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April 1, 2007
Vol. 64
No. 7

New Rigor for Career Education

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      One of the most notable provisions of the new Career and Technical Education Improvement Act of 2006 is the call for new “programs of study.” The law charges states with offering high school students a new kind of career and technical education (formerly known as vocational education) that helps prepare them for both college and career, not just for success in entry-level occupations.
      For many high school students—those at risk of dropping out as well as others who are just plain bored with high school—this mandate is potentially good news. Rather than an alternative to postsecondary education, career and technical education could become the key to making postsecondary education an achievable goal for all high school students.
      Not every student needs a four-year college degree to succeed in the modern economy. But some level of postsecondary education—four-year or two-year college, apprenticeship, the military, or formal employment training—is almost certainly essential for lasting success. Making that goal attainable for more students would be a major accomplishment.
      To enable students to achieve this goal, however, schools must not only infuse more demanding academic content into career and technical education courses but also stress more authentic applications in college-preparatory mathematics, science, English, and social studies. Focusing just on the career and technical education curriculum is not enough. Career and technical education typically accounts for only 4 or 5 of the 25 courses that students take to earn a high school diploma. If we really want to reengage students in high school, we need to create pathways that blend academics with career and technical education.
      A growing number of high schools are trying to do this. For example, the National Academy Foundation (www.naf.org) now supports more than 600 academies spread across 40 states that offer students four-year programs of academic and technical study organized around finance, information technology, or hospitality and tourism. The Ford Partnership for Advanced Studies (www.fordpas.org) is active at approximately 160 sites, promoting sequences of courses that integrate academic content with career preparation to advance greater competency in problem solving, critical thinking, communications, and teamwork. Project Lead the Way (www.pltw.org) has introduced academically demanding pre-engineering programs into more than 1,000 high schools throughout the United States.
      In schools like these, students routinely connect career and technical education to academics. They learn, for example, how electrical impulses that regulate the human cardiovascular system form the basis of the electrocardiogram and other diagnostic tools of the health profession. They understand the importance of calculus in engineering a seismically sound bridge, and they learn the geometry concepts underlying the design of buildings that will withstand gale force winds. By joining academic content with technical education, students can finally begin to answer the question, “Why do I need to know this?”
      But as promising as these and other emerging programs are, they remain the exception rather than the norm. As yet, there is shockingly little good curriculum content to support these efforts, and even less in the way of valid and credible assessment tools.
      We ought to change that. As states plan how they will implement the new federal law, they can play an important role by giving serious attention to developing challenging career and technical education content standards linked to academics, by earmarking federal and state funds for building curriculum and assessment tools, by promoting professional development that builds teachers' ability to use integrated curriculum, and so on. The curriculum development community should also take note and get busy. Federal policy is now squarely behind career and technology education that prepares students for both college and career. The new federal legislation supports a growing market for curriculum that uses the world of work to make learning come alive for more young people.

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