California underfunds vocational ed


(photo credit: US NAVY)

California is underfunding career technical education at the college level, charges a new study.

“[CTE] is vital to the economic structure, especially in a state like California where there is so much space for jobs that don’t necessarily require an advanced degrees,” said public policy professor Nancy Shulock of California State University at Sacramento.

Five years after earning a vocational associate degree, the median worker earns  $66,600, according to the California EDGE Coalition. That compares to $38,500 for graduates with an academic associate degree.

California funds all programs using the same per-pupil formula, whether the college is providing a classroom to teach Psych 1 or a mechatronics lab to teach advanced manufacturing. That makes it hard to provide CTE.

“Career technical education has the highest earning potential and the highest completion rate hands down,” Van Ton-Quinlivan, vice chancellor of workforce and economic development for the state’s community colleges, told an Assembly subcommittee. Yet CTE’s percentage of community college funding keeps declining.  “You can’t train an emergency room technician without a simulated emergency room.”

Funding has been cut for career tech education at the high school level as well.

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.

Stop pretending college is for everyone

College isn’t for everyone, writes Mike Petrilli on Slate. So let’s stop pretending it is.

All students — regardless of their academic or “soft skills” — are told that college is the only path to a decent job, he writes. But low-skilled students are set up for “almost certain failure,” Petrilli argues. They need “high-quality career and technical education, ideally the kind that combines rigorous coursework with a real-world apprenticeship, and maybe even a paycheck.”

Poorly prepared students can go to an open-access college, but few succeed, he writes. Less than 10 percent of community college students who start in remedial courses will complete a two-year degree within three years, estimates Complete College America. Most will quit before taking a college-level course.

College access advocates look at those numbers and want to double down on reform, seeking to improve the quality of remedial education, or to skip it entirely, encouraging unprepared students to enroll directly in credit-bearing courses, or to offer heavy doses of student support. All are worth trying for students at the margins. But few people are willing to admit that perhaps college just isn’t a good bet for people with seventh-grade reading and math skills at the end of high school.

Unfortunately, our federal education policy encourages schools and students to ignore the long odds of college success. Federal Pell Grants, for instance, can be used for remedial education; institutions are more than happy to take the money, even if they are terrible at remediating students’ deficits, which is why I’ve proposed making remedial education ineligible for Pell financing. On the other hand, Pell can only be used for vocational education that takes place through an accredited college or university; job-based training, and most apprenticeships, do not qualify. That should change.

By pretending that low-skilled students “have a real shot at earning a college degree,” we mislead them, Petrilli argues. They’re less likely to pursue a path that might lead to success.

Petrilli’s argument represents the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” charges RiShawn Biddle on Dropout Nation. “Vocational ed tracks are a legacy of ability tracking and the comprehensive high school model, both of which emerged from the bigoted assumption that poor and minority kids (especially those from immigrant households) were incapable of mastering academic subjects.” 

“College-preparatory learning is critical for success in both white- and blue-collar professions,” he argues. Young people who are not “college material” won’t be “blue-collar material” either.

High-paying blue-collar jobs require high levels of reading, math and science literacy, Biddle writes. All require postsecondary training, often at a community college.

Welders, for example, need strong trigonometry and geography skills in order to properly fabricate and assemble products. . . . Machine tool-and-die work involves understanding computer programming languages such as C . . . Even elevator installers-repairmen, along with electrical and electronics installers, need strong science skills in order because their work combines electrical, structural and mechanical engineering.

I agree with Petrilli that young people get very bad advice. By ninth grade, they should be told the odds — based on high school grades — of completing a bachelor’s degree, vocational associate degree or a vocational certificate. They should know that a dental hygienist or a welder may earn more than a four-year graduate in sociology, theater arts or just-about anything studies.

They need to know early, so they have time to develop the reading, writing and — especially — math skills they’ll need to pursue a technical or academic education.

Students who master middle-school math can study statistics, data analysis, applied geometry and/or mathematical modeling to prepare for a range of careers, concludes What Does It Really Mean to Be College and Work Ready? by the National Center on Education and The Economy. “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.”

Career-tech dual enrollment shows promise

Dual enrollment courses with a career tech focus are drawing more students, according to an Education Commission for the States report. The trend should help states meet college completion and workforce goals, the report said.

Studies show CTE dual enrollment students are more likely to graduate high school, enroll in a four-year college or university full-time and persist in higher education. Researchers in one study noted, “In many cases, male and low-income students benefitted more from dual enrollment participation than their more advantaged peers.”

Among policy recommendations are exempting parents from fees for dual enrollment courses and ensuring credits will transfer. In addition:

Course content and instructor credentials must mirror those of traditional postsecondary instructors. Texas requires CTE dual enrollment courses to be college-level technical education courses listed in the state’s Workforce Education Course Manual.

Courses should incorporate industry curriculum and standards, and lead to certification. 

