How to make school work for boys

“American boys across the ability spectrum are struggling in the nation’s schools,” argues Christina Hoff Sommers in The Atlantic. There are ways we can make school better for boys, writes Sommers, author of The War Against Boys.

First, we have to “acknowledge the fact that boys and girls are different.”

In many education and government circles, it remains taboo to broach the topic of sex differences. Many gender scholars insist that the sexes are cognitively interchangeable and argue that any talk of difference only encourages sexism and stereotyping.

Yet, “boys are languishing academically, while girls are soaring,” writes Sommers, who has plenty of statistics to back up her case.

Career tech education works well for many boys (and some girls), Sommers writes. In Massachusetts’ network of 26 academically rigorous vocational-technical high schools, students “take traditional academic courses but spend half their time apprenticing in a field of their choice. These include computer repair, telecommunications networking, carpentry, early childhood education, plumbing, heating, refrigeration, and cosmetology.”

These schools boast high graduation and college matriculation rates; close to 96 percent of students pass the states’ graduation test.

Blackstone Valley Tech in Upton, Massachusetts, should be studied by anyone looking for solutions to the boy problem.  It is working wonders with girls (who comprise 44 percent of the student body), but its success with boys is astonishing. According to a white paper on vocational education by the Commonwealth’s Pioneer Institute, “One in four Valley Technical students enter their freshman year with a fourth-grade reading level.” The school immerses these students in an intense, individualized remediation program until they read proficiently at grade level. These potentially disaffected students put up with remediation as well as a full load of college preparatory courses (including honors and Advanced Placement classes), because otherwise they could not spend half the semester apprenticing in diesel mechanics, computer repair, or automotive engineering.

However, career tech education faces a challenge from the National Council on Women and Girls Education, which considers vocational schools as hotbeds of “sex segregation,” writes Sommers. The consortium and its members have spent decades lobbying to force career tech programs to get female students into “non-traditional” fields.

Over the years, untold millions of state and federal dollars have been devoted to recruiting and retaining young women into fields like pipefitting, automotive repair, construction, drywall installing, manufacturing, and refrigeration mechanics.  But according to Statchat, a University of Virginia workforce blog, these efforts at vocational equity “haven’t had much of an impact.”

In March 2013 NCWGE released a report urging the need to fight even harder against “barriers girls and women face in entering nontraditional fields.” Among its nine key recommendations to Congress: more federal funding and challenge grants to help states close the gender gaps in career and technical education (CTE); mandate every state to install a CTE gender equity coordinator; and impose harsher punishments on states that fail to meet “performance measures” –i.e. gender quotas.

“Instead of spending millions of dollars attempting to transform aspiring cosmetologists into welders, education officials should concentrate on helping young people, male and female, enter careers that interest them,” concludes Sommers. And the priority should be providing education options that motivate our neediest students, boys and young men.

College rah rah bah

“Millions of young people will never attend four-year colleges,” writes Sarah Carr in the Wilson Quarterly. “America must do more to equip them to secure good jobs and live fulfilling lives.”

From President Obama on down, “college for all” is seen as the solution to poverty, writes Carr. In New Orleans, the city of Carr’s book, Hope Against Hope, reformers created college-prep charter schools for low-income, black students.

At schools that have embraced the college-for-all aspiration, career and technical education is seen as being as outdated as chalkboards and cursive handwriting. Instead, the (mostly poor and mostly minority) students are endlessly drilled and prepped in the core humanities and sciences—lessons their (mostly middle- or upper-income and mostly white) teachers hope will enable the teenagers to rack up high scores on the ACT, SAT, and Advanced Placement exams and go on to attend the four-year college of their dreams (although it’s not always clear whose dreams we’re talking about).

Idealism should be tempered with pragmatism, Carr writes. Only one-third of low-income college students earn bachelor’s degrees by their mid-20s. Drop-outs may be thousands of dollars in debt.

A 2011 Harvard report, Pathways to Prosperity, described strong demand for “middle-skill” workers with vocational certificates or associate degrees. For example, electricians average $53,030, dental hygienists  $70,700 and construction managers $90,960, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“College for all” isn’t a smart state or national education policy, but can make sense as the mission of a single school, responds Michael Goldstein, founder of MATCH, a high-performing charter school in Boston.

In Boston, many traditional high schools describe themselves as college prep, but they’re sort of half-hearted about it. Few alums actually graduate from college. College rah-rah is absent. But so is career rah-rah. There is no rah-rah. I’m not sure how Carr thinks about such schools.

