No bells, many choices

In a Forensic Science class, students learn from police department forensic investigator Ryan Andrews how to calculate the angle of impact of individual bloodstains and use strings to determine the area the bloodstains would have originated.

Forensic investigator Ryan Andrews shows students how to calculate the angle of impact of bloodstains.

Salt Lake City’s Innovations Early College High School uses personalized learning to put teenagers in charge of their education, I discovered in a visit last fall. My story is now up on Education Next.

There are no bells at Salt Lake City’s Innovations Early College High School, and no traditional “classes.” Students show up when they like, putting in six and a half hours at school between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. Working with a mentor teacher, students set their own goals and move through self-paced online lessons. They can take more time when they need it or move ahead quickly when they show mastery.

Innovations, a district school, not a charter, is located on a community college campus, so it’s easy for students who qualify to take college classes. It also shares space with the district’s career-tech center, so students can take vocational classes in subjects ranging from web design and emergency medicine to cosmetology.

It seems very loosey-goosey, but mentors monitor students’ progress closely to make sure they’re on track for graduation.

‘Top colleges’ for who?

“College For All” . . . reinforces the ridiculous notion that college is for people who use their brains, and trade schools are for people who use their hands, writes Mike Rowe on Facebook. “As if the two can not be combined.”

Mike Rowe hosted Dirty Jobs.

Mike Rowe hosted Dirty Jobs.

From presidential candidates to parents, Americans think everyone needs a college degree, he writes.

Yet “hundreds of thousands of highly educated twenty-somethings are either unemployed or getting paid a pittance to do something totally unrelated to the education they borrowed a fortune to acquire. Collectively, they hold 1.3 trillion dollars of debt, and no real training for the jobs that actually exist.”

He was asked to comment on a list of America’s “Top Jobs” and “Top Schools” that include no trade schools or skilled trade careers, Rowe writes.

Would a sensible person recommend The Godfather to someone who hates violence – just because it won Best Picture? Would a sensible person recommend a Steakhouse to a vegetarian, just because Yelp gives it 5-stars? Would a sensible person recommend The Ritz to a traveler on a budget, just because Trip Adviser says it’s the best hotel in the city? Of course not. But every year, lots of otherwise sensible people recommend a four-year college to kids who would be far better served by Trade School. They defer to someone else’s idea of what a Top School is – regardless of suitability and cost.

“Millions of teenagers” are told that college is a “right” and encouraged to pay whatever if it costs, writes Rowe. “Is it any wonder some politicians want to fix the problem by forgiving the debt altogether and making college free for everyone?”

Arkansas students who take career tech courses are “more likely to graduate from high school, enroll in a two-year college, be employed, and earn higher wages,” concludes a new Fordham study. They are just as likely to pursue a four-year degree as similar students.

Gains are greatest for boys, students from lower-income families and those who focus on a career field.

Much-praised P-TECH faces problems

President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan visit a classroom at P-TECH.
President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan visited P-TECH in 2013. Photo: Mandel Ngan, AFP/Getty Images

Pathways in Technology Early College High School — P-TECH — in Brooklyn was praised by President Obama in his 2013 State of the Union speech. At P-TECH, “a collaboration between New York Public Schools and City University of New York and IBM, students will graduate with a high school diploma and an associate degree in computers or engineering,” Obama said. “We need to give every American student opportunities like this.”

The “9-14” model is spreading quickly, writes Anya Kamenetz on NPR. But, now in its fifth year, P-TECH is struggling to meet its ambitious goals, internal e-mails show.

The school, which does not screen students, primarily enrolls black and Latino males. All students are expected to earn a high school diploma and an associate degree in computer systems technology or electromechanical engineering technology  in six years.

P-TECH students

P-TECH students

In fall 2014, 21 percent of grades earned by P-TECH students in City College of Technology (City Tech) classes were D’s and F’s. C is the minimum passing grade in technical majors.

Internal emails show P-TECH and IBM are trying to get CUNY to “bend” the rules for students with low grades, writes Kamenetz. “In one email, P-TECH’s principal, Rashid Davis, called the City University of New York’s academic policies ‘elitist’.”

