Remix of knowledge acquisition and practice are elements of Learning 2.0

The words “remix” and “mashup” entered the vocabulary as descriptors of life in the digital age.  They are also key to what I am calling Learning 2.0, the next full-scale version of public education.

At the simplest level, these new terms are represented by three teenagers using Apple Garage Band to combine bits and pieces of music into their own composition.  At a more complex level, the process of remix changes the nature of authorship, as it did for a recent book on digital learning in which the authors of the draft posted their text for comment and addition.  Hundreds of people responded, and the book draft is still undergoing revision even after its publication by a university press.

Remix and mashup are linguistic markers for a growing practice of peer-produced learning, one that extends the instinct for tinkering and play into an approach to learning and scholarship.  As pedagogy, these new words signal moving away from consumption to participation and from concentrating our attention on teaching to concentrating on learning.  The shift in learning is not necessarily computer driven.  As Connie Yowell, director of education at the MacArthur Foundation notes: “Our digital media and learning initiative is not about technology, turning our backs on teachers, or throwing out traditional literacy skills.  It is about what people do with digital media — especially the potential for peer-based learning.”  Indeed, the instinct for peer learning by doing infused the philosophy of John Dewey a century ago.

A glimpse of this world can be found in Exhibition Night at High Tech High in San Diego.  Students at High Tech High learn from a pedagogy that deliberately integrates things that schools and society have sought to separate: head and hands, school and community.   Thus, students in biology demonstrated their latest fieldwork, the DNA typing of samples from San Diego Bay.  The students’ trips to the shore are not casual encounters, but real science that has led to six published books.  Science is linked with history and language arts.  As biotechnology teacher Jay Vavra says pointing to the English classroom across the hall, “Remember Cannery Row?   I’m Ricketts; he’s Steinbeck.”

Once a year, High Tech High students present their work to parents and the community.  These evenings are more than Science Fair; the act of explaining one’s work is part of the curriculum.  Exhibition Night included student-written plays, a textbook on economics illustrated with linoleum block art, a conceptual art exhibit that was the product of lessons in geometry.  The crowd pleaser of the night was a homicide scene complete with a dead mannequin, crime scene tape, and blood splatters.  In his lab coat, the presenting student shows listeners how he and his fellow students were able to use geometry to determine the height and weight of the perpetrator and the type of murder weapon.  (Conclusion: The teacher did it; her DNA was found on a toothbrush left at the crime scene.)

Head and hand integration are also present at The Stanley E. Foster Construction Technology Academy, a San Diego Unified School District high school just miles away from High Tech High.  The school has broken down the traditional 7-period high school day into instructional blocks that allow students to pursue traditional academic subjects and exciting projects at the same time.  In 2007, some 81 percent of the graduates were accepted in colleges.

Unfortunately, educators and policy advocates are deeply divided about how and whether to create schools that combine learning and becoming.   Recently, Robert Schwartz, academic dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, did verbal battle with Kati Haycock, president of Education Trust, with Haycock saying that career-focused programs would mean giving up on the resources that low-income and minority kids need to succeed in school.

Schwartz and his colleagues had recently published Pathways to Prosperity that, among other things, criticized the college-for-all strategy as doomed to failure without much stronger career-oriented programs. Although the employment market is steadily demanding more education, they note, the largest employment bulge, and the greatest wage premium, appears for jobs requiring post-secondary licenses or certificates rather than bachelor’s degrees.

Linked Learning combines head and hands

Schools like High Tech High and the Construction Technology Academy have allowed practice to transcend the century-old debate over the value of academic versus vocational education.  They want both.  They believe the symbiosis engages students who would otherwise drop out or who would glide through high school’s path of least resistance.

Several California educators and organizations have been attempting to craft a practical solution.  Under the names Multiple Pathways or Linked Learning, policy advocates such as Jeannie Oakes at the Ford Foundation and David Rattray at the school and employer partnership, UNITE-LA, seek to create policies and practices that bring academic and career education together, getting beyond tracking.  Los Angeles Unified schools provide some vibrant examples:

Ninth grade students at the School for Global Studies near downtown Los Angeles tackled a project to support undocumented students who are headed to college, a homegrown version of the Dream Act.  Their task, the shell of a project designed by their teachers, was to design a fundraiser that would help these students with enough money to pay for their college applications.  The students I heard thought that luscious strawberries dipped in chocolate would be a sure seller.  They used their algebra skills to plot a break-even point and figure profit margins at different production levels, their English language arts skills to promote the effort, and their digital media skills to produce a mouth-watering video.

