How young is too young to begin preparing for a career?

Want Fame? Well fame costs.
Want Fame? Well fame costs.
Image: Reuters/Gaston De Cardenas
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The students at Manhattan’s LaGuardia High School, the high school that inspired the movie and TV show Fame, are hopping mad. They staged an hours-long sit-in to protest the role academics plays in their high school. The school’s principal is enforcing academic standards and wants more rigorous requirements, including more emphasis on Advanced Placement classes. The students argue this is not appropriate for a performing arts high school. “We’re not here to be the most perfect mathematicians,” Eryka Anabell, an 18-year-old senior, told the New York Times. “I’m here to discover myself as an artist.”

It is easy to dismiss the students as just wanting to get out of math class. But they do have a point and are making an increasingly common argument: High schools need to prepare students for more than college admissions. LaGuardia aims to teach their students a trade. As student debts mount, many politicians and scholars say we need more vocational education at the high school level that puts less emphasis on college curriculum and more on job skills.

At some point it makes sense for all students to identify a career track but the question is when. Compared to other countries, the LaGuardia students are already late to specialize. In Austria and Germany, for example,  students sometimes as young as 10 are tracked for certain careers. The American education system is exceptional for tracking late, where even at the university level students take some form of liberal arts and many don’t identify a major until their junior year.  It seems focusing early on certain skills would be more efficient and cheaper than encouraging students to explore until they find their bliss. But as the economy evolves and inequality becomes a bigger issue, there may be more of a case to track later, and perhaps even for requiring performing arts students to take AP math.

The arguments for tracking early

Tracking usually means one of two things. There is tracking students toward certain careers, like arts of vocational training, and there’s tracking based on ability, which means putting weaker students in remedial classes and stronger students in advanced classes. There are arguments that earlier tracking is more efficient because students get the education best suited for their abilities and career goals and don’t waste time on classes they don’t need. The earlier we specialize, the more time we have to fully dedicate ourselves to our craft. If you want to perform on Broadway, sitting in a statistics class will not make you a better dancer or singer.

Tracking also means students get the curriculum that best suits their ability. If the work is too hard, students ill-suited for advanced math might get discouraged, drop-out, and miss out on other, valuable classes. There is also evidence that tracking exceptional students by putting them in gifted-and-talented programs means they don’t waste time with material too easy for them. They need to be pushed and challenged to compete with other high-achieving students and studying in a more general class setting may hold them back. John McWhorter, a linguistics professor at Columbia, argues the lack of gifted and talented programs in New York City elementary and middle schools is one reason why few minority students are admitted to the city’s top high schools.

Efficiency vs. inequality

But there are risks to tracking too early, including reducing economic mobility and inequality. There is a wider disparity in test scores in countries that track their students earlier. One study looked at test scores in Finland after its school system raised the age it tracked students from 11 to 16. Changing the age didn’t impact the test scores of students with well-educated parents, but it did increase those of students from less educated households. We may like to think tracking meritocratically identifies the best and the brightest, but often it simply selects students from families with more resources. Students also change their mind—a dancer today may decide to be a data scientist later—and academic performance also can be malleable. Studies show putting non-gifted students in gifted classes increases their test scores.

The arguments for and against tracking have traditionally come down to tradeoffs between efficiency and inequality. There is compelling evidence tracking increases inequality but it is less clear that it is actually efficient. Another study compared international test scores and estimated that countries that track earlier do worse on average while early tracking doesn’t produce more high achievers.

The case for later tracking may be even stronger because the nature of skilled work is changing. Twenty years ago someone who aspired to be a contractor did not need to learn trigonometry. Now technology has become part of every job, which means STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) skills are more critical for everyone. Even if you hope to be a dancer, you still will have to manage your money and engage with technology. Odds are a career in the arts won’t pay off or will have a short shelf-life, so broader skills offer a good back-up plan. And artists aren’t the only ones who need insurance, with  people in all fields facing the risk their jobs will disappear because of automation. Careers that pay well and offer security in the future will also require more critical thinking and an ability to retrain, skills which are enhanced by studying both humanities and STEM fields earlier in life.

Clearly, age eight is too young to start specializing and 25 is too old, so the public policy challenge is finding the point in between. There are gains to giving students access to a better, broader education well into high school. But as the US debates bringing back more vocational schooling—which may be a cheaper way to educate students for the job market they face today—it must weigh the trade-offs that involve more inequality and less mobility.