Connected to the future

Senior Gerardo Lopez talks to Education Secretary Arne Duncan at San Francisco's Burton High School.

Senior Gerardo Lopez talks to Education Secretary Arne Duncan at San Francisco’s Burton High School.

Most students like Gerardo Lopez — Latinos and blacks from low-income and working-class families — enroll in community college, take a few remedial courses and drop out. They’ve been told they should go to college, but nobody’s told them what level of academic skills are necessary to pass college-level courses.

Many think any major will qualify them for a good job. They don’t know how the system works.

“Gerardo Lopez is preparing to turn his dreams into reality,” I write on Open Standard.

“Hands-on” learning opportunities drew Lopez, a Honduran immigrant, to the engineering academy at Phillip and Sala Burton Academic High School in San Francisco. “As a kid, I loved to make little cars, bringing parts together to make something come alive,” he says.

But he didn’t know engineering was a possible career. His father is a hotel janitor; his mother is a housewife.

Now a senior, he spends two days a week as an “extern” at an architectural firm. Lopez hopes to major in mechanical engineering – or perhaps architecture – at a University of California campus or Stanford. If he hadn’t signed up for the engineering academy, “I wouldn’t have known what I wanted to do with my life,” he said.

Burton offers “career academies” in engineering, health sciences and information technology, all high-demand fields. Students take college-prep and career-prep courses together, visit workplaces, do job shadows and compete for summer internships.

“Employers say they can’t find the skilled workers they need,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan told business and education leaders at Burton High last week. But CEOs aren’t talking to superintendents. “There’s a total disconnect.

Thirty-five percent of Burton High graduates enroll in four-year universities, said Principal Bill Kappenhagen. Another 43 percent go to community college and 22 percent go straight to the workforce.  The six-year graduation rate is high – 90 percent – for the four-year students, he said. But only 10 percent of those who go to City College of San Francisco graduate in six years.

What’s going wrong for the community college contingent? Some get bogged down in remedial courses or overwhelmed by work and job responsibilities. I’d guess many more would succeed if they aimed for a technical certificate or two-year vocational degree rather than taking general education courses.

“We’ve done a poor job of informing young people and their parents about the great jobs out there,” said Duncan. “It doesn’t have to be a college degree. There are six- or eight-week training programs that lead to great opportunities.”

Success paths for all

How can high schools ensure graduates are college- and career-ready, asks an Education Next forum.

Students need multiple pathways, writes Robert Schwartz, a Harvard professor emeritus who coleads the Pathways to Prosperity Network. “We have allowed a very important idea—that all students need a solid foundation of core academic knowledge and skills—to morph into a not-so-good idea: that all students need to be prepared to attend a four-year college,” he writes.

If we follow a cohort of 8th graders, roughly 2 in 10 will drop out before high school graduation, and another 3 will graduate high school but choose not to enroll in postsecondary education. Of those who do go on and enroll in four-year institutions, nearly 4 in 10 will drop out before attaining a degree. Of those who enroll in community colleges, roughly 7 in 10 will drop out. The bottom line: by age 25, only 33 percent of the cohort will have attained a four-year degree, and another 10 percent will have earned a two-year degree.

Many good jobs require some education beyond high school but not a four-year degree, Schwartz writes. He likes the northern European model: “All students pursue a common curriculum up through grade 9 or 10, and then choose between an academics-only pathway leading to university and a more applied-learning pathway leading to a vocational qualification.”

Instead of letting students choose their path, we “force march all students” through a math sequence leading to calculus, a goal few will achieve and even fewer will need, he writes.

Yet most community college students and many university students aren’t prepared for college algebra. “In my view, the vast majority of students in two- and four-year institutions would be much better served by getting a solid grounding in data, statistics, and probability in high school,” he writes.

Common foundational skills are essential, writes Cynthia G. Brown, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. All students should take a college-prep curriculum, but high school students could choose “curricular options that fit their interests, skills, and plans for the future.”

Obama touts job training, but where’s the money?

