By Del Stover
Not long ago, a manufacturer asked for assistance from the Pickens County Career and Technology Center. 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?
His kids were up to the task, Principal Leonard Williams said, and the next day, the robot was delivered on a pallet to a school’s workshops. 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,” Williams says. “So they hired one of our kids for an apprenticeship … and hired another kid from our electronics program.”
That’s a pretty impressive story for a small-town high school in northwestern South Carolina. Not many schools can boast students with such real-world technical skills, nor are there many industries willing to entrust expensive machinery to the care of students. But the vocational program in Pickens County is exceptional, with strong ties to local industry.
But what’s truly notable about this program is that it’s by no means unique. Across the nation, districts are working to reinvent vocational education and occupational training opportunities. Often operating under the banner of career and technical education (CTE), these programs are taking vo-tech into the 21st century, with an increasingly sophisticated and academically rigorous curriculum that’s rooted in providing students with real-world experiences and a serious exploration of career opportunities.
It’s a trend that signals a major shift in thinking from just a decade ago, when the national mantra in education was all about graduating students to be “college ready.” But with economists warning of a paucity of engineers and scientists — as well as shortages in skilled technicians and industrial craftsmen — recognition is growing that K-12 must put more emphasis on getting students “career ready” and coordinating closely with industry and postsecondary institutions that will complete students’ training for the workplace.
Nowhere better showcases this new educational thinking than Pickens County, where 1,100 students study everything from auto repair and high-tech welding to pre-engineering and medical sciences. Not only is the curriculum varied, but so, too, is the classroom experience. Some students engage in hands-on industrial training in well-equipped school workshops, while others serve in an apprenticeship program at a local industry. Still others are enrolled in dual-credit courses at a local technical school or involved in job certification programs.
For the county’s students, the opportunity to explore career options — with a real-world, hands-on focus — promises to take them down a variety of paths in the years ahead. 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. His time at the school, he adds, brought a much-needed perspective as he weighed his post-secondary options.
“The classes taught here are much different than in other high schools,” he says. “It’s much less specifically academic and much more about applying those academics. It’s the whole aspect of having group projects, interacting with one another … learning skills that we will definitely take on in the future. It’s just so much more engaging and fun than being in a normal high school.”
Such experiences — and outcomes — are exactly what students are supposed to get out of a CTE program, vo-tech proponents say. “Schools need to provide students with multiple pathways for success,” says Ashley Parker, media relations manager for the Association for Career and Technical Education. “Not every student is going to a four-year college, but they do need some preparation for post-secondary education or a career option. It’s really about offering students options.”
Dismiss old vo-tech notions
Right now, other nations do a much better job of helping students make the transition to the workforce and the post-secondary career training they’ll need to be successfully employed, says Nancy Hoffman, author of Schooling in the Workplace, an examination of vocational education systems in Europe and Australia. High school students in Switzerland, for example, have the option of participating in workplace apprenticeships. About 75 percent of students choose to mix school and work experiences for three years, starting at age 16. This gives students valuable work experience and industry contacts, and young people benefit from a strong system of career guidance and counseling during their school years.
In the best European systems, she says, there are no dead ends, and students who complete vocational upper secondary school can go on to technical colleges or universities. In the U.S., the goal certainly is not to push some students into a less-rigorous academic track that makes college an unlikely outcome. The old-time model of vocational education as the domain of academically low-performing students has no place in the 21st century, where technology demands auto repair technicians and workers in advanced manufacturing to master increasingly complex technical skills.
At South Dakota’s Lake Area Multi District, which is changing its name in July to Northeast Technical High School, students can learn a lot of useful workplace skills, but “we really encourage all students to give college or a two-year program a thought,” says Director Bert Falak. “You need to dismiss the notion of the old vocational programs where students are going to come and get ready for a job. That should not be the focus. It should be preparing them and interesting them in some educational opportunity they can pursue.”
There’s still something of a stigma attached to vocational programs, Hoffman says. “What your readers need to know is that 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.”
If anything, vocational and career-exploration programs should encompass as many students as possible, experts say. As noted in the 2011 report, “Pathways to Prosperity,” released by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, schools need to be preparing students for an economy where more jobs require workers with a postsecondary education.
All told, the report says, more than 30 million job openings over the next 10 years will require workers with some postsecondary training, and 14 million jobs will go to people with an associate’s degree or occupational certificate. More surprisingly, the report notes, “27 percent of people with post-secondary licenses or certificates — credentials short of an associate’s degree — [will] earn more than the average bachelor’s degree recipient.”
Helping students meet these educational prerequisites does not necessarily require school boards to launch expensive new initiatives or pour millions of dollars into converting their high schools into high-tech vocational centers. Nor does it mean pushing students out of the regular academic curriculum. In Pickens County, for example, students spend only part of the week at the technical school, while taking most of their traditional classes at one of the county’s four traditional high schools. In California’s Long Beach Unified School District, students can enroll in one of 15 “career-technical pathways” offered in the high schools. These programs, incorporated into the traditional curriculum, often focus on exploring STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) career options.
The STEM model, while perhaps not providing students as intensive an introduction to technical skills, still offers opportunities for students to learn more about career options. In Long Beach, the pathway model provides students with an overview of a career field, such as engineering or health services, but also offers a number of more technical courses, such as graphic design or auto collision repair, so students can begin to understand the skills demanded in those fields. The district also has created opportunities for student to engage in internships and other workplace experiences.
For Long Beach, linking academics to career exploration also has had the advantage of stimulating student academic performance, says school board Vice President John McGinnis. “You make the subject matter more relevant — you see that when you go out into the schools. We do other things [to strengthen academics], of course, but we think CTE contributes to closing the achievement gap and increasing our graduation rates.”
