Sunday, November 18, 2012

High Level Thinking Isn’t Just for College

Redefining American High Schools for the 21st Century, Part 5 

In the first installment of this series, I talked about how high schools have a two-track system: advanced courses for the top students, and a one-size-fits-all program for everyone else. Part 2 looked at how to improve accountability to move instruction back to what students need to succeed in life. Part 3 questioned the wisdom of the current shift in American high school curriculum to a nearly complete focus on college preparation.  In Part 4, the topic was the need to breathe life back into Career Technical Education.

Despite the nearly 8% unemployment rate caused by the Great Recession, three million jobs are unfilled and going begging. Thomas Friedman, in his New York Times column today cited this anomaly and noted, “Every decent-paying job today takes more skill and more education, but too many Americans aren’t ready.”

Most of us know a recent college graduate who hasn’t been able to get a job yet, or an over 50 college graduate who lost a job and can’t get another. Why don’t they have the education they need to get these jobs? The disconnect is not that too many Americans are under-educated, it is that many bought the wrong kind of education. As I discussed in my last post, the mantra for the last several years has been college, college, college. Consequently, students have opted to pursue four year degrees in a market that was becoming saturated with holders of four year degrees.

Friedman’s column describes the difficulties of Wyoming Machine, a company that was a sub-contractor for another company with a contract to armor Humvees for the military. Unfortunately, Wyoming Machine’s owners couldn’t find welders with the skills needed for the work. According to owner Traci Tapani, “They could make beautiful welds, but they did not understand metallurgy, modern cleaning, and brushing techniques.” Compounding the issue, was that the work involved high levels of technology and low volumes of production, requiring the workers to be able to constantly work with different drawings and technical specifications. She solved the problem by hiring her own trainer, but she still finds it difficult to locate suitable recruits. The way Tapani sees it, “If you work in a manufacturing facility, you use math every day; you need to compute angles and understand what happens to a piece of metal when it’s bent to a certain angle.” Not enough job applicants have the background to be able to do this.

Part of the problem, of course, is that we need more sources for this kind of training at junior colleges and private trade schools. But the other part is that more students need to graduate from high school ready and willing to get this kind of education and pursue these careers. For that to happen, American high schools have to back off of the emphasis we have been placing on preparing students to pursue a four-year college degree, and get comfortable helping students realize that the traditional academic college experience might not be the best choice for them.

As I argued previously, high school educators have had to become very careful when introducing anything to do with careers into their curriculum. Talking about careers pretty easily begins to sound like vocational training to some people, which then smacks of how in the bad old days, schools shunted low performing students into vocational programs with low expectations. America’s future, educators have been led to believe, lay in more students going to college. Often the default response of high school educators has been to avoid saying career too loudly or even at all for fear of committing career suicide. As Friedman’s column emphasizes, the danger of this attitude is too few opportunities for students, and too few adults with the skills needed to find well-paid work.

Career Technical Education (CTE), a less threatening euphemism for what used to be called Vocational Education, has been subsisting at the margins for the last ten years or so, bravely soldiering on and trying to get anyone to listen while quietly creating a new generation of programs that prepare students for work while helping them learn high level academic skills. There are many excellent models in place all over the country. They just need more people to pay attention. 

One excellent example of CTE in action is the Center for Advanced Research and Technology (CART) in Clovis, California. CART is organized around four career clusters with several career-specific laboratories. The school is project based and works closely with local and regional business partners as well as post-secondary institutions to provide real-world connections for students. The CART facility was designed to look more like a business than a school, with high tech labs situated around a central courtyard and adjoining classrooms that look more like corporate conference rooms. Each lab is paired with an academic class, say English or social science, along with an academic teacher who partners with the lab teacher. Together they integrate the academic work and the lab work into the design of the project the students work on.

If you get a chance to visit CART or any of the CTE programs, you will likely learn that the key to CTE is context. As Friedman’s column points out, preparing students for a career doesn’t mean dumbing down the material. Students need to learn high levels of math, science, and communications skills to succeed in the real world. CTE, however, provides that instruction in the context of real world learning by matching it with instruction in the specific skills of a particular career. This gives meaning and purpose to what needs to be learned, making it much easier for students to engage with the material, and giving them a reason to learn it. Plus, it enables students to acquire valuable training that can lead to a well-paying job.

This can and should begin to happen in every high school, but the world is too complex to allow most students to finish their education there. Virtually all students need to prepare in high school for the most appropriate post-secondary education for them. 

Our job as educators is to stop pushing one choice over the others. Some students have career aspirations that should lead them to choose a program leading to a four year degree. Some of these will begin that degree quest by attending a two year institution and working through the academic side of the college’s program, perhaps earning an associate degree on the way. Other students’ career choices will also lead them to a JC, but focusing on the CTE side of the program. These students may also strive to earn an associate degree, but often earn an industry certification or participate in an apprenticeship program. Still others will choose to attend a private institution offering career specific education, and again likely earning industry certification of some kind.

High schools should be designing curriculum that isn’t biased toward four year degree programs. Because educators have four year degrees doesn’t mean every student needs one as well. Rather we should be arming parents and students with the information they need to analyze the student’s skills and preferences along with data forecasting where job markets are trending. 

This is not just good for students, it’s good for America.

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