College is the dream of low-income black and Hispanic parents, Goldstein writes. When a large, open-admissions high school in Boston surveyed parents — mostly black or Hispanic single mothers without a degree — more than 80 percent wanted their son or daughter to go on to college.

I’m not sure I agree that educators in urban college prep charters, see career and technical education as “outdated.”

. . . I think more typically — there’s a perception that the vo-tech offerings themselves are terrible, with really bad track record of actually connecting kids to the right jobs, the air-conditioning repair jobs that Carr writes about.

Boston’s vo-tech high school is considered by far the worst public school in the city.

MATCH has considered launching an “excellent” vocational charter school, then measuring how graduates do in the job market, he writes.

I think everyone wants their kids to go to college because everyone thinks it’s the only way to get a good job. A high-quality school focused on qualifying graduates to train as electricians, mechanics, welders, dental hygienists, X-ray techs, etc. would be very popular.

Vo-tech joins the 21st century

Vo-tech, now known as career technical education, isn’t for low achievers any more, but the stigma remains.

High schoolers learn do-it-yourself engineering at a community college’s STEM summer camp.

Career tech keeps boys in school

Structured vocational education keeps boys from dropping out of high school, said James Stone III, director of the National Research Center of Career and Technical Education at the University of Louisville, at a conference.

 Earning three or more CTE credits within a focused sequence of courses was second only to 9th grade students’ grade point average as the strongest variable affecting high school survival for boys. While CTE “did no harm” to girls’ high school engagement, it did not produce a similar positive effect on females.

Stone describes the effect of career tech as “stunning,” reports Ed Week.

“We have a boy problem,” Stone said. “Boys are less likely to finish high school, go to college, finish college, go to graduate school, or finish grad school.” Seventy-five percent of D’s and F’s are given to male students, he said. “We are driving them out. We are not giving them things that engage them.”

“College for all” is narrowing the curriculum, squeezing out courses that motivate many boys, Stone said.

Students think jobs require no math, English

Academics are pointless, Ilana Garon’s students at a Bronx high school told her.  ”When am I ever going to need Shakespeare? Or geometry?”

When asked, two said they wanted to be astronauts. A third wants to be an actress. “You want to be astronauts, and you think you’re not going to need math?”  Garon asked. She turned to the actress. “Or English?”

They were certain that most of what they were learning in high school was totally irrelevant to their future career choices.

Garon supports alternatives to the traditional “college for all” academic path such as trade and career-tech programs. Her “students also need a crash course in career awareness.”  Many careers — IT, accounting, engineering, hospitality management — are off their radar. They don’t know the skills and habits the workforce requires.

Obama: Educate for high-tech economy

High schools should put “our kids on a path to a good job,” said President Obama in the State of the Union speech.

Right now, countries like Germany focus on graduating their high school students with the equivalent of a technical degree from one of our community colleges, so that they’re ready for a job. At schools like P-Tech in Brooklyn, a collaboration between New York Public Schools, the City University of New York, and IBM, students will graduate with a high school diploma and an associate degree in computers or engineering.

We need to give every American student opportunities like this. Four years ago, we started Race to the Top – a competition that convinced almost every state to develop smarter curricula and higher standards, for about 1 percent of what we spend on education each year. Tonight, I’m announcing a new challenge to redesign America’s high schools so they better equip graduates for the demands of a high-tech economy. We’ll reward schools that develop new partnerships with colleges and employers, and create classes that focus on science, technology, engineering, and math – the skills today’s employers are looking for to fill jobs right now and in the future.

Many high schools offer “dual enrollment” courses that let students earn college credits — usually through a local community college — while completing high school. (The sinister Gates Foundation has been a major funder of dual enrollment.) Moving to a German-style apprenticeship system, which explicitly prepares students for skilled jobs, not for higher education, will take a lot more than money. It will take a major attitude change from college for all to competency for all. (Competency for most?) President Obama, whose administration cut funds for career tech programs, could lead the way.

“A Race to the Top-style grant program for high school curriculum” may raise hackles, notes Ed Week. Conservatives — and some liberals — are unhappy with the administration’s use of funding power to push states to adopt Common Core standards, which was supposed to be a state initiative.   Now Obama’s admitting that’s what Race to the Top did and asking for more money and power over curriculum.

