Shining a Light on Inequitable Access to Quality Pathways

In 2019, Education Strategy Group completed robust assessments of the career preparation systems within both Baltimore City Schools and Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) with a strong focus on analyzing the quality of their career pathway offerings. Recognizing that a shifting labor market means that all students need some amount of postsecondary education or training to achieve economic success, both school systems were admirably committed to ensuring that students had access to a variety of high-quality pathways that set them on the road to postsecondary opportunities and, ultimately, to good jobs. The results of ESG’s analyses were illuminating, and at times, alarming — particularly in terms of equitable access and outcomes.  

In Baltimore, ESG found that the most rigorous programs in career clusters aligned to Baltimore’s six priority industries were located in City Schools’ highest-performing and often more affluent schools. Many of those schools had general admissions requirements that acted as a barrier to participation for students who may have been interested in the career program, but whose academic history disqualified them from school admission. At the same time, career clusters that were frequently connected to lower-level job opportunities outside of those priority industries were concentrated in higher poverty schools with lower academic achievement. 

District leadership were alarmed by the findings, describing the existing structure as “a caste system of education” and calling for immediate action to better serve all of the city’s students. ESG offered a number of concrete recommendations—including placing a program specializing in each of the six priority industries in at least one open-enrollment high school in both the city’s east and west sides, providing more guidance counselors to advise students, and establishing a deeper partnership with the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development—to help close gaps in access for students at schools that served lower-income families. 

Since the issuing of ESG’s findings, one particularly important and difficult step that Baltimore has boldly taken to address the identified equity barriers is the removal of its high school admissions requirements. ESG’s research found that the admissions criteria associated with the city’s previous full choice high school model kept lower-achieving students out of the high schools that offered the highest-quality career programs. Baltimore has also hired a new Career Technical Education (CTE) director who is engaged in collaborative efforts (such as the regional IT Pathways Initiative funded by JPMorgan Chase & Co.) with peer districts and with local higher education institutions to further build high-quality, equitable career pathways for students that start in high school and continue into and through postsecondary education. 

In Montgomery County, ESG’s assessment found that the college readiness level of CTE students who completed career pathways was significantly below that of other students. In addition to developing a number of specific recommendations around career readiness vision and prioritization, employer engagement, and improving the quality and rigor of CTE programming, ESG zeroed in on a particular institution within the district—The Edison School of Technology—that presented a number of opportunities to better prepare students for their futures. At the time of ESG’s research, Edison was a part-time technical center dedicated to preparing students for specific career opportunities beyond high school. However, the school was consistently under-enrolled and viewed as a “less-than” opportunity by the low number of families who were even aware of it as an option. 

ESG recommended that MCPS reconsider the entire Edison model, particularly given the opportunity for reinvention presented by a newly-constructed state-of-the-art Edison facility, which shared a campus with the high-performing Wheaton High School. As of the summer of 2020, MCPS decided to move forward with ESG’s recommendation to combine Edison and Wheaton into a single campus comprehensive program. The new model unifies the leadership of the two schools and will offer students the opportunity to pursue new demand-driven career pathways that provide a comprehensive, four-year experience by taking coursework at both Edison and Wheaton.