In the process of completing projects, students learn teamwork and self-monitoring.  They divide up the work and hold one another accountable.  If a student fails to produce, it lets the whole team down, and they—the other students—will intervene with the errant student and his or her parents.  Students also learn important oral communications skills.  Meanwhile, the students’ teachers continue to provide lessons, quizzes, and reading related to California standards and the test items and question forms used on the California Standards and the high school exit exam.

At a training facility near LAX, the Police Orientation and Preparation Program links the school district, West L.A. College, and the Los Angeles Police Department.  Students, who can come from any school in the city, enter as seniors or as community college freshmen.  The high school students can finish their college-entry required courses and earn college credit while finishing high school.  In two years it is possible for a high school senior to have graduated, earned an AA degree, and received a certificate qualifying them to work in a private security firm.  They also have a leg up on candidacy for the LAPD academy.

The police preparation program and Global Studies Academy prepare students for college and careers simultaneously.  In California, unlike many other locations, the state’s flagship university reviews individual course descriptions from public and private high schools to determine whether they meet entry requirements, known as the A-G requirements.  More than 5,600 courses, about 20 percent of all career-technical education offerings, already satisfy University of California entrance requirements.  UC also sponsors the Curriculum Integration Institute, where academic and career technical education experts meet to design integrative model courses.

As well as university standards, Linked Learning requires real world, craft and artistic standards.  For example, ACME animation, a non-profit organization, connects high school and college students with professional animators.  ACME grew from the teaching experience of Dave Master, who started an animation program at Rowland High School, east of Los Angeles, in 1977.  High school students begin as auditioners, but even from the start their work is subject to professional standards and critique.  No sugarcoating.  And the same method—not unlike introduction to the historic artisanal guilds—is used for more advanced students who want to earn a living in animation.  Professionals donate their time, and more than 3,000 students in 35 schools and colleges nationwide participate.  Four of these schools are in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The remix of head and hand is a powerful idea, but Linked Learning or Multiple Pathway schools have to work as organizations.  Because combining head and hand runs counter to many of the deep structures of American high schools, the multiple pathway idea becomes tractable because each pathway is usually contained in an “academy” within a larger school or a small school, such as a magnet, charter, or pilot school.  Thus, the capacity for remix, linking head and hand, lies partly in public policies that allow substantial autonomy and self-determination at the school level.

It’s difficult work, but it is one of the areas of education where California is a national leader.  The James Irvine Foundation has heavily supported Linked Learning, including founding ConnectEd, the California Center for College and Career.  A number of organizations, including the Buck Institute,  and the New Tech Network provide introductory training and an extensive library of projects that schools can adopt.

Charles Taylor Kerchner is Research Professor in the School of Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University, and a specialist in educational organizations, educational policy, and teacher unions. In 2008, he and his colleagues completed a four-year study of education reform of the Los Angeles Unified School District. The results of that research can be found in The Transformation of Great American School Districts and in Learning from L.A.: Institutional Change in American Public Education, published by Harvard Education Press. Readers can follow his writing at

New UC role: Grow career tech

Instead of just weeding out career technical courses, Sen. Darrell Steinberg wants  University of California educators to plant some career tech seeds and cultivate them.

That’s not something that the UC system, with a lingering bias against applied learning, had been comfortable with. But within four or five years – if  Steinberg’s goal is reached – UC will have helped create dozens, perhaps hundreds, of courses with career applications, elevating the substance and status of career tech as well as  injecting real-world content into classes that most California students take.

Steinberg, the Senate president pro tem, is the author of SB 611, which would write into law the mission of a new UC institute charged with overseeing the design of career tech courses satisfying the entrance requirements to UC and the California State University system. It’s in a package of three Steinberg bills that would significantly reshape K-12 education. SB 612 reauthorizing collaborative projects between UC educators and K-12 teachers, is partly a companion to SB 611 and would provide teacher training for the new courses that the Institute would establish. SB 547, which TOP-Ed contributor Fred Jones wrote about this week, would add new performance measures to the Academic Performance Index (API), while sharply deemphasizing standardized test scores in a handful of subjects.