‘Middle’ skills lead to middle-class jobs

Career technical education is “the missing middle ground in American education and workforce preparation,”  concludes a new report. There are 29 million jobs paying middle-class wages — $35,000 to $75,000 a year — that are open to workers with employer-based training, industry or college certifications, apprenticeships and associate degrees.

Students need to know there’s a third path to success that gets them much farther than a high school diploma and doesn’t require a bachelor’s degree, writes a community college president.

Parents block career-tech requirement

I’d love to see more and stronger career-tech courses in high schools, but I’m not surprised that San Diego parents rejected a career-tech requirement. From the Hechinger Report:

San Diego Unified School District  proposed new high school graduation requirements mandating two years of career and technical education courses—or two to four courses. . . .  Parents circulated an online protest petition and school officials spent hours in a meeting to assure hundreds of parents that courses like computerized accounting, child development and website design could be in the best interest of all students.

But afterwards, when parent leaders asked the crowd who favored the requirement, every single parent at the meeting voted against it.

Many San Diego parents said their children needed to take AP courses to compete for selective colleges. They had no time for child development or web design.

After meeting with La Jolla parents, the San Diego Board of Education voted to rescind the requirements.

People think career-tech ed is “great but for someone else’s kids,” said Kenneth Gray, an emeritus professor of education at Penn State. Still, the mandate was a bad idea, he said. “To say everyone has to take it is as ridiculous in my view as saying everyone has to take calculus.”

Few high schools offer a variety of well-designed, well-taught CTE courses that meet the needs and interests of all students, from those striving for elite colleges to those just barely passing. Some students will get turned on by a CTE elective. Others will wish they’d had time in their schedule for jazz band or theater or journalism.

Career-tech advocates are trying to push CTE as college prep plus, not as an alternative to college for all, notes the Hechinger Report.

The quality and availability of the programs vary. At the top end, students in medical courses might spend time at a hospital, learning key vocabulary and technical skills like drawing blood. Students can learn engineering design programs on computers or spend time taking apart electronics to learn how they work. Students in cosmetology programs might study the chemistry behind hair dye.

Why do career-minded students have to do college prep? If you want to learn chemistry, take chemistry. If you want to work in a beauty salon, get a part-time job sweeping up and ask the boss how to move up. Do you need a license? If so, would community college courses help?

Taking vocational college classes in high school boosts graduation rates — and college success — for disadvantaged students and underachievers, reports a new study.  Dual enrollment isn’t just for high achievers any more.

Future prep

College prep for all is failing many students, writes Time‘s Joe Klein in Learning That Works, a rousing endorsement of vocational education. Seen as “a convenient dumping ground for minority kids,” voc ed was abandoned. Schools adopted “the theology that every child should go to college (a four-year liberal-arts college at that) and therefore every child should be required to pursue a college-prep course in high school.”

The results have been awful. High school dropout rates continue to be a national embarrassment. And most high school graduates are not prepared for the world of work. The unemployment rate for recent high school graduates who are not in school is a stratospheric 33%. The results for even those who go on to higher education are brutal: four-year colleges graduate only about 40% of the students who start them, and two-year community colleges graduate less than that, about 23%.

“College for everyone has become a matter of political correctness,” says Diane Ravitch, a professor of education at New York University. “But according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, less than a quarter of new job openings will require a bachelor of arts degree. We’re not training our students for the jobs that actually exist.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. has begun to run out of welders, glaziers and auto mechanics–the people who actually keep the place running.

What’s now called career and technical education (CTE) can be done so well that it motivates low and average achievers and attracts high achievers, Klein writes.

About 27% of the students in Arizona opt for the tech-ed path, and they are more likely to score higher on the state’s aptitude tests, graduate from high school and go on to higher education than those who don’t. “It’s not rocket science,” says Sally Downey, superintendent of the spectacular East Valley Institute of Technology in Mesa, Ariz., 98.5% of whose students graduate from high school. “It’s just finding something they like and teaching it to them with rigor.”

Auto dealers, who are desperate for trained technicians, donate cars and high-tech equipment to the school’s auto shop classes. “If you can master the computer-science and electronic components,” Downey says, “you can make over $100,000 a year as an auto mechanic.”

As college costs soar and college dropout rates remain high, career tech is looking better and better.

‘You didn’t finish high school? Start college!’

“You didn’t graduate from high school? Start college today!”  With that slogan, a low-income, nearly all Hispanic Texas school district is persuading dropouts to enroll in a center that lets them start job training while finishing high school, transitioning to college courses when ready. By the end of ninth grade, all students can choose a career pathway and take “early college” classes.