College & Workforce Readiness

Career Academics

By Sean Cavanagh — March 14, 2006 7 min read
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One teacher was a carpenter long before he taught his first class. He paid his way through college working construction, started his own contracting business, and still makes cabinets and renovates houses in his spare time.

The other teacher’s passion is math and science. He is certified in both of those subjects and has a master’s degree in physics. But when he was building the roof on his house years ago, he realized he didn’t know how to do a crucial calculation with a framing square. So he relied on trigonometry instead.

Nick Johnson, right, an 11th grader, mixes drywall compound during a construction-trades class as teacher Joe Stegman, second from right, and fellow students look on. The class is building a house that will be donated to Habitat for Humanity.

Despite their divergent talents, Joe Stegman and Ken Mroczek can be found every Friday afternoon teaching the same high school construction-trades class here at Van Buren Technology Center. They’re just one of many two-person instructional teams this Michigan vocational school uses to weave more rigorous academic study into its courses. It’s a strategy that some observers predict other vocational programs will embrace to bolster their academics and attempt to silence their critics.

Mr. Stegman teaches the construction class every day. Mr. Mroczek works with students once a week on math lessons that are relevant to that industry.

On this day, Mr. Mroczek is taking the class through a job familiar to contractors everywhere: building a roof. He asks the students to apply a series of basic ratios and proportions to gauge the roof’s height. “Some of you may have had this in geometry; some of you may not,” he tells them.

Once the students have the height, they can use another problem-solving option, the Pythagorean theorem, to figure out the length of the roof’s rafters, he advises. Mr. Mroczek draws the formula on the board: a2 + b2 = c2.

Mr. Stegman, meanwhile, is following along from a seat on one side of the room. When Mr. Mroczek needs an example of a standard roof, Mr. Stegman—who’s built more than he can remember—provides one and describes what it would look like viewed from the street.

Team-teaching is hardly a new idea; pairing instructors with different educational credentials and abilities has gone on for years. But several experts believe the teacher-sharing approaches, and other strategies, used at Van Buren and elsewhere will become more popular in vocational programs, because of rising state and federal demands for greater academic rigor throughout K-12 education—and a dwindling amount of time in the school day for career-oriented electives.

Efforts like Van Buren’s are growing rapidly, said James R. Stone III, the director of the National Centers for Career and Technical Education, at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Preliminary results of a study Mr. Stone is conducting show that vocational high school students can benefit significantly from having math incorporated into their career-oriented lessons, when that subject is presented as another tool of the trade.

“It’s part of self-preservation,” he said. “If they don’t do something, they’re going to get squeezed out. … The school day is a zero-sum game.”

The Van Buren Technology Center is located in the flat farm country of western Michigan, about a two-hour straight shot from the auto-industrial hub of Detroit. Established in 1962, the 1,100-student center is now part of a network of state-designated vocational schools serving communities throughout Michigan.

Located a few blocks off the main highway in Lawrence, the school serves students from 14 area high schools, mostly juniors and seniors, who drive or are bused in for a portion of the day for vocational classes. Students spend the rest of their day in more traditional academic courses at their home schools, from which they receive their diplomas.

Students at Van Buren choose among different career pathways, ranging from the arts to marketing to engineering. Like many vocational schools, Van Buren tries to meet the demands of the local economy. In western Michigan, the job market is rooted largely in small businesses in such diverse fields as agriculture, manufacturing, construction, and health care, an increasingly popular subject at the school.

In the early 1990s, Van Buren overhauled much of its academic approach, partly in response to increased state requirements on vocational schools, but also in an attempt to serve more students. Those who were short on academic credits were often forced to make them up at their home schools because those classes weren’t available at Van Buren, recalled Sue Conklin, the administrator for programming, financing, and operations.

Van Buren officials wanted to beef up the academic content of their courses, without separating academic and vocational work entirely. So they devised a system in which three core subjects—math, science, and communications (or English-language and writing skills)—were integrated within vocational lessons through team-teaching. In 1989, Van Buren had only two teachers in core academic subjects; today, it has eight, along with 33 vocational instructors.

