Voc ed can be a path to college

Minuteman’s biotechnology students, here seen dissecting dogfish, aspire to careers in biomedical engineering and forensic science. Most go to college. Photo: Emily Hanford

Massachusetts’ vocational high schools are preparing students for college, not just for the workforce, writes Emily Hanford on Marketplace.

At Minuteman Regional High School in Lexington, students can learn carpentry, plumbing and welding — and “high tech fields such as video game design, engineering, and biotechnology.”

Minuteman students spend half their time in vocational classes – often referred to as “career and technical classes – and half their time in academic courses. About 60 percent of the school’s graduates go on to college. That’s not the way things were when principal Ernest Houle learned welding at a vocational high school back in the 1980s.

“The highest-level math I ever had in high school was an Algebra 1,” says Houle. “And that only happened my sophomore year because it fit in the schedule.”

These days, “career tech” students can take a full range of college-prep courses.

In 2013, students at regional vocational high schools in Massachusetts did as well on the state English tests (92 percent proficient) as students at traditional high schools (93 percent proficient), notes Hanford. In math, 78 percent of vocational students were proficient compared to 82 percent at traditional high schools.

After years in private school, Sean and Brandon Datar chose Minuteman.

“Being an engineer myself, I like the fact that schools like this cater to making an actual living,” says their father, Nijan Datar. He wasn’t impressed by the top-rated public and private high schools in the Boston suburbs.

. . .  the main goal seemed to be getting students into the best, and most expensive, colleges. But no one seemed to be talking about what kids were going to do with their college degrees once they got them.

His wife, Teresa Datar, says high school students need more direction.

“My feeling is that in many high schools, students don’t know why they’re in the classes that they’re in. They’re just kind of biding time,” she says. “And then they go off to college and they flounder.”

Brandon is now a freshman at the Colorado School of Mines, working on a bachelor’s degree in geological engineering. Sean is a sophomore at Minuteman, majoring in robotics.

Who graduates from college?

Of 100 students from four different income groups who began a two-year or four-year college in 2002, who earned a degree by 2008? asks the Washington Post. (Click the link to check out the nice graphics.) Surprisingly few.

In six years, only 30 students completed a bachelor’s degree. That includes 12 students of 25 from the top quartile in family income ($92,000+) and four of 25 from the bottom quartile (less than $32,000). Another 14 students — two from the top quartile and five from the bottom quartile — earned an associate degree or certificate.

Three high-income students and seven low-income students are among the 21 dropouts. Thirty-five students from all income groups were still trying to complete a degree.

Only 56 percent of the highest-income students, 44 percent of the upper-middle group, 40 percent of lower-middle incomes and 36 percent of the lowest-income students had earned a credential of any kind in six years.

I’m not surprised that students from low-income (and usually poorly educated families) have trouble earning a degree. I’m shocked that middle- and upper-middle-class families get only half their kids through college in six years. Giving full-time students an extra two years to complete a bachelor’s degree raises completion rates by less than 5 percent, according to Complete College America’s Time is the Enemy.

‘Thrones’ prof wins free-speech case

An art professor who posted a photo of his daughter in a Game of Thrones T-shirt no longer has to fear being fired for “disparaging” remarks or “unbecoming” conduct.

The photo went to Francis Schmidt’s Google + contacts, including a dean at Bergen Community College in New Jersey. Not a fan of the hit TV series, she thought the quote on the shirt — “I will take what is mine with fire & blood” — was a threat to the campus rather than to the fictional continent of Westeros.

Should everyone learn to code?

Should Schools Mandate Computer-Coding Classes? asks Fawn Johnson on National Journal.

Chicago Public Schools will offer introductory computer science at every high school by the end of next year. Soon, computer science will be a graduation requirement, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said at the Internet World of Things Forum.

Los Angeles also is expanding computer science classes in public high schools.

Both cities are following the lead of Code.org, a nonprofit bankrolled by tech giants such as Microsoft and Google, writes Johnson. In December, Code.org will launch a campaign to promote its “hour of code” tutorials.

She wonders if students will learn programming — or just keyboarding.

Second, what do the students think they are getting from these courses? Do they expect to go to Silicon Valley and find a job? Not everyone wants to grow up to be a computer programmer, which means that in Chicago, a sizable chunk of students who will be required to learn computer code may also need to understand why they should care. Do teachers have an answer?

Third, will students be able to get the full benefit of a computer-science course if they aren’t already up to speed on other core subjects like math and physics?

I’m very dubious about teaching coding to everyone, including the many students who’ve never mastered middle-school math.

Teacher-centric charter raises scores

At The Equity Project, a charter school for grades 5 through 8 in New York City, teachers start at $125,000 with a chance to earn a $25,000 bonus. They have none of the traditional job protections. The idea is to attract and develop exceptional teachers to work with disadvantaged students.

Kadeem Gill teaches sixth-grade math at The Equity Project.

Kadeem Gill teaches sixth-grade math at The Equity Project.

After four years at the school, eighth graders have learned significantly more — especially in math — than similar students in district schools, concludes a Mathematica study.

TEP students “had test score gains equal to an additional 1.6 years of school in math, an additional 0.4 years of school in English language arts, and an additional 0.6 years of school in science,” Mathematica reported. That closed 78 percent of the Hispanic-white achievement gap in math, 17 percent in English language arts, and 25 percent in science. (Nearly all of TEP’s students are Hispanic.)

The founder and principal, Zeke Vanderhoek, earns $94,000 a year, less than his teachers, notes the Wall Street Journal.  The “charter has a lean administrative staff and slightly larger classes—31 students compared with an average of about 26 or 27 in district schools—so it can pour resources into teacher pay and training.”

