‘2 + 2' Vocational Programs Drawing Attention of State, U.S. Policymakers

By Reagan Walker — March 15, 1989 11 min read

Hampton, Va.--Six years ago, 40 supervisors from business and industrial concerns in this area came together in a room with a blackboard and started jotting down the skills they thought their entry-level workers should have.

The exercise was not simply academic. Seated in the back of the room, taking notes as the list was whittled down from numerous job tasks to a core of common skills, were teachers from five school districts and a local community college.

Their task was to take the list and create a novel four-year curriculum to meet its specifications--one that would bridge the last two years of high school and first two of college.

The result was Hampton’s “master technician” program, a coordinated, competency-based degree ladder that meets the growing technical needs of a local job market dominated by such enterprises as the naval shipyards and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Langley Research Center.

The Hampton experiment was one of the nation’s first so-called “2 + 2" programs, which have brought business, school, and community-college leaders together in many other states to solve basic workforce needs.

Described by proponents as “the wave of the future” in vocational education, these programs offer students an expanded range of work-school options at a time when, some experts say, the traditional classroom matrix is failing many.

“Neither the current college-preparatory/baccalaureate-degree track, nor the traditional vocational-education, job-specific track will adequately serve the needs of a majority of students in the future,” says Dale Parnell, president of the American Association of Community and Junior Colleges. The general-education track, he adds, “serves none.”

In his book, The Neglected Majority, Mr. Parnell speaks for many vocational educators when he says that “balance, connectedness, and continuity are key words in any reshaping of the curriculum aimed at improving the education of the middle quartile of students.”

And many policymakers--in the U.S. Congress and elsewhere--are listening.

Bills currently pending before the Congress would provide up to $200 million to initiate national demonstration projects of “2 + 2" programs, also referred to as “tech-prep.”

The sponsor of the House measure, Representative William D. Ford, Democrat of Michigan, says he hopes the bill will be folded into the Carl D. Perkins Vocational Education Act, which is now in the first stages of its reauthorization process. (See related story on page 1.)

Michigan is currently funding 10 “2 + 2" projects; Virginia has fashioned 7 others using Hampton’s as a model. Other states active in the move to “tech prep” include California, New York, Ohio, and North Carolina.

Options and Flexibility

The program developed for the Virginia peninsula--leading to an associate degree in applied science--has been refashioned in other areas of the state to serve different occupational needs, such as nursing, drafting and design, automotive technology, and automated manufacturing.

That flexibility, proponents say, is part of the beauty of the plan. The “2 + 2" concept, they note, can be molded, through the collaboration of businesses, schools, and postsecondary institutions, to serve a variety of economic and educational needs for the community--and to give students any number of career-path options.

A student could, for example, complete only the first two years of a “2 + 2" program and exit high school with skills needed to enter the local labor market. He could gain greater job proficiency--and perhaps a program-linked work experience--by going on to complete his degree at a community or junior college.

After leaving the two-year institution, he would then have the same option available--to enter the workforce, or pursue a four-year degree. Some programs, in fact, have formally tied in the third educational stage, creating a “2 + 2 + 2" plan.

“There’s no limit to how far you can go in a program like this,” says Lee W. Stewart, the administrative manager for Wyle Laboratories and a leader in the development of the Hampton project. “A person could get a doctoral degree, and get help paying for it along the way.”

“But the important thing,” Mr. Stewart says, “is that the student has employable skills from the time he or she graduates from high school.”

Open Communication Lines

Educators here stress the program’s role as a catalyst for communitywide collaboration.

It was the emerging cooperative networks between education and business, in fact, that prompted the Virginia department of education, with the encouragement of former Gov. Charles Robb, to approach the peninsula school districts and Thomas Nelson Community College in 1982 about developing a model program.

“We chose them because the three sectors--secondary schools, the community college, and the business community--already had been doing some work together,” recounts Ned K. Swartz, director of vocational state planning in Virginia. “The lines of communication were already open.”

Doris K. Wimmer, assistant director of vocational education for the Hampton schools, recalls that “at the time, we had the Virginia Peninsula Vocational-Technical Training Council, which had brought us together with the business community.”

That council then affiliated itself with the Chamber of Commerce to become the BIG Ed Council--for business, industry, government, and education--and has since become a powerful partner with education on the peninsula.

Ms. Wimmer also points out that the five area school districts had a strong relationship with one another, due to their work in coordinating programs for the regional vocational-technical center, New Horizons.

In addition to Hampton, participating districts include Newport News, Poquoson, James County, and York County.

Articulation Was Precursor

The third linkage in place was that between the schools and Thomas Nelson Community College, which had forged so-called “articulation agreements,” which allow duplicative8coursework at the high-school level to count toward college credit.

Nationally, the “2 + 2" concept grew out of the articulation movement of the 1960’s and 70’s. Many educators even use the terms “articulation” and “2 + 2" interchangeably, even though there are distinct differences between the two.

Classic articulation agreements allow students to receive advanced credit at a college for courses taken in high school, often shortening the time it takes to earn a degree.

But the impetus for “2 + 2" programs was the perception--shared by business and education leaders alike--that more than two years of college was needed in some areas.

“Each time we would have an advisory committee meeting at Thomas Nelson on our electronics program,” recalls Cecil Phillips, the master-technician project director, “industry leaders would tell us we needed to add to our curriculum. We would respond by saying, ‘We agree, but tell us what we can delete to make room for new courses?’ And the answer was always ‘nothing.”’