All three bills were heard Wednesday before the Senate Education Committee, and Steinberg gave a speech about them later that day to the Sacramento Press Club.

“The package begins to change what gets taught by partnering with the UC to make applied career-focused curriculum the norm, not the exception,” Steinberg said in his speech.

A committee of the UC Academic Senate known as BOARS screens high school courses to decide if they can qualify for one of the 15 course requirements for UC and CSU known as A-G. According to Don Daves-Rougeaux, Associate Director of Undergraduate Admissions, Articulation and Eligibility of the University of California, the committee has approved nearly 10,000 CTE courses – over 40 percent of all CTE courses offered – based on a review of the syllabi.

But nearly all of these have been approved only to count toward the arts, lab science, and electives requirements of A-G. Only eight were sanctioned as satisfying the math, history, or English language arts requirements. It was this imbalance that Steinberg wanted to address when he pressed UC President Mark Yudof to create the University of California Curriculum Integration Institute.

The Institute identified career pathways, like bioengineering, and invites CTE and pure academic teachers to come together in four-day conferences to design a course that combines hands-on learning and core academic material.

So far, Institute panels have created only four courses qualifying for A-G, but, significantly, three meet the math requirement – Business Math, Business Statistics, and Da Vinci Algebra I, combining arts and math – and the fourth, Applied Medical English, satisfies the English requirement. The next conferences will develop math and lab science courses for three career pathway programs: engineering design, finance and business, and hospitality and tourism, Daves-Rougeaux said.

The CSU might have been a more natural fit for the Institute, since it trains most teachers in California and is not a research-focused system.  Steinberg approached Yudof because UC is the gatekeeper of A-G. But some CTE advocates are skeptical whether UC professors can understand the value of applied education. It’s like asking an English professor to design a course in Farsi, a different language entirely.

Sen. Alan Lowenthal, a retired community psychology professor at CSU-Long Beach, got to the heart of that issue in questioning Steinberg and Daves-Rougeaux. He surmised that the reaction of many at UC would be that incorporating applied learning would lower academic standards of UC admissions. “Is everyone embracing this?” he asked.

Daves-Rougeaux said that UC has already made the shift in approving thousands of career tech courses and that leaders of BOARS have participated in developing courses at the institute.

Steinberg acknowledged the Institute reflects “a big shift in culture” for UC, “no doubt about it.” CTE must not be a “niche” program; instead, hands-on, practical learning must become standard in schools, so that students see the relevance of what they are learning.

Representatives of business and a number of education groups testified in favor of all three of Steinberg’s bills. No one testified against them. SB 611 passed the Education Committee 7-3 with three Republicans voting against.

Steinberg’s SB 547 broadens accountability beyond test obsession

I have a good friend who taught at a high school, while his wife taught first graders. He provided an important observation by explaining that his wife’s elementary grade students would do anything to please Mrs. Smith, whereas Mr. Smith had to figure out a way to please his secondary students.

This transition of instructional approaches reflects the natural development and aspirations of youth. What may have worked to inspire a first grader would fall flat with a rebel-without-a-cause adolescent. A grade-school student rarely asks “Why do I have to learn such-and-such? I’ll never use it in life.” Yet that is the most common refrain of a secondary student struggling with a challenging subject. Effectively engaging teenagers by connecting their formal education with their life aspirations is the key instructional ingredient for high school students.

Policymakers should heed this insight into the adolescent mind, since they determine what schools will be held accountable for and how they’ll be measured. We should not be subjecting secondary students – and their schools – to the same narrow performance indicators as elementary schools. And, yet, under the current accountability system in California – led by the “Holy Grail” of K-12 measurements, the API – that is exactly what we are doing.

Since Academic Performance Index ratings are such a priority for homebuyers, every California real estate agent knows the exact numeric score of all of their neighborhood schools. But does anyone, including those in the media who faithfully publish with great fanfare these annual scores, have a clue what those three-digit numbers actually tell us about a school’s performance? Most would likely be shocked and a little disturbed to learn that the API is primarily based on only a narrow bandwidth of largely decontextualized, fill-in-the-bubble English and math test questions. The API says nothing about a school’s extracurricular and athletic programs; nil about a school’s commitment to inspire civic-mindedness; and zilch about its elective offerings. Nor does this singular accountability index of California schools include anything directly related to preparing students for life beyond K-12 education. This isn’t exactly the transparent accountability the public believes they are getting from API ratings.

