Tech-Prep Plans Need Structure, Study Concludes

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A couple of years ago, Marques Suiter was making B's and C's in general academic classes, working for $5 an hour in his spare time at a plant nursery, and thinking he probably wouldn't have the grades or money to go to college.

"I didn't know what I wanted to do, and I didn't even know what I'd like to do," recalled Mr. Suiter, now a senior at Fairmont High School in Kettering, Ohio.

Then he joined an industrial-engineering program run by a "tech prep" consortium in Dayton consisting of 67 high schools, Sinclair Community College, and local businesses. He's now taking challenging courses like applied precalculus and plans to attend the community college on a scholarship to become an electronics or robotics engineer.

This is exactly how technical-preparation programs should work, according to an independent research firm that evaluated what such programs have accomplished in the eight years that Congress has allotted vocational education money for them.

For More Information:

Copies of "Focus for the Future: The Final Report of the National Tech-Prep Evaluation" are available for $12.50 each, plus $2.50 for postage and handling, from Mathematica Policy Research Inc., P.O. Box 2393, Princeton, NJ 08543-2393. Call (609) 275-2334.

Copies of Tech Prep: The Next Generation, by Daniel M. Hull and Julie Hull Grevelle, are available for $22.95 (hardback) and $14.95 (softback), plus $5 for shipping and handling, from CORD Communication Inc. Call (800) 231-3015. A companion planning guide is available for $11.95.

Such programs are usually designed for students who are neither at the bottom nor the top of their classes. And, in general, they have stimulated greater employer involvement in schools, focused attention on the need to improve the math and science skills of vocational students, and opened up new lines of communication for teachers, concludes the report delivered to Congress last month by Mathematica Policy Research Inc.

But the programs are most successful when they are highly structured and employ all--not just a few--elements of the tech-prep concept, the report argues. Those elements include agreements between high schools and postsecondary institutions, career counseling, development of new curricula with applied academics, and a program design that includes at least two years of high school courses plus two years of postsecondary study.

Unfortunately, the report says, while 70 percent of school districts participate in regional tech-prep consortia, only 10 percent of the consortia have comprehensive and structured programs.

Many consortia have the mistaken view that tech prep is meant for everyone, said Alan M. Hershey, the principal investigator for the evaluation.

"It's the effort to be something for all students that makes it be more diffuse and barely noticeable to students," Mr. Hershey said. Tech prep "is for students who want to pick out a career area in which there happens to be a group of vocational courses available."

Unrealistic Demands?

Mathematica recommends that the U.S. Department of Education's office of vocational and adult education send a clear message that tech-prep programs should be comprehensive and structured. In addition, states should make tech-prep funding contingent on such an approach, the research firm says.

This year, the federal government spent $103 million on tech-prep programs through the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology Education Act of 1990; it has spent $771 million on the programs since 1991.

"By implementing individual, often unconnected elements of tech prep, most consortia have forgone the chance to change students' experiences substantially," says the evaluation, titled "Focus for the Future: The Final Report of the National Tech-Prep Evaluation."

"The more structured program approach has a better chance of improving student learning and postsecondary transitions," it adds.

The programs are most powerful when all of the tech-prep elements are present, agreed Patricia W. McNeil, the Education Department's assistant secretary for vocational and adult education. She said her office is pointing this out to tech-prep coordinators at conferences and meetings.

But she added: "We're not going to mandate it, and we're not going to regulate it."

Some experts on tech prep described Mathematica's recommendations as unrealistic, saying an education reform movement is not as neat as Mathematica might like it to be.

"In a perfect world, we would do a better job for fewer kids," said Andrew B. Hahn, a professor and the associate dean for the Heller Graduate School for Social Policy at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. "I'm very cynical about anything that involves sanctions. Even the states don't have the kind of stomach [they need] for defining tech prep in a narrow way."

"It doesn't bother me that we've tried a lot of things and there's not much uniformity," added Daniel M. Hull, the president and chief executive officer of the Waco, Texas-based Center for Occupational Research and Development. A small start with a tech-prep element is better than no start at all, he said.

Mr. Hull has his own vision for tech prep, which he puts forth in a new book, Tech Prep: The Next Generation. He argues that the curriculum should start in the 9th rather than the 11th grade, where it begins now with most programs; include broader technical knowledge; and raise the bar on the level of academics taught.

Mr. Hull also said that while tech prep shouldn't drop its focus on students in the middle, it should accommodate other students as well.

"I don't want to track students," he said.

'Enormous Promise'

A range of experts interviewed last week said that while tech prep has been important--at least the biggest movement to improve vocational education so far--it still hasn't established a solid track record.

"There's enormous promise if seen through the right lens," said Richard J. Murnane, an economist and professor at the Harvard University graduate school of education who co-wrote the 1996 book Teaching the New Basic Skills: Principles for Educating Children To Thrive in a Changing Economy. "Sometimes these programs are seen as alternatives to standards-based reform. That's a serious mistake."

"Like many ideas, we see a lot of potential in the tech-prep idea," said Gary Walker, the president of Public/Private Ventures, a nonprofit organization in Philadelphia that specializes in the development and evaluation of youth programs. "The few places that we've been in that have tried it have not been able to get the kind of political and parental support they need," he said.

The greatest challenge of the Dayton program has been to dispel "the many myths that the only way to be successful is to have a four-year college degree, and that all of our students must go on to a four-year college," said Wendy A. Johnson, the assistant tech-prep coordinator for the Miami Valley Tech Prep Consortium.

She said her program has been successful because of support at the state level and endorsements from people in key positions--including the local community college president, business leaders, and high school superintendents.

"We're not a couple of Rambos in our office trying to make this happen," she said.

Vol. 18, Issue 6, Pages 1, 12

Published in Print: October 7, 1998, as Tech-Prep Plans Need Structure, Study Concludes
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