City Tech has maintained standards but now gives students an early warning of how they’re doing, provost Diane August told NPR. Struggling students, their parents and a high school staffer meet at midterm with the college instructor. “Is more work needed? Is this hopeless? If so, can we withdraw [taking a W instead of a low grade] and have them try again? If it’s not hopeless, can we make a plan and maybe have them drop one course so they can focus harder on others?”

The D/F rate has fallen to 14 percent. By June, about 1 in 4 of students who enrolled as ninth graders five years ago will have completed an associate degree, in addition to their high school diploma, according to IBM.

That seems like a great outcome with a year to go to get more students to an associate degree.

Building a future in construction class

At Woodward Career Tech High in Cincinnati, Channell Rogers and Sierra Buster are preparing for construction careers, reports Outside the Box, a PBS series reported by high school journalists.

College prep, job training — or both?

While most high school graduates go on to college, “nearly 40 percent of those who go to four-year colleges and some 70 percent of students at community college will never earn their degree,” comments John Tulenko on PBS NewsHour. Should more teens train for the workforce instead of prepping for college?

Marissa Galloway, Norton learned cabinet making at Southeastern Regional Vocational Technical School. Photo: Mike George

Marissa Galloway learned cabinet making at Southeastern Regional Vocational Technical School. Photo: Mike George

“It’s the shame of our nation, when you look at, a student comes out of high school, not knowing what they want to do, goes to college, drops out,” says David Wheeler, principal of Southeastern Regional Vocational Technical High School, south of Boston. “Now they’re in debt, without a job, and not knowing what they want to do.”

In addition to academic subjects, students at Massachusetts’ regional vo-tech schools learn skilled trades.

They do as well academically as students in traditional high schools. (Wheeler’s students outscored the state average.)

They don’t have to “skip college,” as Tulenko puts it. Statewide, 60 percent of regional vo-tech students enroll in college, while others go directly to the workforce.

Gov. Charlie Baker has proposed expanding the state’s vo-tech schools.

Teachers back college for all — at some schools

Fifty-eight percent of teachers at low-poverty schools said college and career readiness for all is a “very realistic” goal, according to an online survey by EdSource and the California Teachers Association. Only 20 percent at high-poverty schools agreed.

"Linked learning" -- programs integrating career and academic skills -- should be expanded, said California teachers in a new survey.

“Linked learning” — programs integrating career and academic skills — should be expanded, said California teachers in a new survey.

Only 30 percent of teachers said their districts have “clearly defined standards for what constitutes college and career readiness,” reports Louis Freedberg for EdSource. “Thirty-five percent say that their districts have standards, but that they are not clearly defined. Eight percent say their districts have no standards at all.”

Most high school teachers are confident they know how to prepare for college, but only 14 percent have received training in helping students pursue other options.

Teachers strongly supported offering more career pathways.

Most teachers supported Common Core standards “with reservations.”

Let students choose career-tech path

Rob Friedman “learned very little” in high school — except in “small engines” and “auto shop” classes, he writes in Education and the Art of Minibike Maintenance in the Wall Street Journal.

Many of his vocational classmates quit high school, he writes. They were being “force-fed” college-prep courses.

His parents — a doctor and a teacher — pushed him to earn a college degree. Friedman enrolled in junior college, but dropped out to run his car-repair business.

Jordan Smith, 15, left, and Andrew Carson, 16, work on a small engine at their Placerville (CA) high school.  Photo: Pat Dollins/Mountain Democrat

Jordan Smith, 15, left, and Andrew Carson, 16, work on a small engine at their Placerville (CA) high school. Photo: Pat Dollins/Mountain Democrat

He promises to go back to school when business slowed down, but it never did.

Half our students want an academic education leading to a university degree, Friedman writes. But his auto-shop classmates — and many others — do not.

In many other countries, ninth graders can choose  to pursue an academic high-school diploma or a technical/vocational high-school diploma, he writes.