SB 547, a measure introduced by the leader of the California State Senate, Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), acknowledges these deficiencies. This important legislation calls for additional performance indicators to be included in the API for our state’s high schools, including how well they are doing in preparing their students for postsecondary education opportunities and the real world of work. While every politician seems to be parroting the line that all high school graduates should be “college and career ready,” SB 547 actually does something to quantify this lofty goal. It does so by broadening API scoring for high schools by measuring specific performance standards related to college and career preparation. You can look at the long list of recommended, measurable criteria here, but some of the most notable ones include the number of students successfully completing college preparatory coursework and a sequence of career technical education classes; the academic and workforce performance of students a year following their high school graduation; and rates of students earning an occupation-specific license or certificate while enrolled in high school.

The exaggerated importance of the API cannot be overstated. In California, our elected representatives have codified an educational system in which we only value what is required, funded, and measured. These are the curricular drivers in K-12 education. Therefore, the primary courses being taught in our classrooms today are those subjects that are statutorily mandated, have dedicated funding streams, and are tested to gauge a school’s performance, regardless of that coursework’s relevance to students or the world beyond school. Many engaging subject-matter disciplines and course-sequenced programs that fall outside these drivers are being squeezed out of the instructional day, leaving far too many adolescents feeling disengaged. As a result, a third of high school students are voting with their feet and simply dropping out.

Given the fact that Career Technical Education (CTE) is not required for graduation or college admission, lacks a protected funding stream, and is not included in the state’s accountability system, we have seen an historic decrease in access to these engaging programs in our middle and secondary schools. In 1987, three-quarters of secondary students enrolled in these courses at their high school campus; last year, only 29 percent were able to do so. This unprecedented slide continues unabated, as shop classes continue to get shuttered, Business and Home Ec classrooms get converted to remediation centers, and career counselors go the way of the dodo bird.

The fundamental purpose of taxpayer-funded, compulsory education is to prepare every student to become a self-reliant, responsible citizen. Does anyone believe our state’s current tunnel vision into a school’s performance is a sufficient indicator of a school’s true value?

It is time California policymakers hold high schools accountable for practical outcomes that we all expect and should demand.  SB 547 is a critical means of doing just that

Fred Jones has nearly 20 years of policy experience in the State Capitol as both a legislative staffer and, since 2000, as a registered lobbyist and legal counsel to several education-related clients. His primary CTE-related client is the California Business Education Association, which is also a founding member of Get REAL California, a coalition of employers, labor groups, educators, and others concerned about CTE in California schools.

Money for green-tech academies

Gov. Jerry Brown this week signed legislation that at least will protect high school green-tech career academies from a state budget implosion and will even expand the number over the next few years. Doing so took some creative thinking from the bill’s sponsor, Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg.

SBX 1-1 will direct $40 million over five years from a fund for conservation and alternative energy uses financed by a tiny surcharge ($.0003 per kilowatt-hour) on utility bills. The money will sustain 45 partnership academies that are teaching job skills, hands-on learning, and academics in areas that many are betting will drive California’s economy in coming decades: solar and alternative energy, energy conservation, and clean technologies. There will also be enough to start 42 new academies – three-year small schools, generally serving between 200 and 250 students, within comprehensive academies. In total, up to 28,000 students, many of them at risk of dropping out, are projected to go through the programs.

Former Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoed a similar bill last year, claiming the use of ratepayer money for a K-12 program set a “dangerous precedent.” But labor and education groups, along with PG&E, backed it, citing the nexus between the conservation fund and critical workforce preparation. Few Republicans supported the bill, which required only a majority vote.

If only saving other K-12 programs were so easy.

A schism on college readiness

Robert Schwartz, academic dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, are allies on most aspects of school reform, but fundamentally disagree on whether the mission of high school ought to be to prepare all students for college. Haycock says that’s an absolute; Schwartz says it’s too narrow.

“The mantra of ‘college for all’ needs to be much broader; kids need more chances for learning that are tied to careers,” said Schwartz during a debate with Haycock at the National Education Writers Association conference in “The Big Easy.”   Schwartz and his colleagues at Harvard touched a nerve with some civil rights groups like Haycock’s with a report last February that questioned the wisdom of putting so much emphasis on trying to get every student into college when at most a third of U.S. jobs will require a bachelor’s degree over the next decade.

