One Size Fits All?

Students usually don’t decide on an academic major until college, but Oakland public schools plan to make every kid select a career path by the 10th grade.


Preston Thomas contends that the district's linked-learning program also allows teachers to collaborate better.

Photo by D. Ross Cameron

Jonah Kaufman Cohen feels sorry for his little brother. An 11th grader at Oakland Technical High School, Kaufman Cohen said he’s glad he didn’t have to pick an academic career path before entering the 10th grade—like his brother will have to do under Oakland’s new education initiative. Kaufman Cohen said one of his favorite things about high school has been the ability to choose whatever classes he wants to take. And he said Oakland’s new mandate will serve as a roadblock for students who want to explore different areas of study during their teens.

“The key to success as a student is enjoying the class,” Kaufman Cohen said. “My little brother is being forced to make a choice.”

Under the Oakland school district’s new “linked learning” initiative, nearly every Oakland public high school student in the city will have to select an academic career path by the 10th grade this fall. District officials believe that requiring high school students to enroll in a career pathway—like health, engineering, computer science, or biotechnology—will greatly increase graduation rates, especially for students from low-income families. Oakland public high schools have traditionally had one the worst graduation rates in the state. Last year, it was just 64.6 percent. “With every kid in a pathway, we know there’s much better results for kids,” said school board member Jody London, who represents North Oakland and has two children who attend Oakland Tech.

District officials, who are also calling the initiative “wall-to-wall pathways,” contend that the program will also help teachers collaborate better, particularly in large high schools. Under the initiative, all students enrolled in a pathway, such as health, for example, will stay together in the 10th grade as a cohort, learning from the same group of teachers. The setup means that those teachers can work together to make sure their students succeed and closely monitor them so they won’t fall behind academically. At Tech, the cohorts will range in size from 30 to 90 students per grade. “One of the fundamental tenets is the relationship among teachers,” said Preston Thomas, executive director of College and Career Readiness and superintendent of high schools in Oakland. “You have cohorts of teachers who work together.” Thomas noted that several school districts around the nation are adopting linked learning initiatives, including Long Beach.

Oakland’s linked learning initiative was also tied to Measure N, a 2014 Oakland parcel tax approved by city voters that generates millions of dollars a year for high schools. Measure N cited career pathways as a goal for the district—not a mandate. However, district officials have decided to turn it into one. Thomas said all of Oakland’s public high schools are now implementing the initiative—except for Oakland Tech, which will be launching it at the start of the 2018-19 school year.

Photo By D. Ross Cameron

Josue Diaz Jr.

The wall-to-wall pathway plan has generated considerable controversy at Oakland Tech in the past few months. A Jan. 18 meeting at the school drew more than 200 parents, students, and teachers, with many of them voicing displeasure over the new mandate. A Feb. 1 meeting drew cheers from the crowd of 150 people when co-principal Josue Diaz Jr. announced that Tech had decided to delay the initiative for one year. Diaz pointed to the complexity of putting every 10th grader in a pathway as a reason for the delay.

Ironically, the linked learning initiative is patterned in part after the extremely successful “academy” programs at Oakland Tech. Like pathways, these academies—which include health; engineering; computer science; biotech; and fashion, arts, and design—also involve students spending much of their school days together in cohorts. Oakland Tech’s engineering program is known as one of the best of its kind in the nation.

But since their inception three decades ago, the academies at Oakland Tech have always been voluntary. Students in the middle of their ninth-grade year take tours of the academies and then choose which one that they’d like to apply for beginning in the 10th grade. Students then spend the 10th through 12th grades in their academies, specializing in their field of study. Academy students also enroll in regular high school classes, like English, history, math, and science, but they take most of those classes with fellow members of their respective academies. The academy classes, in turn, feature hands-on workshops and internships with area businesses and organizations. Health Academy students, for example, might intern at nearby Oakland Children’s Hospital. Thomas noted that students enrolled in Oakland Tech’s academies have higher GPAs on average and are more likely to be ready for college by the end of 12th grade than students who are not. (Tech is in the process of rebranding its academies as pathways.)

Oakland Tech, which has a student body that very closely mirrors the diversity of the city, also features a highly respected humanities program known as Paideia. However, it is not considered to be a pathway or academy, because it contains no workshop/internship “career” element. As a result, 10th-grade students enrolled in Paideia will also have to enroll in one of the academies starting in the fall of 2018.

Currently, approximately 80 percent of the 480 10th graders at Oakland Tech are enrolled in an academy. That means that about 100 students who chose not to enroll in an academy this year will have to select one of them soon—regardless of whether they’re interested in any them.

But not older students like Jonah Kaufman Cohen. The district’ new linked learning initiative doesn’t apply to current 10th, 11th, and 12th graders. He said he understands the district’s desire to improve graduation rates and academic achievement, especially for students from low-income families, but he thinks it’s a mistake to require students to enroll in academies when they’re not ready to pick a career. “The solution isn’t to force students to take classes they don’t want to take,” he said.


Disclosure: Robert Gammon is an Oakland Tech parent.


Published Feb. 17, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.  

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