This Isn’t Your Dad’s Vocational Education

Auto shop is gone. The latest approach to career-oriented education looks a lot like academics.

Latina style: Dalton High's homecoming queen, Andrea Garcia, and Principal Steve Bartoo. Latina style: Dalton High's homecoming queen, Andrea Garcia, and Principal Steve BartoLatina style: Dalton High's homecoming queen, Andrea Garcia, and Principal Steve Bar
National Journal
Sophie Quinton
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Sophie Quinton
Dec. 16, 2013, midnight

What used to be Dalton High School’s wood shop is now free of dust. In­stead, it’s filled with weld­ing sta­tions, a 3-D print­er, and a com­puter-con­trolled plasma cut­ter. Stu­dents work with the en­gin­eer­ing stu­dents across the hall on ro­bot­ics pro­jects, build­ing their know­ledge of sci­ence, tech­no­logy, en­gin­eer­ing, and math­em­at­ics.

Sev­enty-four per­cent of Dalton High’s stu­dents are en­rolled in ca­reer, tech­nic­al, and ag­ri­cul­tur­al courses. But this isn’t your fath­er’s vo­ca­tion­al ed. Here, train­ing for par­tic­u­lar ca­reers is con­sidered part of a well-roun­ded col­lege-pre­par­at­ory edu­ca­tion. “It’s not an either/or with us,” said Prin­cip­al Steve Bar­too.

Dalton, Ga., a city of just over 33,000 in the Ap­palachi­an foot­hills, calls it­self the Car­pet Cap­it­al of the World. (North­w­est Geor­gia pro­duces 90 per­cent of the car­pet made in the United States.) It’s also home to a fast-grow­ing Latino com­munity. Lati­nos com­prise 48 per­cent of Dalton’s pop­u­la­tion — al­though only 9 per­cent statewide — and 70 per­cent of the stu­dents at Dalton High.

The com­munity is still strug­gling to emerge from the re­ces­sion; about 70 per­cent of the school’s 1,640 stu­dents qual­i­fy for fed­er­ally sub­sid­ized lunches. But des­pite chan­ging demo­graph­ics, fall­ing in­comes, and de­clin­ing state fund­ing, Dalton High’s stu­dents are gradu­at­ing at high­er rates than ever. By com­bin­ing a rig­or­ous ap­proach to ca­reer and tech­nic­al edu­ca­tion, known as CTE, with high aca­dem­ic ex­pect­a­tions, the school has lif­ted its gradu­ation rate from 56 per­cent to 92 per­cent over the past dec­ade. Al­most 70 per­cent of the class of 2011 en­rolled in col­lege with­in two years of fin­ish­ing high school.

Start­ing this year, all ninth-graders in Geor­gia will be re­quired to fol­low a ca­reer- or aca­dem­ic-fo­cused “path­way” — in ag­ribusi­ness, say, or fin­ance — to gradu­ate from high school. In Dalton, edu­cat­ors know that in­dustry-fo­cused courses can help teens thrive — but only when such courses aren’t con­sidered a sep­ar­ate track. The lines between elect­ives, col­lege-pre­par­at­ory work, and ca­reer ex­plor­a­tion are blur­ring. Schools that take this ser­i­ously can use ca­reer courses to el­ev­ate every stu­dent’s edu­ca­tion, rather than to ware­house the stu­dents lag­ging be­hind.

TRACK­ING? WHAT’S THAT?

Vo­ca­tion­al edu­ca­tion has been con­tro­ver­sial since early-20th-cen­tury re­formers pro­posed a di­vided sys­tem of pub­lic edu­ca­tion — col­lege-pre­par­at­ory work for some, tech­nic­al train­ing for oth­ers. Crit­ics wor­ried that such a sys­tem would track poor, minor­ity, and im­mig­rant chil­dren in­to work­ing-class jobs, re­strict­ing their ac­cess to high­er edu­ca­tion and lim­it­ing their so­cial mo­bil­ity.

We’re start­ing to see a res­ol­u­tion to the cen­tury-old de­bate over track­ing, said An­thony Carne­vale, dir­ect­or of Geor­getown Uni­versity’s Cen­ter on Edu­ca­tion and the Work­force. He de­scribed “the meld­ing of the two cur­riculum types, so that in the­ory, CTE pro­grams don’t stop you from go­ing to Har­vard.”

The 21st cen­tury’s in­form­a­tion eco­nomy de­mands a new style of ca­reer train­ing that helps pre­pare stu­dents for fur­ther edu­ca­tion rather than di­verts them from it, and teaches cre­at­ive think­ing and prob­lem-solv­ing rather than how to per­form rote tasks. Think about CTE not only as train­ing rel­ev­ant to a ca­reer but as a way to help stu­dents ac­quire aca­dem­ic skills and think crit­ic­ally in a dif­fer­ent way.

Two forces are mov­ing CTE in an in­tel­lec­tu­ally de­mand­ing dir­ec­tion. The first is polit­ic­al. Since the 1980s, poli­cy­makers have pushed schools to raise test scores and im­prove aca­dem­ic pre­par­a­tion. In 2006, Con­gress re­quired schools to of­fer at least one se­quence of ca­reer-ori­ented courses en­com­passing sec­ond­ary and post­sec­ond­ary edu­ca­tion to be eli­gible for any of the $1.14 bil­lion avail­able in fed­er­al aid.