Robert Schwartz, Academic Dean of Harvard Graduate School of Education
Robert Schwartz, Academic Dean of Harvard Graduate School of Education

“Four-year colleges have undue influence over what is required for all kids,” said Schwartz.  “Institutions that serve less than a third should not be calling the shots for all students.” Schwartz agrees with President Obama that the emphasis for high school graduates should include boosting the number of students who earn occupational certificates and two-year community college degrees and raising completion rates for four-year colleges.

He says the way to do this is to offer more career–focused courses and programs in high schools, as many California schools already do. For students who don’t see themselves sitting through four more years of classes, these programs provide training for well-paying skilled jobs like commercial construction, nursing, and manufacturing.

Kati Haycock, President of Education Trust
Kati Haycock, President of Education Trust

Haycock says to do so would be to give up before the nation has even committed the resources, including quality teachers and preschool, that low-income and minority kids need to succeed in school. “The wonderful examples of programs in California serving poor kids are the exception, not the rule,” said Haycock. She chastised Schwartz for a double standard: “There’s always a reason to worry when prescriptions for other peoples’ children differ from prescriptions for our own children.”

They did find some common ground, agreeing that the new Common Core standards that California and 42 other states adopted will raise expectations of what students are supposed to learn. They disagree, however, on the definition of career and college readiness. Schwartz says that college readiness should be defined as preparing students for post-secondary education without the need for remediation. Expectations for all students should be the same through 10th grade – “a critical checkpoint” – after which students can pursue individualized career and college goals. He disagrees that there should be one set of classes that every student has to take, and specifically mentioned California’s A-G courses required for admission to the University of California and California State University.

Haycock insists that the core curriculum should be the same for all students for all four years of high school. “To do anything short of that is fundamentally destructive,” she said. “The goal should be to articulate a set of common standards for what all kids need to do so that they can make the choice after high school instead of us making the choice for them.”

John Fensterwald stepped away from the French Quarter to co-author this blog.

Career tech turns to ratepayers

Funding is in jeopardy for 200 of the state’s 470 partnership academies, the three-year high school programs that prepare students for jobs and college majors in a range of industries. Gov. Jerry Brown can secure the future for 45 of them and create an additional 42, all focusing  on the emerging fields of green and clean technologies, if he signs SBX 1-1.

The bill, authored by Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, would pay for the academies by directing $8 million annually for five years from a fund for conservation and alternative energy uses. The fund is financed by a small surcharge ($.0003 per kilowatt-hour) on utility bills that will generate about $61 million this year; it  is administered by the California Energy Commission.

It was the use of ratepayers’ money to fund a K-12 program that led Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to veto Steinberg’s bill last year – he called it a “dangerous precedent” – and most Republicans opposed it again this year. However, the bill had the support of PG&E, several  labor unions, the Education Coalition, and conservation and alternative energy groups that argued that preparing future workers in high-tech and alternative energy industries will be critically important to California and is an appropriate use of the fund. Given cuts to education, defenders of career technical education are desperately looking for sources of money to keep them going.

Partnership academies are small programs within comprehensive high schools, generally serving 200 to 250 students, that combine technical training and hands-on learning with college preparatory courses, industry internships, and counseling. Graduation rates are generally higher than the state average, even though they recruit students who were at risk of dropping out. They are organized around industry sectors, including manufacturing, agriculture, construction and building technologies, computer arts, medicine and health, and engineering. Steinberg estimates that in the next five years 28,000 students would attend the green-tech academies funded by the bill. Ninth graders also could enroll.

Two-thirds of partnership academies are funded through Proposition 98; although their funding has been cut, they will survive. But funding is due to run out next year for 150 academies established four years ago under SB 70, which Gov. Schwarzenegger advocated, and 54 green-technologies academies created at about the same time. Democratic Sen. Loni Hancock of Berkeley is the author of SB 500, which at least would continue funding half of the SB 70 academies. Steinberg’s bill would save most of the green-technologies academies. Students in various programs at these academies learn how to build wind turbines and fuel cells, how to install solar collectors, or how to design solar homes. They study photovoltaic and energy conservation technologies.

The biggest challenge has been finding certified career-tech instructors who have had experience working in these emerging industries.

Under SBX 1-1, funding would expire and the program would be reevaluated in five years. Brown’s staffers have given no sign whether he will sign the bill.

