UC turns career tech ed-friendly

A decade ago, 258 career technical education courses counted toward satisfying requirements for admission to the California State University or the University of California. Today, the number has grown to 9,079 courses, closing in on the 2012 goal of 10,000 courses that the Legislature set several years ago.

The numbers reflect a dramatic shift in the mindset toward CTE by the University of California, whose faculty determines which courses meet A-G, the 15 subjects that all students must pass to apply to a four-year state university. They dispel the myth that UC discourages the submission of CTE courses for A-G approval, Nina Costales told attendees at the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s annual career technical education conference on Thursday. Costales oversees the course review process for the UC Office of the President.

In years past, it’s been true that UC professors, as definers of rigor, looked down their noses at applied learning. But that has changed, as UC felt pressure from the top – the Legislature, led by Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg – and the bottom – a groundswell from high schools, encouraged by the Irvine Foundation – to expand CTE and inject real-world learning into academic courses.

“We are listening to the schools,” Costales told me.

Of the 9,079 courses, two approved this year reflect the sea change: Accounting, and Business Algebra II. The requirement of passing Algebra II, particularly at CSU, has often been criticized by those who question its relevance for non-science majors. Many had predicted that UC would never approve a course that strayed from a standard, textbook Algebra II.

Business Algebra II was created over a four-day retreat at Lake Arrowhead in May. It was organized by the University of California Curriculum Integration Institute, which brings together CTE and academic high school teachers, UC professors, and education experts to design courses that cross disciplines. One of Steinberg’s bills, SB 611, now sitting on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk, would write the Institute into law and expand the course offerings, as state money permits.

Richard Stapenhorst, a teacher at the Finance Academy at Independence High in San Jose, was on the team that designed Business Algebra II. Students who take it will use logarithms and exponential functions in cost-benefit analyses and use linear programming to maximize profits. They will use scatter plots to set varying prices for selling drinks on hot and cold days. For students who see no relevance for Algebra II, the course will show practical applications and perhaps pique their interest to pursue higher education.

Stapenhorst had been a skeptic of UC’s role as gatekeeper of courses. The experience at the Institute turned his views “180 degrees.”

“It became clear that UC is doing the best it can to incorporate CTE and its own requirements for academics without losing sight of its mission,” he said.

A separate obstacle, not of UC’s making, is who will teach cross-discipline courses like Business Algebra. If taught by a math teacher, it will satisfy the math requirement, but if taught by a business teacher, it will satisfy only an elective requirement, the “G” in A-G. Under the No Child Left Behind requirement for highly qualified teachers, core subjects must be taught by teachers credentialed in those areas.

Until this year, UC had never accepted an accounting course. Stapenhorst has submitted what he hopes will be the third to be approved. UC had assumed Accounting was nothing more than bookkeeping. But his course will include economic modeling and topics in finance and require that students write papers, said Stapenhorst, who worked a quarter-century in high-tech marketing and sales before turning to teaching.

Granting an A-G elective to Accounting should help him expand the Finance Academy, a three-year California Partnership Academy that by law must focus on at-risk students. Since East Side Union High School District voted this year to adopt A-G as a default graduation requirement, his students will need elective credits like Accounting. Awarding A-G credits will also entice college-bound students outside of the Finance Academy to get a taste of a business course for a possible major or career path.

Most CTE courses satisfy only “G” as electives. But among the lab science courses that UC has approved (the “D” requirement) are Biotechnology, Applied Physics and Engineering, Engineering Physics and Geometry (satisfying science and math), and Forensic Biology.

“We want to provide more options for students. Courses like Automotive Physics may excite students to design cars and seek higher education,” Costales said.

Author: John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (www.TOPed.org), one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

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