The second force is eco­nom­ic. The skilled trades have be­come more, well, skilled, and em­ploy­ers are de­mand­ing ad­vanced cre­den­tials. By 2020, Carne­vale and his col­leagues pre­dict, 65 per­cent of jobs will re­quire post­sec­ond­ary train­ing. In many fast-grow­ing fields, such as health care, entry-level work­ers must re­turn to school to move up. If you’re a cer­ti­fied nurs­ing as­sist­ant at a hos­pit­al, you can’t just work your way up to be­come a re­gistered nurse.

Low-skilled, low-paid jobs in re­tail and food ser­vices are also ex­pec­ted to grow over the next dec­ade. But it has be­come al­most im­possible for people with a high school edu­ca­tion or less to find the sort of jobs that can sup­port a fam­ily, let alone move them in­to the middle class or bey­ond.

With col­lege costs rising, cre­den­tials that de­liv­er a good re­turn on in­vest­ment are in de­mand. Hold­ers of a tech­nic­al as­so­ci­ate’s de­gree can com­mand bet­ter salar­ies their first year out of school — in Texas, $11,000 high­er — than gradu­ates with a bach­el­or’s de­gree in lib­er­al arts, ac­cord­ing to Mark Schneider, vice pres­id­ent at the Amer­ic­an In­sti­tutes for Re­search, a Wash­ing­ton think tank. Those hold­ing col­lege de­grees with a tech­nic­al bent, wheth­er from a two- or four-year school, fare best. The highest paid in every state: gradu­ates in en­gin­eer­ing.

Today, about 85 per­cent of pub­lic high school stu­dents com­plete at least one CTE class, and the demo­graph­ics of par­ti­cipants mir­ror al­most ex­actly the gen­er­al high school pop­u­la­tion, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tion­al As­so­ci­ation of State Dir­ect­ors of Ca­reer Tech­nic­al Edu­ca­tion Con­sor­ti­um. Of the 16 “ca­reer clusters” the con­sor­ti­um has defined, the most pop­u­lar in­clude health sci­ence, in­form­a­tion tech­no­logy, and busi­ness and ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Even at elite col­leges, the concept of ca­reer pre­par­a­tion — rather than im­mer­sion in pure aca­dem­ic study — is gain­ing ground. At the private lib­er­al-arts col­leges ranked highest by U.S. News & World Re­port, the num­ber of gradu­ates in vo­ca­tion­al ma­jors — think edu­ca­tion or nurs­ing, rather than Eng­lish or bio­logy — in­creased from less than 11 per­cent in 1987 to 29 per­cent in 2012, Vic­tor E. Fer­rall Jr., a former pres­id­ent of Be­loit Col­lege, wrote last year in the Pa­cific Stand­ard.

TURN­AROUND AT DALTON HIGH

Years ago, when Debbie Free­man was an eighth-grade teach­er in Dalton, Latino stu­dents were treated dif­fer­ently than their white peers. Many of the Latino chil­dren were not nat­ive Eng­lish speak­ers, and, for that reas­on, fell be­hind aca­dem­ic­ally. Al­most re­flex­ively, Lati­nos were placed in re­medi­al classes when they entered high school. They wer­en’t ex­pec­ted to catch up.

When Free­man be­came Dalton High’s prin­cip­al in 2006, she helped the school ad­just to a stu­dent body that was ma­jor­ity Latino. “It doesn’t mat­ter, the eth­ni­city,” Free­man says now. What mat­ters is poverty at home, “the kinds of op­por­tun­it­ies the kids do and do not have.”

The city hired the South­ern Re­gion­al Edu­ca­tion Board to help over­haul the cur­riculum. Dalton High elim­in­ated all low-level courses and ad­ded more Ad­vanced Place­ment and In­ter­na­tion­al Bac­ca­laur­eate classes. The school helped stu­dents get tu­tor­ing and in­creased the num­ber of field trips, ex­pos­ing the teens to more learn­ing ex­per­i­ences.

Ex­ist­ing CTE pro­grams were aligned to cer­ti­fic­a­tions by in­dustry, which made them tough­er and gave stu­dents a found­a­tion for post­sec­ond­ary study, and new pro­grams were ad­ded that re­flec­ted the needs of nearby labor mar­kets. Auto shop was elim­in­ated. Home eco­nom­ics be­came “culin­ary arts.” Classes were in­tro­duced in graph­ic arts and video pro­duc­tion, and the school star­ted of­fer­ing a sci­ence, tech­no­logy, en­gin­eer­ing, and math cur­riculum de­signed by Pro­ject Lead the Way, a na­tion­al non­profit. All CTE courses em­phas­ize en­tre­pren­eur­ship and mar­ket­ing, to show stu­dents they can turn whatever they’re learn­ing in­to a small busi­ness.