President Obama’s “rhetorical support for vocational training” hasn’t been matched with money, writes Avi Yashchin, CEO of CleanEdison, a vocational education company. In 2012 the federal government spent more than $166 billion on aid and $14 billion on tax benefits, but only $1 billion on vocational education.

Rejuvenating vocational education and skill-specific certificate programs would do more for students than subsidizing bachelor’s degrees, Yashchin writes. But vocational education still has a stigma.

There is a perceived distinction between preparing students to be career-ready, with employable skills, and preparing them to be global, well-rounded citizens, with critical thinking skills — but the two are not actually mutually exclusive. We must convey to both rising students and displaced workers that, to the contrary, many vocational training programs lead to sophisticated work, rather than dirty, mind-numbing labor, as was the case 30 years ago. Today’s technical jobs require not only hands-on skills, but also the ability to troubleshoot, adapt, innovate, synthesize data, and communicate effectively.

The career-apprenticeship model lets students divide their time between the classroom and the workforce. They learn theoretical and practical skills.

Studies have shown that high school students who graduate from these programs earn, on average, 11 percent more than their counterparts who end up in the same field.

Apprenticeships work with industry-recognized certification to make young people highly employable.

Government must provide funding to allow schools to purchase state-of-the art equipment, writes Yashchin. Businesses must hire and train apprentices. “And finally, parents and society at large must recognize that the jobs that vocational education lead to today are both well-paying and rewarding.”

New goal: ‘Community college ready’

(Academic) college isn’t for everyone, wrote Fordham’s Mike Petrilli in Slate. Some students who are failing in college might succeed if they pursued job training, he argued.

It sparked a huge response. Many argued that students need college prep and career prep.

Others accused Petrilli of “the soft bigotry of low expectations” for low-income and minority students.

“Community college ready” should be the minimum goal for all cognitively able students, responded Sandy Kress, an aide to George W. Bush. That means high school graduates should be prepared to take academic or vocational classes at a community college without the need for remediation.

Kress “prays” that “CTE advocates make these courses as rigorous and valued as they promise they will, and not just a dodge for them to avoid teaching and learning in the so-called old fashioned courses.” In the past, dead-end vocational education has been a “trap” for low-income and minority kids, writes Kress.

Preparing Today’s Students for Tomorrow’s Jobs in Metropolitan America, edited by Penn Professor Laura Perna, looks at the gap between school and the workforce.

Check out “Nancy Hoffman’s excellent chapter on career and technical education,” advises Liz McInerny on Education Gadfly. Education and training for a specific calling  would keep students in school and on track for decent jobs, Hoffman writes.

CCs launch Workforce Credentials Coalition

The Workforce Credentials Coalition, led by the California and North Carolina community college systems, held its first meeting this week at the New America Foundation. More than 20 states and industry and professional certifying bodies will share job-readiness data.

Colleges need to track credential attainment data, says R. Scott Ralls, North Carolina Community College System president. The coalition hopes to “move toward a secure, accessible national credential data warehouse.”

Currently, students don’t know if a community college program will help them pass a certifying exam and community colleges don’t know if they’re preparing students to meet industry requirements.  “We are hoping with this coalition to tell the story on how validated credentials are beneficial to our students entering the workforce,” says Renah Wolzinger, who works for the California community college system.

California also is rolling out LaunchBoard, which tracks student outcomes and job skills development.

A case study about the credentials coalition is in included in a new Workforce Data Quality Campaign report, Credential Data Pioneers.

Six years of high school (with job training)?

President Obama’s visit to Brooklyn’s P-Tech spotlighted the idea of combining high school, community college and job training, reports the New York Times. After six years at P-Tech, graduates are “first in line” for jobs at IBM, which helped create the school. Some have earned an associate degree.

Is P-Tech the wave of the future? asks the Times‘ Room for Debate blog.

P-Tech ties school directly to an interesting job, writes Amanda Ripley, author of The Smartest Kids in the World.

Very few U.S. students attend “high-quality vocational programs tightly aligned with industry needs,” she writes.

In Switzerland, Norway and Denmark, vocational students spend half to three-quarters of their schooling in work placements.

