, College Board has begun listing a respected apprenticeship program – Year Up – in the student search tool.
I suspect College Board may be trying to repent for its original sin: killing vocational education. Now known as career and technical education (CTE), America’s college-or-bust mentality has long relegated CTE to a shadowy corner of high school. If you explore that corner, you’ll uncover clues as to whodunnit: 1952’s General Education in School and College, a Ford Foundation-funded report from Andover, Exeter, Lawrenceville, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale; 1963’s Vocational Education Act, which conflated vocational education with disadvantaged students; and 1983’s A Nation at Risk, which emphasized the importance of rigorous academic courses. The result: from 1982 to 2013, academic credits earned by high school students rose 36% while CTE credits declined 27%.
But make no mistake: the College Board’s fingerprints are on the weapon that killed CTE. College Board launched Advanced Placement courses in 1955 with 500 students across 18 elite schools like Andover, Bronx Science, and Newton High School. The original idea was guiltless: more challenging curricula for gifted and talented students to accelerate the development of leaders and win the Cold War. But it soon became clear that AP’s primary purpose would be to give students a leg up in competitive college admissions; as early as 1960, Exeter worried about “a dangerous tendency to regard advanced placement teachers and students as an elite worthy of special praise.”
As college admissions morphed into The Hunger Games and AP became omnipresent, that’s exactly what happened. Schools began attaching prestige to AP courses and their honors prerequisites, and only those courses. As College Board doesn’t offer equally rigorous curricula within spitting distance of CTE, high schools don’t have access to CTE curricula on par with AP. And as college-for-all became the official religion of American teens, high schools weren’t about to jump through perfectly lathe-formed and welded hoops to develop their own.
The means of attaching prestige? Weighted GPA. Thanks to weighting, A grades in AP courses counted as 5.0 instead of 4.0. Makes sense, right? After all, divers are judged based on degree of difficulty. But suddenly a 4.0 GPA didn’t look so good. 4.0 meant you hadn’t taken any AP courses – or if you had, that you were getting Bs. For top colleges, 4.0 was no longer competitive. And the only path to north of 4 ran to and through AP. Conversely, taking CTE courses instead of the AP path led to 2s and 3s. Fortunately for GPAs and aficionados of numbers higher than 4, most high school students now take AP courses. And most treat non-AP or honors courses not graded on a 5.0 scale like dusty, dirty shop classes of yore.
In our college-for-all, test optional world, GPA is everything – the last remaining quantitative metric for college admissions and the sole determinant of whether your application will actually receive the “holistic review” promised by selective schools. The combination of AP courses and weighted GPA are the main reason why, as Oren Cass has noted, most developed countries have “35-55 percent of their upper secondary students enrolled in vocational education and training. [But] the U.S. is excluded from the data because we have no distinct vocational path at upper secondary level.”
In an era of weighted GPA, can CTE be rescued or resuscitated? My friend Ted Dintersmith, author of What School Could Be, thinks it can and directed me to Winchester, VA, a blue-collar town an hour and a half from DC where 77% of students are low-income (free and reduced lunch). When he arrived at Winchester Public Schools, superintendent Jason Van Heukelum saw an AP arms race among top students and widespread GPA gaming. So he did two things. First, he eliminated valedictorian and salutatorian, halting a run on classes students really didn’t care about (hello AP psychology) and pass/fail classes that didn’t count toward GPA. Second, he pulled CTE out of the corner, dusted it off, and gave it a newly renovated building and brand. Winchester’s new Innovation Center hosts three academies: advanced technologies (e.g., cybersecurity, autocad), health sciences (EMT, CNA), and professional skills (trades). Each is project-based and integrates work with regional employers. While Innovation Center academies aren’t mandatory, communications are clear and constant that students are expected to select one. So far, everyone has. It helps that all English classes – including AP English – are taught in the Innovation Center so students are exposed to CTE from the first day of high school.
