Career tech ed must be in the mix of options for all students

by Jack Stewart
Feb. 11, 2011
Posted at svefoundation.org

College is not a career; college is just one of many pathways to a successful life.

California’s post World War II 50-year prosperity boom was built with the hands of skilled workers. Think aerospace and defense, the auto industry, Silicon Valley. The innovations in those industries came from workers with all levels of education, and the products were made by hundreds of thousands of workers who received technical training in our state’s K-12 public school system. As recently as the late 1980s, more than seven out of every 10 California high school students were enrolled in a Career Technical Education (CTE) course. Today, fewer than three out of every ten students receive that opportunity.

A recently released report of a 2-year study conducted by Harvard University’s School of Education on the outcomes of our education system, including colleges, shows there are many pathways to success. “Pathways to Prosperity: Meeting the Challenge of Preparing Young Americans For the 21st Century” is a candid and insightful look at our public education and provides clear policy implications that college-for-all is leaving far too many students unprepared for entry into the 21st Century workforce.

Leaving our students and workers unprepared in a challenging workforce market is unacceptable. Demand for workers is down, but demand for skilled workers is increasing every day. California’s own return to prosperity requires equal opportunity for all our students to choose their own career pathway, whether it’s receiving real-world technical skills in high school, obtaining an associate’s degree from a community college, or getting a four-year degree at a university.

Government budgets are significantly contracting throughout California’s K-20 institutions. This is why policymakers must re-evaluate the fundamental purposes of taxpayer-funded compulsory education.

With accountability assessments, course mandates, college admissions criteria, and funding mechanisms all fixated on a narrow bandwidth of English language arts and mathematics, broader curricular offerings, such as career technical education, art, music, and even the core disciplines of science and social studies, have been significantly scaled back in the instructional day of most K-12 students.

For kids who struggle in either ELA or math, their entire instructional day can be devoured by those two disciplines at the expense of all other curricula. Due to mandatory remediation programs, this narrowing of the curriculum phenomenon is particularly pronounced in schools at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale, where high school dropout rates have reached epidemic proportions. Studies show the California dropout rate as high as 38 percent, with some high schools experiencing dropout rates well in excess of 50 percent.

It ‘s time to get away from a “one-size-fits-all” approach to education. This narrow approach – particularly in our middle and secondary schools – has disengaged and discouraged many students.

Industry-relevant, hands-on, career-oriented career technical education courses connect a student’s aspirations with his/her education. When such a student is thus engaged, education becomes much more meaningful and valuable. Many students who never considered pursuing a college degree are tuned in and turned on by their CTE experiences.

I am reminded of my favorite response from a precision welder who makes things for the aerospace industry. When asked why he worked in such an industry, he replied, “I have only a high school diploma, I make $75,000 a year and I make things that have been on the Moon.”

That is a pathway to success that California can’t forgo.

It is also no surprise that some recent studies indicate that young people who take a series of at least three secondary CTE courses graduate from high school, go on to college, and finish their degrees at much higher rates than those who never had an opportunity to participate in vocational education.

It’s time to place a new priority on hands-on, applied learning and provide all students clear and attainable career pathways that are aligned to each student’s aspirations and aptitudes. And when a four-year college degree is part of a given pathway, then college preparatory coursework must be accessible to every student pursuing that pathway. But insisting that all high school students enroll and complete all required college admissions criteria is both unnecessary and counterproductive, as the Harvard researchers concluded.

Policymakers and administrators have spent too much taxpayer money attempting to squeeze all students through the same narrow education keyhole. California employers need all types of workers with all levels of educational achievement. The state’s university system can accommodate only 16 percent of our high school students. We all know that the other 84 percent are potential success stories, too, if they can obtain the real-world skills they need to compete.

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