What about kids who aren’t ‘job material’ either?

Some students aren’t college material and would be better off on a vocational track, Mike Petrilli wrote in Slate. Now, he concedes one of his critics’ points:  Kids who aren’t “college material” aren’t “career- and technical-education material” either. Strong CTE programs require academic skills that many students lack. So what do we do with ninth graders who are way behind?

Sixty-four percent of eighth graders aren’t “proficient” in reading and math, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. They’re not on the college or career readiness track. Even worse, “just 14 percent of blacks and 21 percent of Hispanics are proficient in math at the end of eighth grade; for reading, it’s 17 percent and 22 percent, respectively.”

If we push the “pedal to the metal” on every school reform, we’ll still have many ninth graders who aren’t prepared for a true college-prep route or high-quality CTE, writes Petrilli.

 . . . we encourage such students to muddle through “on-level” quasi-academic courses in large comprehensive high schools. Eventually, they drop out or get labeled as “over-age and under-credit.” At that point, various credit-recovery (or dropout-recovery) initiatives kick in. If the students are diligent and lucky, they squeeze out a credential. And then?

That’s hardly a strategy, a system, or a solution. And keep in mind that in some big urban districts, we’re talking about upwards of 80 or 90 percent of today’s kids—and, for all of our reforming, big fractions of tomorrow’s, too!

What would work best for these students? Petrilli doesn’t have the answer, just the question.

Carnegie’s Opportunity by Design is working with urban districts to design high schools that improve the life chances of underprepared students, respond Michele Cahill and Leah Hamilton. Their goal is to raise the number of underprepared students who complete high school, enroll in non-remedial college courses and stay in college for at least two semesters.

Not your father’s shop class

Career Technical Education (CTE) is Not Your Father’s Shop Class, writes Harry J. Holzer in The Washington Monthly.

In “old-fashioned voc ed,” low achievers trained for “low-wage or disappearing jobs, if any job at all,” he writes. “Even worse, the programs tracked students, particularly minorities and disadvantaged students, away from college.”

By contrast, the best models of high-quality CTE today integrate rigorous academic instruction into the teaching of technical and employment skills and thus prepare young people for college just as well as a traditional “college prep” program does.

. . . there are now several thousand “career academies” around the country, where students take classes that prepare them for jobs in a particular sector (like health care, finance, or information technology) as well as participate in more general academic classes. To complement their classwork, students are placed into jobs in their chosen field during the summer or the academic year. For example, the Ballard High School Academy of Finance in Seattle trains students in financial literacy and banking activities within a broader academic curriculum, and also helps students get internships with local financial firms.

These career academies improve the post-high school earnings of disadvantaged students, especially at-risk young males, by nearly 20 percent, according to research studies.

Other models, such as High Schools That Work and Linked Learning integrate high-level academics with career exploration, Holzer writes. In some places, high school students can earn associate degrees in vocational fields.

Levi McCord and Nehemiah Myers are students at the Lehigh Career and Technical Institute in Schnecksville, Pennsylvania.

McCord . . .  plans to head straight into the workforce after graduation. “I’ll already have most of the skills I need to know to get a job,” said McCord, who is learning to become a welder. As a certified welder, he can eventually expect to earn as much as $67,000 in some parts of the country.

Myers, on the other hand, has been studying electromechanics and mechantronics part-time at Lehigh. He plans to enroll in a co-op program at a four-year college next year, where he can get paid work experience while working toward a bachelor’s degree in engineering.

CTE can benefit all students, concludes Holzer.

California will put $250 million — out of a $55 billion education budget — into “shop plus.”

So I said to Arne . . .

Since I couldn’t make the blogger breakfast last week, Education Secretary Arne Duncan invited me to drop by yesterday for a chat. (I’m in Baltimore for a visit with our new granddaughter, who’s doing well in intensive-care, despite her small size.)

I asked Duncan about charges he’s hyping a 82 percent failure rate by next year — U.S. schools missing Adequate Yearly Progress — in order to argue for abandoning No Child Left Behind’s goal of universal proficiency by 2014. “Have you ever seen me hype anything?” he said.  Many states set modest goals in the early years with very high goals in the last few years. They’re hitting the curve of the hockey stick, he said.

If the 2014 goal is replaced by “college- and career-ready” by 2020, what’s to prevent another round of wishful thinking meets reality?

“My dream and my hope is that it’s an honest goal,” Duncan said.

NCLB let many states “dummy down standards,” he said. He has great faith that Common Core Standards will raise the bar to a high and consistent level, and praised governors for adopting the new standards even though their states’ test scores are bound to fall significantly. “They’re going to see proficiency rates fall from 80 percent to 40 percent” in some states, Duncan predicted. That will be politically painful. But fewer students will go through school thinking they’re doing fine and end up in remedial reading, writing and math in college. “I want to get community colleges out of the remediation business,” he said.

The feds are funding new tests to go with the new standards but are staying out of curriculum development, Duncan said. Common Core‘s curriculum maps, the proposed common curriculum endorsed by the American Federation of Teachers, Core Knowledge and others and whatever else is developed will compete in the marketplace, he said.

I asked about his endorsement of Harvard’s Pathways to Prosperity report, which call for creating alternative career pathways to motivate students instead of “college for all.”  Duncan admitted the new budget cuts funding for career tech ed, but said there’s a need to weed out low-quality programs and fund only the programs that really prepare students for jobs and increase college-going rates.  “College for all” includes all forms of postsecondary education, including apprenticeships and community college certificate programs, he said, not just bachelor’s degrees. (But that’s not what people hear.)

“College and career ready are the same skills,” he said. In schools with high expectations, low-income minority students can excel and go on to college. Schools that lower expectations for fear of increasing the drop-out rate leave students bored, disengaged and even more likely to drop out.

