Let’s see how this works from the perspective of a student. Imagine that you’re finishing ninth grade at a large comprehensive urban high school. The year hasn’t gone very well; because you are reading and doing math at a sixth-grade level, much of your coursework is a struggle. Nor have you had much of an opportunity to develop the “non-cognitive skills” that would help you to remediate the situation. You are foundering, failing courses, and thinking about dropping out.
Though we should be working hard to improve elementary and middle schools so that you don’t reach this point, the fact remains that you have. A rational system would acknowledge that, with just three years until graduation, the likelihood of you getting to a true “college readiness” level by the end of 12th grade is extremely low. Even if all the pieces come together in dramatic fashion — you get serious help with your basic skills, someone finds you a great mentor, your motivation for hitting the books increases significantly — you probably aren’t going to make it. You need another pathway, one with significantly greater chances of success and a real payoff at the end — a job that will allow you to be self-sufficient. You need high-quality career and technical education, ideally the kind that combines rigorous coursework with a real-world apprenticeship, and maybe even a paycheck.
To be sure, your long-term earnings will probably be lower than if you squeak out a college degree. But that’s a false choice, because you’re almost surely not going to get that college degree anyway. The decision is whether to follow the college route to almost certain failure, or to follow another route to significant success.
But our system isn’t rational, and it doesn’t like to acknowledge long odds. Perhaps it used to, but this sort of realism was judged to be deterministic, racist and classist. And for sure, when judgments were made on the basis of ZIP code or skin color, the old system was exactly that. Those high school “tracks” were immutable, and those who wound up in “voc-ed” (or, at least as bad, the “general” track) were those for whom secondary schooling, in society’s eyes, was mostly a custodial function.