States need a second tier track to graduation but it doesn't have to be vocational. Employers are looking for three things, from a high school grad. Did you keep a schedule, follow instructions, and complete tasks? Less than half of our high school grads today go on to college. More should go, but less should feel forced to pretend they are going, especially since we're only pretending they're capable.
An "Associate's Diploma" for two years worth of credits would provide what employers want and minimize dropouts while allowing the tougher standards for "Standard Diplomas" to finally grow serious academic teeth. The two year program could be flexible on credits allowed, because any student who legitimately earns 12-14 credits has learned enough behavior wise to get paid better than a dropout. The four year program could become more popular in the meantime because smart kids want worthy challenges, in the absence of which they too often decline.
With a two year option, early graduates could go on to selected vocational colleges or return to finish a standard diploma, up to age 21. Early dropouts could come back with much better chances of passing a shorter curriculum. Eventually, district budgets might shrink enough to offer two year graduates free vouchers for technical colleges. Finally, comprehensive and practical courses in real life Mathematics and Reading/Research skills could be offered to some two year students. At that point, we could begin the return to a more traditional, less watered down version of "college prep curriculum". Abstract Mathematics and higher Literature have remained the true arbiters of college acceptance and readiness anyway.
We need to continue the liberal program of maximizing opportunity for all, but also invest in the future by lifting up those who achieve more. Somebody tell Duncan and Obama to give me a call if they want to hear more about this new idea - the Two Year Associate's Diploma.