Such results hold particular promise for students who are at risk of dropping out, as well as for the significant number of high school graduates who never complete a postsecondary education. Notes “Pathways to Prosperity,” given the evidence, “if high school career-focused pathways were firmly linked to community college and four-year career majors … we believe more students would be likely to stay the course.”
For this strategy to work, however, school boards must make a commitment to put resources behind these programs, McGinnis says. In Long Beach, the board made its career pathways program a priority by incorporating it into the district’s strategic plan. It also supported the district’s partnership with the Linked Learning Alliance, which provides technical support and training to schools that create STEM, CTE, and other programs that link academics to career exploration and preparation.
Sometimes such a commitment requires school officials to shake off the cobwebs of long-established practices. Two years ago, Memphis, Tenn., officials laid off nearly 100 vocational education teachers — partly for budgetary reasons but also in recognition that vocational programs in the district were out of touch with the times, says Willie Slate, the district’s executive director of careers, technology, and adult education. One school still was offering a course in dry cleaning, for example, not because there were well-paying jobs available in the community but “because we had a teacher certified to teach it.”
To put a more strategic purpose behind its efforts, she says, the district now determines its CTE focus with the help of an advisory team of industry leaders and local economic development agencies. “We place an emphasis on training in those economic sectors that local industry says are our fastest-growing industries,” Slate says. “All of the courses we have are structured to provide students with opportunities to pursue additional training and career opportunities in the community.”
One example of this thinking is found at Wooddale High School, which boasts an aviation industry program. Although launched years ago, the program aligns perfectly with the district’s new philosophy, as Memphis has a sizable aviation industry that includes the corporate headquarters of FedEx. The school’s program is not huge — two teachers serve fewer than 200 students in two classrooms filled with flight simulators, a wind tunnel, and shelves covered in model rockets and aircraft. But the program offers students an opportunity to learn to fly planes, study aerodynamics, tour FedEx shipping facilities, and work with air traffic controllers at the local airport.
Most important, the program gives students a sense of the range of career opportunities in the industry, the skills needed for employment, and useful educational and industry contacts should they decide to pursue a career in the field, says teacher Jeffrey Holmes. Some seniors even participate in short internships at FedEx.
“Some of them say they never want to do that kind of work,” he says. “But some of them say they had no idea that FedEx offered such opportunities for them to pursue, and then they have the background and connections to move forward.”
Steering students toward the future
Creating that strategic tie-in with local industry is key if a school district wants students to get out of the classroom and experience the real-world workplace, says Danielle Mezera, Tennessee’s assistant commissioner for career and technical education. Her office, she says, is constantly hammering home the message that districts must build collaborative partnerships with local industries — and that industries looking for skilled workers will respond.
“Typically, a lot of districts don’t do the homework they need to really align their CTE programs well,” she says. “And there are other issue in terms of partnerships between secondary and postsecondary institutions — such as articulation agreements and dual enrollment. If you’re not staying in tune with these opportunities, then you’re not going to provide the skilled workers needed by employers or meet the educational needs of students.”
Such efforts can create all kinds of apprenticeships or summer internship programs that can take CTE programs to a higher level, vo-tech educators say. And when done well, a district can open up a lifetime of opportunities for students who otherwise may struggle to find their place in the economy of the 21st century.
“The typical four-year college degree isn’t working for all students, nor is it working for our country,” says Susan Jones, a school board member in Watertown, S.D., one of eight districts that launched the Lake Area Multi District. “There is a vast workforce that needs to be filled, and CTE high schools are steering students toward something they might not have learned about without having a school like this.” Del Stover (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior editor of American School Board Journal.
Finding funding sources
Not every school board can afford to invest in the industrial equipment and technology needed for a state-of-the-art vocational high school, but there are ways to launch a career and technical education (CTE) program without breaking the budget.
For eight school districts and a private school in rural northeast South Dakota, the solution was to pool their resources and establish a jointly run technical school that today allows students to explore cabinetmaking, electronics, social work, law enforcement, and robotics.
This partnership has created a program far beyond the financial resources of any of the school districts involved, says Bert Falak, director of the Lake Area Multi District, which is changing its name to Northeast Technical High School. “We really do have some state-of-the-art equipment here in machine tooling and welding … in our engineering program,” he says. But students also have access to millions of dollars in additional equipment because of the school’s partnership with a postsecondary technical school right across the street.
Other school districts have relied on government grants, financial assistance from local industry, and dual-enrollment programs with nearby community colleges to leverage the resources needed to fund a CTE program, vocational education experts say.
Apprenticeships are an increasingly common tool for expanding career-readiness opportunities. In North Carolina, students from Lee County high schools take part in one of the state’s largest high school apprenticeship program in collaboration with a Caterpillar plant. Students working at the plant receive customized training.
Meanwhile, school district in two areas of the state — as well as districts in eight other states — have joined the Pathways to Prosperity State Network, an initiative to bring together district, state, and industry partners to develop better career pathways for high school students. It’s lead by a national intermediary organization, Jobs for the Future, in partnership with the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Many districts that explore CTE programs express concern about their limited resources, but Danielle Mezera, Tennessee’s assistant commissioner of career and technical education, says districts sometimes have more resources than they realize.
A good place to start is to research what resources actually are available in the district, explore how postsecondary institutions and industry can help, and see if there are vocational education or professional development monies that can be retargeted to more productive uses, she says. For example, if a district receives grant money under the Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act, it should look hard at how that money is spent.
“Typically, we find that there’s a misalignment of existing resources,” she says. “If you have scattered your stream of Perkins dollars to offer every course under the sun, rather than being more concentrated in areas … you can redistribute your dollars. You don’t need new dollars. It’s a reallocation of resources that you need.”
By Del Stover