“My kids used to sit in class and say, ‘When am I going to use the algebra?’ ” said Mary A. Fudge, the school’s coordinator of technology integration, who has taught math at Van Buren and previously at a traditional K-12 school. “And I’d say, ‘Gee…?’ ” the school official says, throwing up her hands. “When you get into a voc ed program, math is a tool,” she said. “It makes the academic work come alive.”

Most Van Buren students do all their core academic work in math, science, and English at their home schools. About 10 percent of them, however, are on “credit recovery,” allowing them to take vocational courses to fulfill certain core academic coursework.

Math teacher Paul Nickels, left, and Bruce Nichols, right, the lab-occupations instructor, team-teach at Van Buren Technology Center. Mr. Nickels brings an academic component to students' practical lab work.

Critics of vocational education maintain that too few programs are inclined to challenge students academically. The Bush administration, for instance, says the federal government’s $1.3 billion annual investment could be better spent on improving high schools in other ways.

Vocational schools have a more immediate concern: The federal No Child Left Behind Act’s requirement that core academic subjects be taught by “highly qualified” teachers is a challenge for programs whose instructors often come from the workplace and lack certification in those subjects. Using an academic instructor to team-teach a course can help vocational schools meet that requirement, and improve students’ overall skills and their scores on mandatory, standardized tests, advocates say.

The academic skills of Van Buren students vary enormously. About 28 percent have been designated special education students, compared with about 12 percent in the surrounding county’s K-12 population, administrators say. Course content in subjects such as math runs from the relatively basic to college level.

Van Buren officials say there is a benefit to the academic focus, even when lessons in subjects like math and science are scaled back below a typical junior- or senior-grade level. By picking up academic content in a vocational context, struggling students are exposed to problem-solving challenges many traditional courses would not provide, Ms. Fudge said.

Team-teaching, though, can be costly. In addition to state and federal money, Van Buren benefits from a special tax assessment, collected from the communities it serves, that contributes to its $9.3 million yearly budget. Many vocational programs would struggle to put new academic teachers on the payroll, school officials acknowledge.

Academic instructors were not welcomed into the vocational programs initially, Ms. Fudge recalled. Today, school officials bridge those divides by providing teachers, both as teams and individually, with extensive planning time before and after school. Ms. Fudge said she also tells new academic teachers to spend their first month learning the various industries and trades they will be expected to team-teach.

Senior Jordan Moore, right, practices taking blood from Brian Fern, another 12th grader, under the supervision of Bruce Nichols, in phlebotomy class.

Mr. Mroczek’s schedule is a typical one. The same day he covers math ratios and proportions in construction class, he uses math in describing various models of tires, and their impact on driving, in an auto course. During the week, he also teaches science during a floriculture and landscaping course, and math in two separate classes on electronics and plastics.

Now in his 16th year at the technology center, Mr. Mroczek says his job is easiest when the vocational teacher is involved in the lesson, adding real-world know-how to the math or science at hand.

In construction class, Mr. Stegman is trying to do his part. After the Pythagorean theorem yields the correct height of the roof, the construction teacher jumps into the discussion to ask the students to try it a different way: by using their framing squares—hand-held, L-shaped tools. Mr. Mroczek, for all his mathematical ability, admitted to the students he didn’t know how to use such a tool when building his own roof.

“We know that the pitch is what?” Mr. Stegman asks, using a builder’s terminology. When students begin calling out answers, Mr. Mroczek challenges them to explain the math behind the solution the framing square provided. “I don’t like magic numbers,” he tells them.

It’s the sort of interaction that Mr. Mroczek believes will benefit students the most. “I don’t know everything there is to know about building a car, or building a house,” the math teacher explained outside one of his classes that day. “Over and over again, students will tell me, ‘I didn’t come here to take math. I didn’t come here to take science.’ [But] when you have a voc. ed. instructor there, it helps a lot.”

Coverage of new schooling arrangements and classroom improvement efforts is supported by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the March 15, 2006 edition of Education Week as Career Academics

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