Rais­ing the bar for stu­dents pushed teach­ers to do more. Teach­ers star­ted to meet in small groups to share best prac­tices. Many made more time to ment­or stu­dents. While Dalton High con­tin­ues to en­roll re­cent im­mig­rants with only a grade-school edu­ca­tion, the com­bin­a­tion of high­er ex­pect­a­tions and ex­tra sup­port has still nar­rowed the achieve­ment gap.

All on a shrink­ing budget. While state grants help to pay for new CTE pro­grams, state edu­ca­tion fund­ing has dropped an av­er­age of 15 per­cent per stu­dent since 2002, ac­cord­ing to the Geor­gia Budget and Policy In­sti­tute. Dalton’s loc­al per-stu­dent spend­ing has slipped by 11 per­cent — its tax rev­en­ue by 21 per­cent.

Dalton-area man­u­fac­tur­ers have stepped in as ad­visers to loc­al schools and com­munity col­leges, to help match the schools’ cur­ricula with em­ploy­ers’ needs. “In gen­er­al, in our com­pany, al­most every job has to have a high­er skill level than it used to,” said Bri­an Cook­sey, dir­ect­or of op­er­a­tions train­ing and de­vel­op­ment at Shaw In­dus­tries. The car­pet and floor­ing maker is look­ing for work­ers who can fix and re­pro­gram ma­chines that con­trol auto­mated fact­ory floors. That means find­ing elec­tri­cians who also un­der­stand com­puter pro­gram­ming and in­dus­tri­al sys­tems.

PATH­WAYS TO SUC­CESS

Edu­ca­tion in Geor­gia is in rough shape. Last year, the high school gradu­ation rate was just 70 per­cent. So­cial mo­bil­ity, schol­ars say, is one of the low­est for any state in the coun­try. Fifty-sev­en per­cent of pub­lic-school stu­dents are poor, and im­prov­ing their pro­spects for edu­ca­tion and em­ploy­ment is deemed crit­ic­al to the state’s eco­nom­ic fu­ture.

Geor­gia’s “ca­reer path­ways” ini­ti­at­ive is something of a turn­around strategy for all of the state’s pub­lic schools. State Su­per­in­tend­ent John Barge says the goal is to en­sure that stu­dents leave high school pre­pared for what comes next, wheth­er that’s a job, a two-year col­lege, or a four-year de­gree. “I’m con­vinced that in K-through-12 edu­ca­tion, we could do a much bet­ter job help­ing to pre­pare chil­dren for their next step,” he said in an in­ter­view.

Ca­reer edu­ca­tion in Geor­gia’s pub­lic schools now be­gins in kinder­garten. This year, all high school stu­dents must pur­sue a chosen path­way, with its se­quence of three courses in a par­tic­u­lar dis­cip­line. A stu­dent who chooses the “ag­ribusi­ness sys­tem” path­way, for ex­ample, might take classes in ba­sic ag­ri­cul­tur­al sci­ence, then in ag­ri­cul­tur­al man­age­ment, fol­lowed by ag­ri­cul­tur­al mar­ket­ing. A stu­dent in the “world lan­guages” path­way might take three ad­di­tion­al classes in French.

Geor­gia’s Le­gis­lature ap­proved the plan in 2011, and the state edu­ca­tion de­part­ment has worked with col­leges and in­dustry lead­ers to define 17 ca­reer clusters — and mul­tiple path­ways for each — that mat­ter most to Geor­gia’s eco­nomy. School dis­tricts choose which path­ways to of­fer or sug­gest their own, with the ex­pect­a­tion that they’ll con­sider loc­al needs. Not every school of­fers every path­way, par­tic­u­larly in rur­al dis­tricts. To en­sure ac­cess to a range of courses, the state is de­vel­op­ing on­line classes, and some dis­tricts are work­ing with nearby tech­nic­al col­leges to let high school­ers take courses on cam­pus.

For a path­ways ap­proach to serve stu­dents well, edu­cat­ors and poli­cy­makers must think of ca­reer ex­plor­a­tion and vo­ca­tion­al train­ing not as a sub­sti­tute for col­lege pre­par­a­tion but as a sup­ple­ment. And they must keep in mind that a stu­dent’s path after high school doesn’t al­ways un­fold as planned.

Yet a strong high school can’t com­pensate for a weak eco­nomy, par­tic­u­larly in Dalton, where the un­em­ploy­ment rate re­mains around 10 per­cent. Not long ago, Prin­cip­al Bar­too saw a re­cent Dalton High gradu­ate at a foot­ball game. The stu­dent was well qual­i­fied for col­lege but was work­ing full time as a creel­er, main­tain­ing the yarn sup­ply for a loc­al fact­ory’s car­pet-mak­ing ma­chine. “This is a kid who would prob­ably do very well at a high­er-skilled type of job, but they’re not there,” Bar­too said.

That’s why Dalton High is push­ing stu­dents to think like en­tre­pren­eurs. Its gradu­ates are the fu­ture of the loc­al eco­nomy. Rather than wait­ing for ex­ist­ing em­ploy­ers to start hir­ing, they’ll need the skills to build the jobs of the fu­ture for them­selves.

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