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December 1, 2009
Vol. 51
No. 12

Preparing Students for Work or College

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Career and Technical Education Forging Stronger Ties Between Academic and Technical Skills
Whether it's a changing economy, a global economy, or a tough economy, sooner or later, most everyone needs to gain competitive skills. That's just one compelling reason why career and technical educators believe that their field could be finally poised to make a difference in how schools educate students at the secondary level and beyond.
As the Career and Technical Education (CTE) system makes changes called for in the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Improvement Act of 2006 (Perkins IV for short), education and business groups see the field as the key to dropout prevention, workforce training, and increased high school graduation and college attendance rates. The federal law mandates that CTE programs forge stronger academic and technical ties, closer articulation between secondary and postsecondary education, and better adherence with the standards of business and industry.
“It's no longer ‘vocational education,’ which gave entry-level skills for a job. We're in a system of transition,” says Kim Green, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium (NASDCTEC) in Washington, D.C. “Career and technical education is really about dual preparation for both postsecondary education and the workplace and an acknowledgement that most of the careers comprising the labor market require some postsecondary education.”
The increasing attention, however, makes advocates of CTE both elated and slightly nervous.
The crux of the problem is that industry groups often focus on CTE's potential to deliver on deep technical skills, while education groups appreciate CTE's use of contextual and project-based learning, Green explains. “The risk for us is, can we do both of those things well and meet all of those varying expectations?” says Green.
Previously called “vocational education,” CTE programs often suffer under a late 20th-century stereotype: a program on the margins of a school that is aimed at students with academic or behavioral issues who are “good with their hands” and don't want to go to college.
“The lines between core academic education and career and technical education are blurring. That's a good thing. Because certainly you need academics, but you also need to know how to apply those academics,” says Stephen Dewitt, senior director of public policy for the Association of Career and Technical Education.

Creating Programs of Study

Career and technical educators have stepped up efforts to strengthen existing CTE programs by creating blueprints, known as “programs of study,” that outline the academic standards, skills expectations, secondary and postsecondary curriculum articulation, and industry-supported credentials needed for different career clusters. These include 16 groups of career fields, including agriculture and natural resources, architecture and construction, business management and administration, education and training, hospitality and tourism, information technology, and manufacturing.
Some states are crafting programs of study with input from educators, business leaders, and other stakeholders with the goal of creating a rigorous, progressive course of study that is both academic and practical and leads to an industry-recognized credential, a certificate at the postsecondary level, or an associate's or bachelor's degree.
To better integrate academic and technical components in CTE classes, some districts are adopting professional development that brings together CTE and subject-area teachers in collaborative sessions, often for the first time. The Math-in-CTE program, used in 20 states and in several large school districts including Miami-Dade, Fla., and Ft. Worth, Tex., has trained more than 500 teachers affecting 10,000 students, according to researchers.
In Math-in-CTE, math and CTE teachers from across a district come together for 10 days of professional development over the course of a year that helps CTE teachers to better teach math concepts as part of their curriculum. For example, students in an automotive class would learn how to compute the displacement of a piston—and the cubic displacement of an engine—by understanding the math concept of the volume of a cylinder.
“We're not trying to make CTE teachers into math teachers, but we're concerned that the math is taught correctly,” says James Stone, director of the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education, who headed the Math-in-CTE research project.
Initially, there may be some tension, notes Stone, because some CTE teachers may be uncomfortable admitting that they don't have a strong background in math. However, professional relationships and collaborations can develop between the teachers, too.
Research shows that on the TerraNova test, a standardized norm-referenced achievement test, students in the Math-in-CTE group score significantly higher than those in the regular CTE program. The Math-in-CTE model is also being used for pilot research on integrating literacy and science into career and technical education, Stone says.

Multiple Pathways

Students shouldn't have to choose between career-track or college-track education, according to Gary Hoechlander in his May 2008 Educational Leadership article “Bringing Industry to the Classroom.” Hoechlander is president of ConnectEd: The California Center for College and Career, a nonprofit organization that promotes multiple pathways in secondary education. In this approach, students can choose from a variety of options within a career umbrella such as biomedical and health sciences, construction and building design, or agriculture and renewable resources, for example. The four core components of multiple pathways are a rigorous academic component, a demanding technical component, work-based learning, and supplemental services including career counseling or additional support in reading, writing, and math, so students can succeed with a challenging program.
San Diego's Kearny High Educational Complex shows what career and technical education can do when rigorous academics are infused into the technical and occupational aspects of career training. Kearny comprises four autonomous academies, each devoted to a career theme: the Stanley E. Foster Construction Tech Academy; the School of Digital Media and Design; the School of International Business; and the School of Science, Connections, and Technology. At these schools, in addition to school-site training in various career fields, students can also take advantage of job shadowing, internships, and work experience. In addition, 11th and 12th graders can earn high school and college credits in a dual-enrollment program with nearby Mesa College.
These specialized schools take the position that students should learn an array of transferable skills within an industry to allow them to refine career choices within a field, or even range beyond that field if they go to college.
Academic subject-area teachers at each school also collaborate with those teaching technical skills through a 120-hour summer institute and through daily, 90-minute common planning time, in which teachers can prepare the day's work, discuss past lessons, or analyze student data, explains Cheryl Hibbeln, principal at the School of Digital and Media Design.
For example, at Hibbeln's school, teachers of design and mixed media, English, biology, math, and science researched techniques and collaborated to develop the “Crime Time Project” for 10th graders. The project takes advantage of a high-interest topic to students—forensics—to teach an array of concepts required across the various disciplines. As a culminating project, students in small groups research and develop a crime investigation scenario and design a Web site to teach 7th graders at neighboring middle schools about DNA and math.
Over the course of 17 weeks, the older students work through different benchmark standards in each subject area that relate to their Web project. For example, in science class, students will perform blood type and DNA analysis, and in math they'll use algebra and geometry to understand Newton's Law of Cooling and deductive and inductive reasoning. In English class, students will learn how to make use of time sequences and apply literary devices such as foreshadowing and flashback as they develop the crime scenarios. In history, they'll learn about how crime and punishment has changed over different eras. Finally, in design and mixed media, students will bring together all their knowledge (including marketing research on what appeals to 7th graders) to design and build their multimedia Crime Time Web sites.
“The students truly see how the concepts they learn in each of their individual classes work together to build a greater understanding of a larger concept,” says Eden Orlando, a 10th grade English teacher and schoolwide academic coach.
The multiple-pathways approach implemented at Kearny High's academies and other California schools working with ConnectEd, in fact, fulfills Perkins IV's ideal, says Kim Green of NASDCTEC.
“What ConnectEd is doing is leading high-quality implementation of programs of study,” says Green. “The compelling message [from their work] is that you can't change high schools by just changing three or four electives that are now called ‘career and technical education,’ without changing all of the courses that are being taught.”

Rick Allen is a former ASCD writer and content producer.

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