That kind of vivid experience helps kids see into the future; they can connect the dots between what they are doing in school and how interesting their lives can be.

.  . America abandoned vocational high schools for good reason, decades ago: too many were second-rate warehouses for minority and low-income kids. But now that all decent jobs require higher-order skills, there’s an opportunity to get this right. American employers want higher-order skills, and American teenagers want more interesting work. The sooner they get together, the better.

Aiming at a moving target like the job market is dangerously short-sighted,” warns Zachary Hamed, a computer science student at Harvard.

IBM’s Stan Litow calls for P-Tech-like options for students on the Shanker Blog.

“Young people who enter the workforce with only a high school diploma are expected to earn no more than $15 per hour, and many will earn less,” he writes. Yet only 25 percent of high school graduates who enroll in community college complete a degree in six years.

IBM analyzed a community college freshman class. “Nearly 100 percent of community college freshmen who required two remedial courses—with one of them being math—failed to complete even one postsecondary semester,” Litow writes. A majority of these students dropped out of college within two months.

Employers: Grads aren’t prepared for work

Most employers say college graduates aren’t prepared for work, reports Bridge That Gap: Analyzing the Student Skill Index, a Chegg survey.  Half of college students said they felt very or completely prepared for work in their field of study. Thirty-nine percent of employers said recent graduates they’d interviewed were well-prepared.

Students overvalue their mastery of “business basics,” according to employers, notes Inside Higher Ed.

Those include “creating a budget or financial goal” and “writing to communicate ideas or explain information clearly” (each show a 22 percentage-point gap), and “organization” (25 percentage points). In the widest gap, at 27 percentage points, 77 percent of students but only half of hiring managers reported preparation for “prioritizing work.”

Students fared the best at “making a decision without having all the facts.” About 47 percent of students said they were prepared to do that, and 37 percent of hiring managers said the same of recent graduates.

More than 90 percent of hiring managers are looking for graduates who’ve shown initiative and leadership. They also look for extracurriculars, internships and work related to applicants’ field of study. Only a third of college graduates have spent time gaining experience in their field.

Chegg also looked at “Office Street Smarts” by asking five questions:

1. Can graduates make a persuasive argument to convince others to adopt their ideas?
2. Can they write to encourage action or make a specific request?
3. Were they able to communicate with authority figures and clients?
4. Can they collaborate with people from diverse backgrounds?
5. Can they complete a project as part of a team?

Again, students “have an over-inflated sense” of their communications and collaboration skills.

STEM graduates were “slightly better prepared” to explain information and solve problems through experimentation, employers said.

After 12th grade, it’s back to middle school

Community college means a return to middle school for many students, writes Kenneth Terrell in The Atlantic, citing a recent National Center on Education and the Economy report on college and career readiness. “A large fraction of students are leaving the 12th grade with a high-school diploma, and they’re about to begin a course of studies at the 8th grade level,” said Marc Tucker, president of the NCEE.

NCEE randomly selected one community college in each of seven states, then examined eight of the most popular programs–accounting, automotive technology, biotech/electrical technology, business, criminal justice, early childhood education, information technology/computer programming, nursing, and the general education track. NCEE researchers examined the programs’ textbooks, assignments and exams to see what math and English skills truly were necessary to succeed.

While the researchers found that “the reading and writing currently required of students in initial credit-bearing courses in community colleges is not very complex or cognitively demanding,” the report’s math findings are even more striking. The report also states that middle school math–“arithmetic, ratio, proportion, expressions and simple equations”–were more central to the community college math courses than the Algebra II most high schools emphasize in college readiness programs. “What really is needed in our community colleges–and really for the majority of Americans in the work that they do–is middle school math,” Tucker said.

Raising admission standards would exclude most would-be community college students. And for what purpose?  Only a few “will ever need to use advanced math skills in college or the workplace,” according to NCEE, which equates requiring advanced algebra to requiring Latin. “It looks like we’re denying high school graduates the opportunity to take credit-bearing courses because they can’t master math that they don’t need, and that seems very unfair,” Tucker said.

