McDonald’s or IBM

In North Carolina, eighth graders are forced to make decisions that will impact the rest of their lives

By Damien Jackson

Illustrator: Jean-Claude Lejeune

-photo: Jean-Claude Lejeune

For most students, eighth grade is an awkward and uncertain time when hormones and peer pressure collide. But new policies in North Carolina are forcing eighth graders to make decisions that will shape the rest of their lives.

The state recently implemented strict graduation requirements for its public high schools, and along with those requirements, is asking students to choose one of four “pathways” – as some are loosely referring to them. (Though the term “pathways” is a misnomer – it actually refers to specific career options within two of the four courses of study – the label is commonly being attached to all four.) The courses they take in high school will prepare them either to attend a fouryear college or university, a community or technical college, or directly enter the job market upon graduation. A fourth “occupational” pathway is reserved for students with disabilities. Once eighth graders select their pathways, they must fulfill their particular requirements to ultimately receive a high school diploma. A parent’s signature is required on the selection form.

While North Carolina represents the cutting and often brutal edge of education reform, the nation is not far behind. Over the past five years, a substantial and growing number of states have increased credit requirements for high school graduation while further segmenting curricular offerings. Along with the phased institution of exit exams and other secondary assessments by a majority of states, many – like South Carolina and Georgia – have dropped their general tracks in favor of a differentiated approach where students pursue a university, college tech, or career prep course of study.

“It’s going to have a big impact on our kids,” says Loretha Peacock, a guidance counselor at Mary Phillips High School in Raleigh, N.C. Guidance counselors are primarily responsible for informing parents, students, and other administrators of ongoing changes to the state’s high school graduation policy. Eighth grade, adds Peacock, “is too young for students to make such decisions.”

Along with the early selection process, at issue for Peacock and a growing number of critics statewide is the restrictive nature of the new policy. Once a student chooses a pathway it is difficult to change and pursue another. If a student fails to meet the requirements of one, he or she cannot easily enter another pathway since it contains substantial requirements of its own. Though the three non-occupational courses of study contain similar requirements in English, science, and social studies, the college tech and career prep courses of study include four credits in a career/technical field that the university prep pathway does not.

Also at issue are the hurdles placed in front of kids with aspirations to attend a four-year college. The college/university prep pathway contains requirements largely consistent with admission to a four-year institution in the University of North Carolina system, including four math courses; students take Algebra I and II, then Geometry and a higher-level math. Peacock acknowledges that students not placed in Algebra I in their freshman year will have a hard time getting into a four-year institution since they’ll have to complete four math courses in a three-year period. This presents an even greater challenge at Phillips, which, as an alternative school, specializes in teaching kids with familial or emotional problems who didn’t perform well at their original schools.

“It’s going to mess up a lot of kids,” says Kathy Zappia, a social worker assigned to Phillips. Zappia predicts there’ll be more kids in summer school and “more children not graduating in four years. It’s almost like a five-year plan.”

Some don’t see it that way.

“We need to look at this with open minds,” says Dr. June Atkinson, director of instructional services for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (DPI). Atkinson played a large role in developing the state’s new requirements. Guidance counselors, she says, “should make sure students take the most rigorous math courses they can. Then they should say, ‘let’s look at another course of study as a backup'”. In other words, continues Atkinson, “let’s plan your courses of study so that you do have options.”

Zappia feels those options are limited. “We certainly have kids that are four-year college material,” she says, noting that one of Phillips’ seniors has a decent shot at getting into the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). However, she explains that the school’s students – given their unsuccessful stints at their original schools – are usually behind in credits when they arrive, making it even less likely they’ll attend a four-year college.

Peacock insists the effects of such a restrictive policy will be felt not just at the predominantly African-American Phillips High, but across the state. “I hate to say it, but I think we’re going to have a lot more dropouts,” says Peacock, noting that minority populations will be hit particularly hard. In the 2000-2001 school year – even without the pathways – 35 percent of the dropouts were Black in a state where African Americans only make up 31 percent of the public school population.