Shortage of vocational degrees

To meet the growing market for jobs demanding post-high-school education, the state’s community colleges must sharpen their focus to encourage more students to get vocational certificates and associate degrees in technical subjects, a new study has concluded.

In The Road Less Traveled: Realizing the Potential of Career Technical Edcation” the Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy at Sacramento State raised significant questions about the low completion rate in career technical education, a core mission of community colleges. It found that while 30 percent of course enrollments are in vocational courses, only 3 percent of degree-seeking students entering in 2003-04 got a certificate and only 5 percent got a vocational associate degree within six years. It doesn’t say how this compares nationally.

While acknowledging data are sparse to draw definitive conclusions, the authors suggested possible reasons:

  • An abundance of certificate programs  – dozens of  in fields with well-paying jobs, including health technologies (medical records clerk, lab assistant) and manufacturing (machinist and systems technician) – but little guidance for students. This is a particular disadvantage for high school graduates who took career tech programs only to find no clear “road maps” or pathways to follow in community college, according to the study. “There is not a a streamlined or coherent structure of programs,” said Nancy Shulock, executive director of the Institute.

  • A failure to build basic skills courses in math and literacy into certificate programs. Many CTE teachers discourage certificate students from taking basic skills courses for fear they will not pass them and quit, the report says. The problem is that employers then devalue certificate programs that produce workers without basic skills.
  • A lack of status within the system.Despite the national research findings that certificates of at least one year and associate degrees in occupational fields have good economic returns, such credentials appear to be undervalued in California,” and among community college faculty, the report said.

This could partly explain why many students appear to have more than enough credits – over 30 – to have completed a certificate program en route to an associate degree. Instead, they don’t complete the associate degree or they join the majority of students who pursue interdisciplinary studies instead of a technical field. Only 23 percent of community college students manage to transfer to a four-year university or achieve an associate degree.

Among the recommendations in the report:

  • Require all students who indicate a goal of a certificate, associate degree, or transfer to state their plan of study. Those who are “undeclared” would receive guidance to commit to a major or program by some certain point.
  • Consider fewer and more consistent program offerings. Noting that a national study found a profusion of offers were creating similar problems in other states, the Institute suggested that “a condensed set of choices across colleges might be more efficient for students and taxpayers.”
  • Integrate basic skills courses into certificate programs.
  • Reconsider the nature of an associate degree for students not considering transferring to a four-year university. One possibility, which the faculty senate has rejected, would be an applied associate degree. It’s a difficult issue. On the one hand, it  might help the attainment rate in technical fields and raise the value of an associate degree in the eyes of employers. On the other hand, it might devalue the academic worth of an associate degree in the eyes of four-year schools and complicate a student’s choice to transfer.

The Institute, which has issued provocative reports calling for major reforms in governance and financing of community colleges, plans to look deeper into the issues it raised. Among the questions it will pursue:

  • How many students satisfy certificate requirement but fail to officially earn one? Why do students amass so many excess units along the way to earning certificates and associate degrees?
  • What levels of math and English proficiency do individual certificate programs require? Are these levels appropriate in view of employer expectations?
  • Are there sufficient opportunities for incoming students – especially those coming directly from high school – to receive academic and career advice to help them understand available CTE program options?

‘College for all’ strategy misguided

A Harvard Graduate School of Education report that urges moving away from a “college for all” approach to education reform has created a coast-to-coast roiling debate.

“Pathways to Prosperity: Meeting the Challenge of Preparing Young Americans for the 21st Century” calls for a much broader approach to secondary education than a college-prep curriculum for a four-year university.  It should emphasize multiple career and college pathways in high school leading to associate’s degrees and job skills certificates.

An estimated two-thirds of jobs that will be created over the next decade will require some education beyond high school, notes the report. But half of these will demand less than an associate’s degree, for jobs in nursing, commercial construction, health-care technology and manufacturing that demand technical skills. More than a quarter of people holding licenses short of an associate’s degree earn more than the average person with a bachelor’s degree. Meanwhile, only 40 percent of young people who start college attain a bachelor’s or associate’s degree by their mid-20s. Most have little to show but debt.

The report is being praised as a dose of reality by business organizations and career and technical education advocates – especially vocational  teachers, who have seen their ranks depleted as middle and high schools have focused on core academic subjects. But some advocates of universal college-prep curriculums, like the A-G requirements for admission to CSU and UC campuses, worry about taking a step backward to tracking of low-income, minority kids and giving up prematurely on a movement committed to higher achievement for all children. “Here comes a report that wrongly suggests to them that all of the work they’ve put into this effort has been for naught,” said Kati Hancock, president of Washington-based The Education Trust.