North Carolina OKs readiness diplomas

In a few years, high school graduates in North Carolina will earn diplomas showing their readiness for university, community college or careers, reports the Raleigh News & Observer. Each seal requires a minimum 2.6 grade point average, basically a C+.

To earn the community college readiness seal, graduates must have completed Algebra II or integrated math III.

In February, the community college board decided graduates with a minimum 2.6 GPA can skip placement tests and start in college-level courses. The system’s research showed that 20 percent of students placed in remedial courses could have succeeded at the college level. High school grades are the best predictor of college success, the study concluded.

To earn the career readiness seal, students must

take four career/technical courses, score well on ACT’s WorkKeys exam, or have an industry-recognized credential, such a car repair certificate, Microsoft suite certification, or SAS programmer credentials.

NCEE: Rethink readiness

What Does It Really Mean to Be College and Work Ready? Community colleges expect little of first-year students — and get even less, concludes the National Center on Education and The Economy.

The report paints a grim picture.

High school graduates have trouble reading textbooks written at the 11th- to 12th-grade level, so instructors provide study aids to help poor readers get by. Students do little writing. When they do write, “instructors tend to have very low expectations for grammatical accuracy, appropriate diction, clarity of expression, reasoning and the ability to present a logical argument or offer evidence in support of claims.”

Despite taking high school algebra, geometry and often advanced algebra, most students are placed in remedial math. They’re not prepared for “college math,” which amounts to “Algebra 1.25,” basic algebra with a bit of geometry and statistics. Yet what students most need to succeed in college courses is mastery of “middle school mathematics, especially arithmetic, ratio, proportion, expressions and simple equations.”

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Community colleges enroll 45 percent of U.S college students: About half hope to earn a bachelor’s degree, while the rest are pursuing a vocational credential, NCEE estimates.

It’s not enough for community colleges to raise expectations, the report concludes.

We need to bear in mind that a very large fraction of high school graduates does not meet the very low expectations that community colleges currently have of them. The nation may have to learn to walk before it runs, which means that it is important, first, to enable our high school students to meet the current very low standards before we ratchet those standards up.

Common Core Standards, if implemented well, will help, eventually, the report concludes. But there’s a long way to go.

Researchers analyzed textbooks, tests, assignments, student work and grading at seven community colleges in different states. The study focused on general education and popular career programs: Accounting, Automotive Technology, Biotech/Electrical Technology, Business, Criminal Justice, Early Childhood Education, Information Technology/Computer Programming 1 and Nursing.

Only one program at one college required mastery of advanced algebra, the study found.

Increasingly, high schools are requiring students to take Algebra I, Geometry and Algebra II, with hopes they’ll make it to Calculus. That should be only one option, the report recommends.

Mastery of Algebra II is widely thought to be a prerequisite for success in college and careers. Our research shows that that is not so. . . . fewer than five percent of American workers and an even smaller percentage of community college students will ever need to master the (algebra to calculus) sequence in their college or in the workplace.

Students shouldn’t take algebra till they really understand middle-school math, the report advises.  If they wait till 10th grade, that’s OK. They can study statistics, data analysis, applied geometry and/or mathematical modeling to prepare for a range of careers.

States should “build alternative math pathways through the last two years of high school that are aligned with student interests and career plans,” says Harvard Education Professor Robert Schwartz. “If the Report’s assertion is correct —that only 5 percent of jobs require the mathematics embodied in the calculus pathway —then our education system should focus more on the mathematics that most young people will actually use in their civic and work life, e.g. statistics, data, probability.”

However, the path to 12th-grade calculus usually starts with eighth-grade algebra. At 12 or 13, students would have to decide whether they’re aiming for a university degree in engineering or science. Imagine a STEM-prep track for 5 percent of students — or even 20 percent — with everyone else preparing for a low-tech university degree or a community college job training program. The future engineers and physicists are likely to predominantly Asian-American, white, middle class and male.

An all-day conference on the report will be livestreamed today starting at 9 am EDT.