More than 80 percent of high schools now offer dual enrollment courses. About half include college-level career tech courses. 

Closing the skills gap

With nearly 11 million Americans out of work — and 4 million unfilled jobs —  closing the skills gap is a priority write Jamie Dimon, president of JPMorgan Chase, and Marlene Seltzer, who runs Jobs for the Future, in Politico.

“Middle-skill” workers such as machinists, technicians and health care workers are in demand, they write. These jobs require job training and sometimes an associate degree, but not a bachelor’s degree.

Dimon’s company has launched New Skills at Work, which will analyze skills gaps in major U.S. cities — and in Europe. “These gap reports will then inform the allocation of $250 million in grants over five years to support non-profits like Jobs for the Future that have a track record of designing successful skill-development programs.”

Career tech education is gaining momentum in high schools, reports Ed Week‘s CollegeBound.

The new Mississippi Scholars Tech Master program will recognize high school seniors who pass a career-certification test, maintain a 2.5 grade point average, score 18 of higher on the ACT, and complete 40 hours of community service. An existing program honors college-prep students.

Oregon will spend more on vocational programs in middle and high schools. The emphasis is on developing skills in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields.

West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has proposed increased support for career and technical schools to train more STEM-skilled workers.

Carnevale: We need practical pathways

Students need a choice of practical pathways, including career tech says Georgetown economist Anthony Carnevale in a New York Times interview.

Carnevale, who runs the Center on Education and the Workforce, worries the new Common Core standards will set the single-curriculum pathway in stone, despite lip service to applied learning.

In theory, the Common Core says, we just want you to be able to do a certain set of things, we don’t care how you learn it. But when I look at the assessments, basically it looks like very academic kinds of learning goals to me.

Today’s career tech isn’t a rehash of the old voc ed, which was “drummed out of the curriculum because it put all the females in home ec, and all the boys in the construction trades,” he says. Career and tech education can be integrated with high educational standards, but it “requires a different kind of teacher, a different kind of curriculum, different equipment” and funding.

C.T.E. is still the red-headed, illegitimate child at the family reunion in many ways. The path from high school to Harvard is still the one we all honor more, and that is a very academic pathway.

. . . it’s not practical to send everybody to Harvard. It is practical to send everybody to college. . . . (C.T.E.) . . . can produce higher high school graduation rates for less advantaged kids, higher math scores, more going to college.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan is now backing career tech, says Carnevale. President Obama has been talking up certificates and two-year degrees for years.

The retirement of the baby boom generation will create 32 million job openings, predicts Carnevale. Economic recovery should produce 20 million new jobs. “That’s a huge opportunity, and now’s the time when the country needs to step up and meet it.”

A future for all: Build paths to skilled jobs

While President Obama focuses on sending more young people to college, “apprenticeships and other pathways to rewarding careers are more cost-effective for millions of young people,” argue Robert Lerman, an American University economics professor, and Nicholas Wyman, founder of The Institute for Workplace Skills and Innovation, on PBS NewsHour.

Photo by Ulrich Baumgarten via Getty Images.
Two out of every five young adults are unemployed, yet employers can’t find “machinists, computer numerical controllers, electricians, welders, healthcare technicians” and other workers with “middle skills,” Lerman and Wyman write. The idea that everyone should pursue a bachelor’s degree has created a skills gap.

They see encouraging signs:

In New York City, for example, ‘P-Tech’ school, a collaboration involving IBM, the City’s Education Department and CUNY, is providing a STEM oriented, grades 9-to-14 curriculum with work-based learning that leads to a high school diploma and an associates degree. P-Tech’s aim is to turn out graduates with the skills they need to step directly into solid, good paying technical jobs–or to go on the higher learning with great confidence of success.

South Carolina is strengthening career tech, developing first-rate technical colleges and boosting apprenticeships.

In Pickens County, which is part of Appalachia, the closure of cotton mills and textile plants has depressed incomes and expectations.

Yet the county’s K-12 school system is confidently preparing young people for decent careers. It begins in grammar school where children receive hands-on experience with STEM concepts and problem solving. It continues at the district’s state-of-the-art Career & Technical Center, where vocationally-oriented high school students have access to industry-experienced teachers and to the machine tools, computers, robotic systems, and other equipment they will encounter in the most modern workplaces. School leaders and teachers have also overturned the long-standing perception of parents and students that the Career & Tech Center is for low-achievers. Entry to the Center’s ‘Technician Scholar’ program is by application only; kids with low GPAs and bad attitudes need not apply. It’s now cool to be a “Scholar Technician.”

Local employers collaborate with superintendents, sending their managers and technicians to work with teachers and mentor promising students.

Apprenticeship Carolina, a state program, helps employers start apprenticeships programs and coordinates with local technical colleges. Since its 2007 start, apprenticeships have increased six-fold in the state.