There is middle ground between those advocating A-G as a default curriculum, including my employer, Silicon Valley Education Foundation, and the old guard at regional centers, offering stand-alone vocational courses. In California, it is 500 partnership academies, schools within larger schools combining academics, technical training and counseling, and an ambitious plan by ConnectEd California to expand the multiple-pathways approach to college and career training to whole districts. The report highlights this “linked learning initiative,” and Hancock, while noncommittal, says Ed Trust is examining it. Academic courses in the partnership academies are aligned with A to G requirements.

“Pathways to Prosperity” recommends looking at European nations, especially Denmark and Finland, where, after taking common courses through ninth or tenth grade, most students take a program combining workplace and classroom learning. The United States, the report says, is “an outlier in its approach to preparing young people for success. … We need to revolutionize our approach. Students should have plentiful opportunities to participate in work-linked learning – ranging from job shadowing to internships – in secondary schools.”

The elephant in the classroom

The challenge is to avoid reverting to tracking: steering low-income and minority children into non-college-bound classes, a prevalent past practice that continues. In California, the goal would remain for all students to complete Algebra I by the end of eighth or, at latest, ninth grade, to be at grade level in English, and to take courses that by the end of sophomore year leave open the option of going on to a four-year college.

The state must back up that commitment by extending the school day, attracting the best teachers to underperforming schools, and providing them extra resources, says Manny Barbara, vice president of the Silicon Valley Education Foundation. “Attention to jobs and careers cannot be an excuse to give up on equity,” he says.

If there were more money, there would be opportunities to expand middle school career education and counseling, apprenticeships in high school, and multiple pathways. But for now, there are only cuts. In some districts, vocational courses like wood shop and electives are being eliminated to make room for catchup courses in English or math.

On top of that, career and technical education is “on the outside of the three drivers of K-12 education: what is required, what is funded, and what is tested. CTE is not part of high school course mandates or testing,” so it remains vulnerable, says attorney Fred Jones, spokesman for the California Business Education Association.

The implication for California is, in the near run, to protect partnership academies and career and technical education from further budget cuts, says Gary Hoachlander, president of ConnectEd. When there eventually is additional funding, he says, a priority should be to expand the high school day from six periods to seven or eight. Then, he says, students will be able to do job shadowing and engage in experiences in real-world learning with time for taking other electives and repeating a course if necessary. “It wouldn’t come down to pitting the arts against CTE,” he says.

Career tech center’s high grad rate

The Center for Advanced Research and Technology in Clovis is an impressive place, a model facility for career and technical education that other school districts will recreate one day when they once again have money.

Serving 1,300 students in Clovis and Fresno, CART blends college prep academics with technical skills for juniors and seniors who work half-days in 13 labs. They include biomedical engineering, forensic science, engineering, advanced communications, and global dynamics.

CART teachers and administrators have had testimonials and anecdotal evidence from employers and students who said they found the real-world exposure to college and careers challenging and inspiring. Now, there is additional data to support these assumptions.

A seven-year study showed that a larger proportion of CART graduates go on to community college than high school graduates statewide, and also significantly larger numbers than similarly matched peers in Clovis and Fresno. To a lesser extent, the comparison also holds for graduates who go on to a four-year university.

Overall, 72 percent of CART graduates since 2002-03 went on to community college, compared with 29 percent of high school graduates statewide. That comparison held up for all demographic groups, including African American graduates (68 to 32 percent) and Hispanics (73 to 32 percent).

More pertinent was the peer comparison, matching students in CART with juniors and seniors in the district with similar demographics, parent education levels, and scores on standardized tests; 71 percent of CART grads enrolled in community college, compared with 60 percent of their peers. The difference held a year later, with 62 percent of CART graduates still enrolled in community college, compared with 51 percent of non-CART graduates.

Students solder at a robotics lat at CART (courtesy of CART).
Students solder at a robotics lat at CART (courtesy of CART).

CART courses are A-G aligned, fulfilling an admission requirement to a CSU or UC campus. The percentage of CART graduates going on to a four-year university was 23 percent, compared with 21 percent of non-CART graduates. The study didn’t tabulate the percentage of students who chose community college to save money and then transferred to UC or CSU after two years.