“African-American and Latino kids are commonly tracked into lower level math classes,” says Daniella Cook, an education policy analyst for the Common Sense Foundation in Raleigh. The former teacher attributes this to often inferior school resources, less qualified teachers, language barriers, and systemic discrimination. Cook laments that the new policy “will lock out a whole generation of Black and Latino kids from four-year colleges.”

For Zappia, the impact of such rigid requirements on education in North Carolina and around the country is clear. “We are pigeonholing kids when we should be encouraging them to blossom.”


The pathways and similar policies in other states are the latest chapter in the national push for increased accountability in public education. Almost two decades ago, the current standardsbased reform movement was initiated when the Reagan Administration backed A Nation at Risk, a presidential commission report on American education. This heavily promoted document declared there to be a crisis in public education where “the educational foundations of our society are being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people.” Implicit in this document – and more explicit in the rhetoric that accompanied it – was the need for reform by business-minded experts who understood the demands presented by “a world of ever-accelerating competition and change in the conditions of the workplace.” The chosen remedy was a more corporate, results-driven approach to education using standardized testing and increasing curricular requirements to measure and spur students while holding teachers and schools accountable. The approach was sold to state leaders at national and regional education summits – commonly sponsored by corporate giants like IBM – over the next decade and a half.

North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt, a Democrat, has been a vocal proponent of these reforms, and in 1993 he appointed members to the North Carolina Education Standard and Accountability Commission. Largely composed of corporate leaders, this powerful commission would drive state educational policy for years to come.

In 1994, the state announced it was changing the competency requirements for high school graduates. No longer would the state rely on the traditional 10th grade competency test, a minimum performance measure in math, reading, and writing. Instead, end-of-grade test scores in math and reading for eighth graders were used to screen incoming high school freshmen. Those who had failed to score at a certain level were forced to take a formal competency test in high school.

Two years later, Hunt initiated the ABCs of Public Education, the current accountability system that measures and compares testing results for all K- 12 public schools. End-of-grade tests were instituted in grades three through eight while end-of-course tests were established at the high school level. Once implemented, these tests carried serious consequences regarding both a student’s and a school’s performance. For the student, failing such an exam became ample grounds for retention. In Durham, one of the pilot cities for the program in 1999, a district-high 663 students were held back after failing the test. Of those retained, 565 were Black. (Recently, due to public pressure, a law was passed forbidding the use of standardized test scores as the sole criterion for student retention in North Carolina.)

Students are not the only ones who suffer from North Carolina’s harsh standards. Schools where students don’t test well are publicly labeled “low-performing;” their teachers and administrators can be dismissed; or the state can take over the schools. Based on the most recent figures from the 2000-2001 school year, 26 schools that offer a high school curriculum were designated as “low-performing.” Fifteen of these schools were taken over by state assistance teams.

In the fall of 1999, the stakes were raised even higher. The State Board of Education – chaired by Phil Kirk, the leader of the state’s largest and most powerful business lobby, the North Carolina Citizens for Business and Industry – adopted new promotion standards for students at its August meeting. In addition to the introduction of the high school exit exam, the board established the pathways.

Given the growing controversy over high-stakes testing at the time, many critics of the state’s education reforms had their energies focused on attacking the institution of the exit exam rather than the adoption of the pathways. While the testing controversy is ongoing, the pathways arrived relatively unnoticed.

“We didn’t call it early enough,” says Cook, of the Common Sense Foundation. “Some of us watchdogs were engrossed with the more immediate concern of fighting testing.”


Some counselors are worried about whether students and parents actually understand the requirements.

“I have a lot of experience with graduation requirements and have been dealing with this for years,” says Katy Bradshaw, a guidance counselor for East Chapel Hill High School in Chapel Hill. “I still have to constantly refer back to the printed material.”

“I’m hoping that guidance counselors will steer kids toward college,” says Rukiya Dillahunt, an assistant principal at Phillips High. But she knows that “many won’t. Especially since it’s common for young kids to look for the easy way out.” Guidance counselors, continues Dillahunt, should be “boosting kids’ aspirations rather than encouraging them not to pursue college.”