Job applicants submit video of their teaching styles and evidence of their students’ growth. If invited for an interview, they have daylong auditions, leading classes under scrutiny of the staff.

Teachers are observed by colleagues and get feedback weekly, and they have four weeks of full-day professional development each year. Days are long, with teachers at work from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and students attending from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Many teachers don’t last. Of 43 hired during the four years studied, 47% didn’t return for a second year, in most cases because they weren’t asked back. That is higher turnover than in district middle schools, where 27% don’t come back for a second year, the study said.

The charter’s students resemble students in district schools in their academic backgrounds and attrition rate, the study found. TEP did not expel any students. In 2012-13, about 21 percent of the charter’s students were English language learners and 21 percent had special needs, city data show.

“While the charter’s students showed more growth, many still struggled,” the Journal reports. Forty-three percent of TEP eighth graders passed state math exams in 2013, compared to 28 percent citywide.

Higher pay lets the school pick from a large pool of applicants. But is the key to success the intensive training and feedback? Or just the willingness to fire teachers who aren’t quite good enough?

Chalkbeat New York looks at teacher Kadeem Gill, who grew up in public housing projects in the city. He got a scholarship to boarding school, then went to Princeton. His brother, who had behavioral and emotional problems, dropped out at 16. His half-brother was shot to death.

Homework: Report on your medicine cabinet

What’s in the family’s medicine cabinet? At a Utah junior high, students were told to report the contents — including prescription drugs — as a homework assignment in health class.

Students were told were to list when the medications expire and if the medications are FDA approved.

One parent — and only one — complained. “Although it may be a good idea for parents to do an inventory of their medicine cabinet, I believe it is inappropriate for students to counsel their parents or report to the school what that inventory is,” said Onika Nugent, mother of a student.

The district issued an apology.

Beyond the skills gap

Job training has moved from employers to colleges, but job seekers often can’t get student aid for short-term programs and can’t “stack” their credentials to move up the job ladder.

Connected to the future

Senior Gerardo Lopez talks to Education Secretary Arne Duncan at San Francisco's Burton High School.

Senior Gerardo Lopez talks to Education Secretary Arne Duncan at San Francisco’s Burton High School.

Most students like Gerardo Lopez — Latinos and blacks from low-income and working-class families — enroll in community college, take a few remedial courses and drop out. They’ve been told they should go to college, but nobody’s told them what level of academic skills are necessary to pass college-level courses.

Many think any major will qualify them for a good job. They don’t know how the system works.

“Gerardo Lopez is preparing to turn his dreams into reality,” I write on Open Standard.

“Hands-on” learning opportunities drew Lopez, a Honduran immigrant, to the engineering academy at Phillip and Sala Burton Academic High School in San Francisco. “As a kid, I loved to make little cars, bringing parts together to make something come alive,” he says.

But he didn’t know engineering was a possible career. His father is a hotel janitor; his mother is a housewife.

Now a senior, he spends two days a week as an “extern” at an architectural firm. Lopez hopes to major in mechanical engineering – or perhaps architecture – at a University of California campus or Stanford. If he hadn’t signed up for the engineering academy, “I wouldn’t have known what I wanted to do with my life,” he said.

Burton offers “career academies” in engineering, health sciences and information technology, all high-demand fields. Students take college-prep and career-prep courses together, visit workplaces, do job shadows and compete for summer internships.

“Employers say they can’t find the skilled workers they need,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan told business and education leaders at Burton High last week. But CEOs aren’t talking to superintendents. “There’s a total disconnect.

Thirty-five percent of Burton High graduates enroll in four-year universities, said Principal Bill Kappenhagen. Another 43 percent go to community college and 22 percent go straight to the workforce.  The six-year graduation rate is high – 90 percent – for the four-year students, he said. But only 10 percent of those who go to City College of San Francisco graduate in six years.

What’s going wrong for the community college contingent? Some get bogged down in remedial courses or overwhelmed by work and job responsibilities. I’d guess many more would succeed if they aimed for a technical certificate or two-year vocational degree rather than taking general education courses.

Why Americans like their local schools

Forty-seven percent of the public gave their local public schools an “A” or “B” in the 2014 Education Next survey, while 18 percent gave them a “D” or “F.”  When asked to rate the nation’s public schools, just 20 percent awarded an “A” or a “B,” and 24 percent handed out a “D” or “F.”

This happens in just about every survey: Americans are very critical of schools in general but supportive of their local schools.

Why Do Americans Rate Their Local Public Schools So Favorably? asks Martin R. West at Brookings’ Chalkboard blog.

As part of the 2014 EdNext survey, respondents were asked to estimate how well the average student in their district performs in math relative to students elsewhere.  They were quite accurate.

When asked to estimate how much is spent per pupil nationwide, the public makes an average estimate of $10,155 — quite close to the Census Bureau’s estimate of $10,608 in current spending per-pupil for 2012 and only modestly lower than the Department of Education’s estimate of $12,608 for 2011 (which includes capital and debt expenses).

But when asked about spending in their local school district, they estimate only $6,486 per pupil on average.  In other words, Americans believe that their local schools spend just two-thirds the amount they believe public schools spend nationally – and roughly half what their local schools actually spend.

Those who underestimated spending gave higher grades to their local schools than “respondents with accurate information on school spending.”

App does the math

Scan your homework into PhotoMath, and let the app solve your problems, suggests Denver’s 7NEWS. “It gives you both the final answer and the step-by-step solution. The app supports basic arithmetic, fractions, decimals, algebra, and most linear equations.”

There’s no need to type numbers and operations into a calculator.