Imagine what would happen in the U.S. if young men and women were offered interesting, real-life curricula that appealed to them, such as auto shop, computer repair and fashion design. Not only would they learn real-life skills, but along the way they would be taught real-life math. I’m talking about merchant math and accounting, balancing a check book and insurance practices.

Many skilled blue-collar workers can make a better living than the average university graduate, Friedman writes. He’d like to let students choose whether to attend a college-prep-for-all high school or a school that blends academic and vocational courses.

Remediation + job training = success

Jason Broad and Yalchen Abdulkhaliq work on making a scissors clamp in the machine shop during a class at Shoreline Community College. Machining requires students to have a solid understanding of algebra, calculus and trigonometry. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)
Jason Broad and Yalchen Abdulkhaliq make a scissors clamp in the machine shop at Shoreline Community College, where they’re also learning algebra. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

When community college students have to pass remedial math before taking college-level courses, most give up, writes Katherine Long in the Seattle TimesTeaching basic skills with job training has raised success rates at Washington state community colleges.

The grinding sound of metal on metal filtered through the walls of Chris Lindberg’s math class at Shoreline Community College, but his students had no trouble tuning out the noise.

“We’ve got a 10-inch-diameter grinding wheel, and it’s turning at 1,910 revolutions per minute,” Lindberg said, jotting the numbers on a whiteboard. “What is the surface speed?”

Students will use their new algebra skills in the shop next door, “setting up complex lathes and milling machines, each the size of a small SUV,” writes Long.

Shelley Campbell measures a part she made for a final exam in her I-BEST machine shop class at Shoreline Community College. (Mike Siegel/Seattle Times/TNS)

Shelley Campbell measures a part she made in her I-BEST machine shop class at Shoreline Community College. (Mike Siegel/Seattle Times/TNS)

I-BEST (Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training) students “are nine times as likely to earn a workforce credential as students who follow the traditional path of taking remedial classes first,” she reports.

Troy Briones, who struggled with math in high school, served in the Army artillery. Now 25, he’s training to be a machinist. “Math is everything in machining,” he said. “The best part of the program is it’s very hands-on. As soon as the lecture ends, you go straight into the lab and try it … the instructors are with you every step of the way.”

Shelley Campbell, 53, is retraining after being laid off by Boeing.

Students can earn a basic manufacturing certificate in one quarter, preparing them for an entry-level job, or go longer to master higher-level skills. Machinists start at $15 to $35 per hour.

In Building paths to the middle class, the American Enterprise Institute looks at four high-quality career tech programs in high school and community college.

Career-tech school tries to improve

Students at Alfred E. Smith Career and Technical Education High School work on a car as part of the automotive program at the school.Students at Alfred E. Smith Career and Technical Education High School work on a car as part of the automotive program. Photo: Jessica Glazer

Two years ago, a low-performing vocational high school in the Bronx escaped closure. Under a new principal, attendance and morale have improved, reports Chalkbeat New York. But enrollment is way down at Alfred E. Smith Career and Technical High.  Test scores and graduation rates remain low.

Principal Evan Schwartz hopes to reach a “90 percent attendance, 80 percent of first-year students earning 10 or more credits, and a 70 percent four-year graduation rate” this year.

Smith has been known for its attendance problems — Schwartz said that in years past, you couldn’t tell when the day ended because students trickled in and out of the building all day — but last year, the attendance rate increased to 83 percent, according to his estimates. (Official numbers for last year are not yet available.) That’s up from 73 percent in 2011-12.

Graduation rates have been more stubborn. In 2012-13, Smith graduated just 51 percent of its students in four years, according to the city progress report, including August graduates. Last year, 61 percent of students graduated, Schwartz says.

That increase is likely related to the fact that the school convinced nearly 100 over-aged, under-credited students who attended class intermittently to transfer out of Smith and into transfer schools or more flexible Young Adult Borough Centers.

Last year, Smith opened a “cutting-edge” auto shop. It’s also added some AP classes.

Yet, the school has trouble attracting students. Enrollment is down from 950 three years ago to fewer than 400. And the “transformation grant” is running out.

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.