I asked: Does the would-be welder need trigonometry? “They all need algebra,” said Duncan.

Many teachers complain that it’s impossible to teach classes with a wide range of skills and knowledge — some algebra students are ready to learn algebra and others don’t know arithmetic — and language abilities and behavioral issues and disabilities. “What would you say to teachers who say they’re overwhelmed by students’ very different learning needs?” I asked.

He said the high-scoring countries provide extra help for struggling students after school — before they get years behind — and social services for children with family problems. He didn’t say: It’s time to stop pushing every child in the same class.

We talked briefly about the narrowing of the curriculum to what’s tested. Despite the big STEM push, Duncan also wants schools to teach reading, history, science, financial literacy, dance, drama, etc. Educate the whole child and the test scores will follow, he said.

That’s where time ran out. I left thinking that Duncan is an optimist. Perhaps he needs to be. I am more cynical. Measure reading and math performance, maybe science, and don’t expect schools to spend time on dance, drama or even history. Reward higher graduation rates and expect “credit recovery” and other scams to push marginal students to a diploma. (Stop measuring student performance — and stop looking at subgroup scores — and expect schools to give up on children who lack pushy parents.) Provide college aid to D and F students and open-admissions colleges will be overwhelmed with remedial students.

By the way, Patrick Richardson’s Pajamas Media column is very misleading. He confuses Common Core Standards, which indeed have been pushed by the feds, with a common curriculum. And he sees a sinister data collection campaign designed to train children for government-assigned careers. I see an attempt to track whether students are learning as they move from school to school so we can figure out what’s working and what’s not.

Low expectations for other peoples’ kids

Stop Limiting Poor and Minority Kids with Low Expectations, writes RiShawn Biddle on Dropout Nation. The Harvard Ed report advocating multiple pathways — career tech as well as college prep — dooms low-income and minority students to dumbed-down curricula, instruction and expectations, Biddle believes.

He criticizes my call for  “realistic pathways” for struggling students.

What she fails to consider is that the reason why they are struggling in the first place: Low-quality instruction and abysmal curricula throughout their times in school, especially in the early grades.

The reading, math and science skills needed to earn a bachelor’s degree are the same skills needed to succeed at a community college or technical school, Biddle argues. Everybody needs a high-quality education whether they’re heading for Harvard or trade school. They’ll only get that on the college-prep track.

Expectations matter. If teachers and administrators think that poor and minority kids aren’t capable of college prep education, then they won’t actually put any work into even the most basic instruction and curricula. They won’t develop intense reading remediation for kids in the early grades.

. . . “Realistic pathways” in schools means ability tracking and denying poor kids entree into the college prep courses that teachers and guidance counselors often reserve for kids they think can learn. It means magnet schools that don’t actually reflect any sort of diversity. It means the lack of school choice in any form.

Biddle has a valid point. (And I appreciate the thoughtful way he makes it.) If expectations are low in elementary and middle school — if nobody intervenes to help the kid who’s not learning to read or multiply — then students will start high school so far behind that it will be very difficult for them to succeed in college-prep courses. It will be hard for them to succeed in vocational courses.

I see the risk of creating a separate, less demanding track for other people’s kids. But the “forgotten half” of students aren’t getting high-quality college-prep. They take classes with college-prep titles and dumbed-down content, because the teachers aren’t allowed to fail most of their students.  They go to community college and four-year colleges and fall into the black hole of remedial education, never to emerge with any credential.

Nearly all high school seniors plan to go to college; 89 percent think they’ll earn a four-year degree.  Expectations are high. Achievement is low. In a Florida study, 20 percent of high school seniors with C averages or below went on to earn a college credential of any kind, including a short-term certificate.

We need to do a much better job educating children in K-8 so they’ll have real choices in high school. But I think more students would succeed if they had the option of a high-quality career track or a high-quality college-prep track. Making sure those options offer strong academics will be a challenge. But it’s one we should tackle.

Career tech and college prep?

“The neglected stepchild of education reform,” Career Technical Education, must be reinvented, said Education Secretary Arne Duncan at the announcement of the Harvard Pathways to Prosperity report. For all the talk about college and career readiness, educating students for careers has been an “afterthought,” Duncan conceded.

Duncan’s vision CTE 2.0 looks a lot like “college for all.” He assumes that all students should take college-prep classes, whether they want to earn a bachelor’s degree or a vocational certificate in a trade.

Students need the same set of skills for both college and the workplace, particularly in reading and math. And it’s the job of the K-12 system to prepare them for both options. In our globally-competitive, knowledge-based economy, all Americans are likely to face the challenge of a lifetime of continued learning. And all need a common core of skills.

Does the “common core of skills” include writing a research paper, analyzing literature and mastering trigonometry? Duncan’s CTE 2.0 doesn’t seem to offer  a less academically demanding path for less capable students.

Too often, vocational educational programs have perpetuated inequality. We all know that when there were two tracks, students of color and those growing up in poverty were far more likely to be pushed into the “work” track — and far less likely to get access to the college-ready track. Many programs were considered to be dumping grounds for students tracked with weaker academic skills.

Many 21st-century jobs will call for “middle-skill” workers with more than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor’s degree, Duncan said. The Education Department will focus CTE funding on high-demand, high-wage occupations.

Doing CTE right will require “a huge force field of information, encouragement, and guidance that will help disadvantaged kids get the same well-informed options, and have the same high expectations, as their peers with more social capital,” writes Catherine Gewertz on Curriculum Matters.

The risks of getting it wrong are real: CTE could be a shiny new name for a low-level, go-nowhere track for low achievers. But we do need to offer realistic pathways to adulthood for average and below-average students.

Edutopia’s Schools That Work report on Career Technical Education shows how several California schools are merging career tech with college prep.