The study was done by California Partnership for Achieving Student Success, with funding by the James Irvine Foundation, a key promoter of the concept of linked learning. This strategy prepares students for work careers or college through project-based, technical applications within career pathways. Irvine has funded district-wide linked learning planning in a dozen districts.

CART, serving as a regional facility for students from 13 high schools, differs from career academies – small schools within a school that provide three-year programs in a career pathway, along with internships and academic support. Career academies also have increased college-going rates, especially for students at risk, by creating a small-school community.

Devin Blizzard, CEO of CART, said that CART, too, has been able to provide students with a small learning community. The 100 students in each of the 13 career pathways study and work together daily in a three-hour interdisciplinary block, team-taught by three teachers. They break into small groups for hands-on projects; about 40 percent have internships.

CART has equipment that few individual high schools can afford, like polymerase chain-reaction machines and a spectrometer in the $1.5 million lab for the biomedical program that opened last fall. The psychology lab is team-taught by a chemistry, English, and neuroscience teacher (the only California program with a teacher who majored in neuroscience, according to Blizzard).

“The CART effect is not just technical knowledge but a set of values, like tenacity,” Blizzard said. “Students get to experience a profession in a high school environment.”

Career academies must become model, not niche, for engaging students

While unemployment rates remain stubbornly high, there is another grim reality we cannot ignore. Figures released last month by the California Dept. of Education indicate that more than one in five students – 22 percent – in the Mt. Diablo Unified School District drop out of school, matching that of the state as a whole.

As a parent with three children in the district, I find this statistic alarming. As a businessman, I know this data is indicative of the trouble companies have in finding highly skilled workers to fill jobs. As a local policymaker, I am proud to say that there are efforts under way within the district and throughout California to address both the dropout crisis and the challenge of preparing all of our youth for the modern workforce.

According to the national business leader organization America’s Edge, employers say that even applicants with a four-year college degree are entering the workforce underprepared. So it is no surprise that those who are coming straight out of high school are even less prepared for careers in today’s knowledge-based economy. Dropouts have even fewer options and, unfortunately, many turn to crime, which further burdens our economy and depletes our local resources.

Not every high school student must go on to a four-year university, but every student should have the opportunity to do so. Every student should also be prepared for the world beyond school. With or without a degree, job seekers must enter the workforce as communicators, collaborators, and critical thinkers.

In an effort to achieve these goals and ensure that public education in the 21st century is relevant, schools around the state have turned to a model that links academics with career-technical education and work-based learning opportunities.

Recently, I visited the Architecture, Construction, Manufacturing and Engineering (ACME) Academy at Mt. Diablo High School in Concord. The 156 students in the program receive their core subjects – English, math, and science – through the lens of this particular industry sector, which helps keep them interested and engaged in school. The integration and cross-subject projects allow them to see the connection between what they are learning in school and how it applies to the real world.

The students I spoke to were enthusiastic about the work they were doing. They relished the challenges of developing and executing their work plans. They were confident and proud of their accomplishments. It was clear they were applying traditional high school subjects in a way that resonated with them and reinforced their pursuits. It was inspiring to see kids having fun while actively learning.

The ACME Academy is supported by partnerships with Chevron, USS-POSCO Industries, the Contra Costa Water District, and the local carpenters, electricians, mechanics, and pipefitters unions, which provide industry support and curriculum guidance. But ACME is just one local example. Other Linked Learning academies are based on California’s biggest industries, such as information technology, health science, law, and hospitality – and each academy has its own industry partners.

Research shows that these programs are working. Nationally, high-risk students who participate in career academies are far less likely to drop out of school. Participating students go on to work 12 percent more hours per week and earn 11 percent more money than students not in the programs.

Yet too often, such academies are dismissed as niche programs intended for kids who cannot succeed in a mainstream, college-track curriculum. So-called “vocational education” has become a negative term, synonymous with underachievement and limitations. Such thinking is outdated and misses the critical point that our current approach is failing to produce the relevant, contemporary, and effective education all of our students need to become better prepared to compete in our global economy. As our times are new, we must think anew and look to new models and approaches to most effectively prepare all of our children for the world in which we live.

Kish Rajan is a member of the Walnut Creek City Council and has been a mobile technology professional in the Bay Area since 1996.