While Winchester hasn’t stopped weighting AP and honors courses, when everyone takes CTE, no one’s at a disadvantage in the GPA arms race. Students are taking more career-connected classes and fewer honors and AP classes – a prisoners’ dilemma solved by coerced cooperation. But for college admissions, Winchester’s innovation amounts to unilateral disarmament. Try that in districts like Scarsdale, Millburn, Cherry Creek, or Palo Alto and you’d get a lot of screaming parents at school board meetings. A less dramatic, less risky, harm-reduction approach would be to change the weighting. It’s never been clear why AP and honors courses should be worth a full grade point more. Why not reduce the advantage from 1.0 to 0.33 or one grade so a regular A is equivalent to an AP A-? When we say an A in a non-AP course is the same as a B in AP, it’s not a fair fight.
Weighting a minority of courses is not only a (well documented) problem for underrepresented minorities, it also hampers discovery. In her new book, Crisis-Proofing Today’s Learners: Reimagining Career Education to Prepare Kids for Tomorrow’s World, Jean Eddy, president and CEO of American Student Assistance (ASA), argues convincingly that discovery must be a primary objective in middle and high school because education without purpose is a recipe for poor student outcomes. Eddy references an ASA grant program that funded discovery opportunities for more than 11,000 students across 14 Massachusetts school districts:
The results showed that those kids who participated in three years of exploration and discovery activities showed measurably better satisfaction with school, better engagement with school, a self-reported increase in confidence, and a greater sense of being supported.
Eddy also points to Finland where prioritizing discovery means work-integrated learning from the age of 12. According to a Finnish teacher, “you will be observing and practicing employment, and you choose the areas you want to try. I did work experience at a hospital, a preschool, and at a ballet school, as well as other things like window cleaning, forest work, and working in a lab in biochemistry.” When it comes to these experiences, “grades aren’t terribly important.”
With the publication of my new book, I’m running around giving talks about why apprenticeship is essential for a digital economy and what we need to do to build an Apprentice Nation. In every audience – and particularly at events hosted by colleges and universities – there are skeptics. And usually the first pointed question involves discovery: if students select a career path too early, aren’t they closing the door on discovery?
The irony is that these critics – particularly faculty – are the products of College Board’s weighted GPAs, AP and honors classes. They didn’t have the opportunity to explore career paths before careers were thrust upon them at the end of college. Or if they’re faculty and continued on through graduate and professional school and just stayed, then perhaps never – Neverland, Peter Pan-like. That works if your family can support you well into adulthood. But it doesn’t work for everyone else. If academics were truly in favor of discovery, they’d understand that; discovery is about a lot more than deciding where to go to grad school. And if not for weighted GPA, high school would be the start of a journey of discovery.
Because we’re not just losing CTE. Weighted GPA discourages students from taking any class not blessed by the College Board. This includes most classes in the arts and music – including all music performance – all physical education classes and sports, speech and debate, all history courses covering regions other than the U.S. and Europe, all interdisciplinary courses like Latin American studies, Middle East studies, and the Holocaust, and any curricular effort to prepare students for the digital economy e.g., data science, robotics.
With the weighting of high school GPAs, we’ve given College Board the authority to draw a map of learning for high school students. Sadly, the map circumscribes student discovery in a way that’s unproductive and unsustainable in a digital economy – a map showing a world that’s flat. When College Board’s primary source of revenue (and profits) is AP courses and demand for AP is driven by a weighted GPA formula that discriminates against all other forms of education, any attempt to create a level playing field between career discovery and college is window dressing: CTE theater. College Board knows which side its bread is buttered on (hint: it’s in its name).
Winchester’s Van Heukelum tells the story of a student who was on track to being valedictorian. But to achieve that goal, she would have had to sacrifice welding.
Why? To take welding and get an A as a top student, what does it do to your overall GPA? It brings it down. Wait a minute [our students say]. I got an A. I couldn’t get a higher grade in welding, but it brought my overall GPA down. Why? Because we weight AP classes. And so what happens in high school is kids play games. So she said: “you know what, I’m going to sacrifice my GPA so I can take what I really care about...” And when she applied to Georgia Tech and she wrote her essay, what did she write about? Welding. Did she get into Georgia Tech? Heck yeah.
That’s a CTE discovery story even the College Board can get behind.