Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness

Careers Come Into Focus

By Michele McNeil — June 07, 2007 8 min read

Some policymakers and school leaders, worried about preparing students for a competitive workforce, are driving education reforms with an emphasis on career and technical education.

Unlike the “vocational education” of years past, which was designed largely for students deemed not likely to attend college, the new emphasis is on blurring the traditional boundaries between academic coursework and classes related to the world of work. Indeed, the goal is to prepare students who have a choice of either going to college or entering the workforce right after high school.

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Well-designed career and technical programs, supporters say, also address students’ persistent view that their academic coursework lacks relevance and meaning, and so help keep them in school to earn a diploma.

In California, the state is paying for high-tech career academies to give students hands-on specialized experience in their areas of interest. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to spend $52 million in his 2007-08 budget on such programs, which the state launched in 2005.

Adding Relevance

In arguing for more funding, the Republican governor called for raising the “academic relevance” of career and technical education by increasing the number of courses offered to students that would meet the entrance requirements set by the University of California system. And he argued that well-conceived programs, geared to “emerging and growth industries” in the state such as biotechnology, would help California maintain its competitive edge in the face of challenges from China and India.

South Carolina and Florida have gone as far as requiring high school students to declare “majors” and pick career areas.

“The critical aspect from a high-school-reform perspective is that it’s not sufficient to focus simply on improving career and technical education,” says Gary Hoachlander, the president of ConnectEd: The California Center for College and Career, a nonprofit group based in Berkeley, Calif., that seeks to expand the number of education pathways that prepare students for college and work. “It’s how do you use these programs’ heavy emphasis on hands-on learning to strengthen the core academics, so that students are engaged and they better understand ‘Why do we need to know this?’ ”

Nationwide, enrollment in career and technical education programs exceeds 15 million students and is growing, according to the most recent report to Congress, spanning the 2003-04 school year, by the U.S. Department of Education’s office of vocational and adult education.

Two federal laws have also helped push career and technical education. The Carl D. Perkins Vocational-Technical Act has helped bring more accountability to CTE programs by requiring schools to more consistently report test scores and graduation rates and meet academic targets, says Kimberly A. Green, the executive director of the Washington-based National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education. The law has also forced those programs to be more responsive to the labor market, she says.

And, she adds, the 5-year-old No Child Left Behind Act has helped reinforce the idea of having one set of academic standards for all students, whether college-bound or not.

For some kids, it’s awfully important that they see a job at the end of a sequence of classes.”

Supporters of career and technical education point out, however, that President Bush’s proposed fiscal 2008 budget would cut funding for CTE programs by 50 percent . Last year, in fact, the president proposed cutting the programs entirely, but Congress balked. California alone would lose some $70 million in support for its career and technical initiative under the president’s proposed federal budget.

“For some kids, it’s awfully important that they see a job at the end of a sequence of classes,” says Gene Bottoms, the senior vice president of the Southern Regional Education Board, an Atlanta-based school improvement group representing 16 states. “You have a group of youth who will work harder if they can see that.”

But the expansion of career and technical education has come with some difficulties. Recruiting enough highly qualified instructors who are skilled in teaching both the technical and academic sides of nursing, for example, is one of the biggest challenges. And so is money, as most states have so far focused more on changing policy than on providing funding for it.

Labor-Market Changes

Several factors have forced new thinking in the field, perhaps none more than changes in the labor market, which is seeing growth in biomedicine, engineering, information technology, and other math- and science-related fields. Vocational education programs simply weren’t keeping pace.

“We were training people for jobs that weren’t going to exist,” says Bob Couch, the director of South Carolina’s office of career and technology education. “We were teaching masonry, plumbing, and electrical. Now, we’ve moved to a more integrated approach.”

His state started redefining vocational education in 1998 by ramping up curricula, honing programs to match industries’ workforce needs, and getting more students involved. In 2005, the state required students to create individual graduation plans and pick a cluster of study, such as health care or business. In addition, schools are adding more guidance counselors.

Similar changes are taking place nationwide, as career and technical education programs respond to the labor market, becoming more sophisticated and offering a broader range of coursework. Schools are developing high-tech programs in fields ranging from engineering to forensic sciences to multimedia communications. And programs and classes are getting deeper, teaching students construction technology, for instance, rather than just carpentry.

Offering students the chance to focus their high school experiences remains a popular approach. Career academies, which allow students to concentrate their classes in specialties such as health sciences or engineering, number in the thousands across the country. California has about 600 of them. In Florida alone, 200 new academies were started last year, bringing that state’s total to nearly 600.

Florida offers students a choice of 442 “majors,” or areas of career interest. Starting in the 2007-08 school year, 9th graders will pick a major and take four electives in that area, although they can change their minds as their high school studies proceed. The majors range from culinary arts to entrepreneurship, though not all schools will offer all majors, depending on course schedules. And while state officials acknowledge that the list from which to pick may seem dauntingly long, they say it gives high schoolers a broad playing field for experimentation.

“We don’t see this as pigeonholing,” says Cheri Pierson Yecke, the chancellor of the state’s K-12 schools. “We have the responsibility to prevent kids from wandering aimlessly through 13 years of school.”

Perhaps the biggest change, however, is the sometimes-difficult push to incorporate rigorous academic coursework into CTE programs.

At the Francis Tuttle Technology Center, a consolidated career and technical school that serves 41,700 high school and adult learners from six school districts in central Oklahoma, educators say they have navigated those waters. The school sees students for three hours a day; the remainder of their time is spent at their home high schools.

“We used to be a pure vocational-technical school—welding, cosmetology, and auto mechanics,” says Tom Friedemann, the school’s chief of staff. “We didn’t teach academics, and that allowed us to focus on one thing and one thing only: job skills.”

Several years ago, Tuttle administrators started hearing complaints from higher education officials, particularly in engineering programs, that students were not prepared for college-level mathematics and science classes.

So, four years ago, the school began offering a pre-engineering academy with one hour each of math, science, and pre-engineering. Last May, 38 of the 40 students in the first class of graduating seniors went on to higher education. This year, of the 38 graduating seniors, 35 have already been accepted to colleges.

“We never thought we’d go for college-bound kids,” Friedemann says. “That’s part of the meshing of academics and career technology. Those boundaries are getting blurry.”

Teacher Shortages

In some places, administrators worry about recruiting teachers and improving their training. In Alabama, for example, three-quarters of CTE teachers are eligible for retirement, says Green, of the association of state career and technical education directors.

One of the biggest crises facing career and technical education is a teacher shortage. It’s a huge issue.’’

“One of the biggest crises facing career and technical education is a teacher shortage,” she says. “It’s a huge issue.”

South Carolina is trying to address its shortage by forming partnerships with colleges that allow aspiring career and technical education teachers with two-year degrees to teach while taking teacher education courses, with the goal of achieving licensure within five years.

The rapidly changing nature of the economy, with new technologies and businesses emerging that will need skilled workers, also has proponents of career and technical education worried about keeping pace.

And the field is still trying to shake its “shop class” image among students, parents, and administrators. Leaders in traditional high schools also struggle with how to fit the hands-on coursework into students’ busy high school schedules.

Policymakers are grappling, moreover, with how to assess whether the new classes are working to improve student achievement and better prepare students for life after high school.

Experts are hopeful, though, that several years down the road, programs emphasizing career pathways and hands-on learning will be so enmeshed in high school education that they won’t be talked about as separate anymore.

“We think of it like this: All students are on this pathway, and there are different exit points,” says Couch, the South Carolina CTE official. “It’s an educational highway, and everybody is on it with different abilities, interests, and goals. All of these career opportunities have value.”

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