The schools and the community college were already “toying” with the idea of a “2 + 2" program as a way of solving that dilemma, Mr. Phillips says, when the state approached them about developing the model. Representatives from each school district’s vocational-education department joined Mr. Phillips in going to business leaders to argue that such a program was the best route to the advanced electronics program they sought.

Involve Business First

Working carefully to gain the backing of the business community was key to the program’s success, almost all participants agree.

“Educators have too often been accused of developing programs and then going to business and saying, ‘Here’s what we’ve done,”’ Ms. Wimmer notes. “We were sure to involve them right from the start.”

To Mr. Stewart, the Wyle Laboratories official, that initial involvement has meant that many business leaders have a feeling of “ownership” about the program, which has been an incentive, he says, for hiring program graduates, strengthening cooperative work agreements, and donating equipment and other resources.

Mr. Stewart and Ms. Wimmer are co-chairmen of the project’s steering committee, a group representing all three sectors that is overseeing the program’s implementation.

At their first meetings, business leaders asked for a broad program that would prepare students for any number of jobs in the electronics field--from repairing computers to calibrating and testing instruments.

“Somehow, in a brainstorming session, we came up with the term ‘master technician,”’ Mr. Phillips recalls.

From that point on, the steering group relied on the collaboration of a council of selected business leaders and a team of math, science, and vocational instructors to match needs with resources and write a proposal.

Organized by ‘Competencies’

Early on, these groups recognized that they would need to bring in workplace supervisors--those who actually had daily contact with new employees--to define precisely what skill levels and problem areas they were dealing with.

It was through this process that they arrived at the “individual competencies” the curriculum would be organized around.

“That was the beautiful part,” says Mr. Stewart, “watching those educators take the competencies put out by the first-line supervisors and then fit them into a curriculum.”

The core competencies were then grouped under general areas, such as demonstrating knowledge of digital electronics, working with amplifiers and oscillators, and understanding semi-conductor devices.

The program was planned so that, as a student moves through from high school to community college and then to a job, his “competency record” of skills mastered also advances.

Because Viginia mandates that all secondary vocational-education courses be competency-based, high-school instructors were already comfortable with this approach. But not all of the college instructors were, and some staff development was needed, according to Mr. Phillips.

The working out of such problems forged a close relationship between the school and community-college faculty members. Laurie Collier, vocational director for the Newport News Public Schools, calls this growing alliance “one of the greatest benefits” of the program.

Recruitment in Middle Schools

The development phase of the project took two and half years and $140,000 in state funds.

With help from business leaders, the school districts began recruiting middle-school students for the program in the fall of 1984.

The students they convinced to join the venture are now in the their junior year of high school and are taking their first course in electronics.

About 25, who had already taken some courses in the new curriculum, will be able to move on to Thomas Nelson this fall, Ms. Wimmer says.

“Our numbers are small because the program is still in the early stages,” she notes. But a survey taken last fall of all high-school students in the five districts indicated that about 300 planned to pursue the “master technician” program.

“We would be happy to graduate about 20 to 25 ‘master tech’ students in our district a year,” says Ms. Wimmer, who stresses that most of the courses at the secondary level are open to all students, whether or not they are “master tech” candidates.

Recruitment efforts begin at the middle-school level, she says, because there are some requirements that must be met before students enter.

At the high-school level, the curriculum includes the following:

Grade 9--basic technical drawing, English, social studies, introductory algebra, earth science, and health and physical education.

Grade 10--power and transportation, principles of technology, geometry, English, American history, and health and physical-education.

Grade 11--advanced principles of technology, advanced algebra, English, and introductory electronics, which is a three-period course offered at New Horizons, the area vocational-technical training center.

Grade 12--chemistry, government, English, and a half-day at New Horizons in advanced electronics.

Merged Into Existing Courses

Mr. Phillips stresses that while creation of the program took thoughtful planning, coordination, and consensus-building, it often did not involve elaborate new course development.

“You don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” he says. “Many of the competencies could be incorporated into existing courses.”

Advocates of the “2 + 2" plans add that, because they are tied to local industry, the mix between liberal and technical education can be tailored to local needs. For example:

In Bakersfield, Calif., Kern High School and Kern Community College have developed, in cooperation with the local agricultural industry, “2 + 2" programs in agricultural business, animal science, crop science, forestry, agricultural mechanics, and ornamental horticulture.

In addition to the technical courses, the comprehensive curricula there puts heavy emphasis on English, mathematics, humanities courses, and Spanish.

In Suffolk County, N.Y., students in the advanced phases of a “tech-prep” program in automative technology can spend 10 weeks at the area vocational-technical training center, 10 at the community college, and 10 in a cooperative work program at a local car dealership.

Public schools in York County, Va., are currently putting together a ''2 + 2 + 2" program in law enforcement, with the first two years of the curriculum starting in high school, the next two at a community college, and the final two at a four-year university.

‘Good Common Sense’

Officials at schools involved in such programs say some of the spin-offs from the relationships formed with the business and postsecondary communities are increased cooperative work programs and increased donations of money and equipment.

In the Hampton area, for example, many of the businesses offer cooperative work programs for students who have completed the first year at the community college, allowing them to earn money while completing their degree. Once a person is hired permanently, Mr. Stewart note, many companies will pay for further education.

“There isn’t anything complicated about this,” Mr. Phillips concludes, “it’s just good common sense.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 15, 1989 edition of Education Week as ‘2 + 2' Vocational Programs Drawing Attention of State, U.S. Policymakers