Students with different goals need different skills, Lerman argues. “High schools fail so many kids partly because educators can’t get free of the notion that all students — regardless of their career aspirations — need the same basic preparation. As states pile on academic courses, they give less attention to the arts and downplay career and technical education to make way for a double portion of math.”

College for who?

“Millions of young people will never attend four-year colleges,” writes Sarah Carr in the Wilson Quarterly. “America must do more to equip them to secure good jobs and live fulfilling lives.”

“College for all” is seen as the solution to poverty, writes Carr. President Barack Obama asked every American to pledge to attend at least one year of college.

In New Orleans, the city of Carr’s book, Hope Against Hope, reformers created college-prep charter schools.

At schools that have embraced the college-for-all aspiration, career and technical education is seen as being as outdated as chalkboards and cursive handwriting. Instead, the (mostly poor and mostly minority) students are endlessly drilled and prepped in the core humanities and sciences—lessons their (mostly middle- or upper-income and mostly white) teachers hope will enable the teenagers to rack up high scores on the ACT, SAT, and Advanced Placement exams and go on to attend the four-year college of their dreams (although it’s not always clear whose dreams we’re talking about).

Idealism should be tempered with pragmatism, Carr writes. Only one-third of low-income college students earn bachelor’s degrees by their mid-20s. Drop-outs may be thousands of dollars in debt.

A 2011 Harvard report, Pathways to Prosperity, described strong demand for “middle-skill” workers with vocational certificates or associate degrees. For example, electricians average $53,030, dental hygienists  $70,700 and construction managers $90,960, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“College for all” isn’t a smart state or national education policy, but can make sense as the mission of a single school, responds Michael Goldstein, founder of MATCH, a high-performing charter school in Boston.

In Boston, many traditional high schools describe themselves as college prep, but they’re sort of half-hearted about it. Few alums actually graduate from college. College rah-rah is absent. But so is career rah-rah. There is no rah-rah. I’m not sure how Carr thinks about such schools.

College is the dream of low-income black and Hispanic parents, Goldstein writes. When a large, open-admissions high school in Boston surveyed parents — mostly black or Hispanic single mothers without a degree — more than 80 percent wanted their son or daughter to go on to college.

I’m not sure I agree that educators in urban college prep charters, see career and technical education as “outdated.”

. . . I think more typically — there’s a perception that the vo-tech offerings themselves are terrible, with really bad track record of actually connecting kids to the right jobs, the air-conditioning repair jobs that Carr writes about.

Boston’s vo-tech high school is considered by far the worst public school in the city.

MATCH has considered launching a vocational charter school, then measuring how graduates do in the job market, he writes.

To keep students from running up college debt, MATCH is helping graduates enroll in community college with an explicit transfer path after two years: “Kids say: ‘I’m going to Bunker Hill College to study X, then I’ll transfer as a junior to U-Mass’.”

Community colleges have low graduation rates, Goldstein acknowledges. He fears a “peer effect” that “normalizes dropping out.”

21st century vo-tech

The New Vo-Tech is helping students prepare for skilled careers — and for college, writes Del Stover for American School.

 Not long ago, a manufacturer asked for assistance from the Pickens County Career and Technology Center (South Carolina). A factory robot needed to be retooled for a new product, and the company’s technicians were too busy to do the work. Could the high school’s students take on the project?

. .. Soon, students were installing a new welding arm and reprogramming the robot, even though the company didn’t have a technician’s manual to help with the work.

“After we finished that, the company said they were going to put the robot on line at the plant, and they’d need maintenance,” (Principal Leonard) Williams says. “So they hired one of our kids for an apprenticeship … and hired another kid from our electronics program.”

Vo-tech — often called career and technical education (CTE) — works best when schools work closely with local employers.

In Pickens County, 1,100 students “study everything from auto repair and high-tech welding to pre-engineering and medical sciences.” Some work in school workshops or apprentice at local companies. Others earn college credits at a local technical school or work toward vocational certifications.

 High school senior Toby Wofford took part in an apprenticeship program with a local manufacturer and has decided to stay on with the company after graduation. He is working part-time while seeking an associate’s degree at the firm’s expense.

Meanwhile, senior Conner Smith, who originally studied mechanical and architectural drafting at the technical center, says his experience sparked an interest in engineering that he’ll pursue in college.

In Europe, vocational education isn’t seen as a dead end, says Nancy Hoffman, author of Schooling in the Workplace. Vocational students can go on to technical colleges and universities. In the U.S., vocational education is seen as less rigorous, fit for low-performing students who aren’t going to college. There’s a stigma, says Hoffman.

“CTE prepares young people for high-demand jobs — in career areas where there are significant opportunities for middle-class wages. These jobs may require skills that may be slightly different  than what’s offered in traditional academics, but there are rigorous levels of math and writing required. This is not a dumbed-down version of high school.”

Career-tech courses don’t hurt — or help — math achievement, concludes a new study. Federal legislation has attempted to integrate career and academic courses to prepare more students for STEM careers and college majors.

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.