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
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.


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.


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.


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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