Bradshaw agrees. “Fortunately, our students are in a school with a lot of resources,” she says, referring to the well-off and highly educated community that supplies East Chapel Hill High its students. “But what about the school districts without resources?” Given less information and teacher shortages – especially the small number of math and science teachers serving minority populations, Bradshaw wonders, “How are they going to meet these new requirements?”


“I cannot see how this will not be a disaster,” says Dr. Charles Payne, a professor of African-American Studies and History at Duke University who studies urban educational policy. “You’re asking kids in eighth grade to make a decision that’s going to greatly impact the remainder of their lives,” says Payne, one they “cannot possibly understand the consequences of.” He characterizes the pathways as “worse than tracking.” Tracking is the much-criticized process of lumping kids together according to perceived skill level in a way that largely predetermines academic outcomes. Given the rigid nature of the new requirements, Payne says it’s “going to be very difficult to move up from one pathway to another.”

“It’s putting kids in a place where they don’t need to be,” says educator and activist Antoinette Wilson. As an academic advisor at the University of North Carolina’s College of Arts and Sciences, Wilson sees students change their minds often. “The average undergraduate changes his or her major three to five times before graduating,” she says, noting “adults today change jobs that often.”

“It’s unfair to a lot of people, especially those students who initially don’t have high hopes for themselves,” agrees Dominic Scimeca, a 16-year-old junior at Durham’s Jordan High. By sophomore year, he says, his peers often realize they want to do more with their lives but “it’s too late to change your mind.” .

Some African Americans wonder if that’s the point.

“Are these measures being put in place to marginalize certain groups of people?” asks Dominic’s mom, Idola Scimeca. The Durham resident has attended a number of community meetings on the new requirements. “What does this mean for Black and brown children?” continues Scimeca. “It’s like they’re categorizing these kids by eighth grade and telling some ‘you’re going to work at IBM, and you’re going to work at McDonald’s.'”

“This program is creating more questions than answers,” says Cook. Because of local flexibility, she notes that additional concerns of inequity will arise as the program plays out differently for schools and systems. Some systems offer Algebra I.A and Algebra I.B over a two-year period – prior to offering Algebra II – to aid students who can do the math, but at a slower pace. However, students who spend three years in algebra (I.A, I.B and II) are left unable to meet the collegiate requirements (geometry and a higher math) in their remaining year. “If kids need help or learn at a slower pace in math,” says Cook, “that’s one thing. But that shouldn’t mean they should not have the same opportunity to go to a four-year college as others.”

Atkinson of the state DPI admits that the state “has got to do a better job at preparing kids in math at the middle grades so they’ll be prepared for Algebra I by the time they hit high school.” But she insists the new requirements have the potential to ensure that African-American and Latino students “don’t fall through the cracks.” Before, says Atkinson, these students could go unchallenged throughout their academic careers, barely interacting with a counselor or others about their studies and their future. With these rigorous new requirements, she says that counselors, teacher, and parents “have to play a part in a student’s academic and career decisions.”

But even if the students meet all of their course requirements, says Cook, they still have to pass the exit exam, computer exam, 11 end-of-course tests (subject-based, over a four-year period) and a competency test (for those who didn’t test well in middle school) to graduate. On top of that, the new state standards “represent the minimum requirements” for high school students. All students are also subject to any additional requirements put forth by their local school systems. This, adds Cook, doesn’t even include the additional pressure of such exams as the PSAT, the ACT, and the SAT.

“As an educator, you want to make sure that the emphasis is always placed on what’s best for the student,” says Wilson, who feels the pathways and such excessive measures of accountability fly in the face of what is commonly accepted as the role of an academic institution. And, she adds, “I don’t currently feel that is the interest of a lot of the decision-makers at the table.”

Damien Jackson ( is a 2002 Fellow of the George Washington Williams Fellowship for Journalists of Color, a program of the Independent Press Association. He lives in North Carolina.