Go to high school, learn a trade

Lance Cohen uses a cutting wheel to shorten a piece of ductwork as Dulaney High classmates (left to right) Zach Iacoboni and Xavier Engleton watch. Photo: Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun

At Baltimore County’s Dulaney High, students can learn a skilled trade, reports Jonathan Pitts in the Baltimore Sun. Students can go on to become heating, ventilation and air-conditioning technicians, a high-paying and booming field that doesn’t require a college degree.

“It’s satisfying to be able to diagnose problems, develop a plan and carry the plan to completion,” says Hailey Brennan, 16, who plans to become a mechanical engineer. The junior already is a certified air-conditioning technician.

Jamie Gaskin’s students design and build an air-conditioning system each year for a classroom.

They break into three groups: one to measure and cut sheet metal for a duct system, one to make and hang the ducts overhead, a third to shape, connect and install the five-eighths-inch copper tubing that will carry the refrigerants.

Senior Zach O’Neill brings Gaskin a length of pipe he’s trying to bend to 90 degrees.

Gripping it in a clamp and twisting hard, the teacher shows him how to create the crook without leaving too much ribbing in the metal.

“Harder than it looks — thanks,” O’Neill says, and lumbers off.

At the end of the school year, Gaskin “coordinates meetings between his HVAC students and representatives from about a dozen local businesses.”

Meritocracy’s losers: No degree, no respect

Horatio Alger stories spread the belief that anyone can succeed, if they work hard enough. Educational elitism marks the modern U.S. economy, writes Victor Tan Chen in The Atlantic. College-educated winners scorn working-class Americans as “as lazy, untalented, uneducated, and unsophisticated.” A Virginia Commonwealth sociology professor, he’s the author of Cut Loose: Jobless and Hopeless in an Unfair Economy. 

Our culture is an extreme meritocracy, writes Chen. We believe anyone can “make it” in America. It follows that those who don’t succeed deserve their low status.

“The well-educated and well-off who live in or near big cities tend to endorse the notion, explicitly or implicitly, that education determines a person’s value,” writes Chen.

More so than in other rich nations, like Germany and Japan, which have prioritized vocational training to a greater degree, a college degree has become the true mark of individual success in America . . .

For his book, Chen interviewed laid-off auto workers, all former union members, who shared the view that the educated deserved to live better than the uneducated. Yet, “two-thirds of Americans age 25 and over do not have a bachelor’s degree,” he writes.

The labor market has become more polarized, as highly paid jobs for workers with middling levels of education and skill dwindle away. And as many have argued, advances in artificial intelligence threaten a net loss of employment (even for the well-educated) in the not-so-far-off future.

A new government report warns automation will increase demand for high-level technical skills — and decrease demand for routine skills.

Fordham’s Mike Petrilli calls this the great “coming apart.” Educational attainment (or the lack of it) is “the new dividing line.”

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He suspects “that a college education is simply a marker — of people who were lucky to be born into relative affluence and the stable homes that generally accompany it; of individuals with the ‘soft skills’ that allow them to persevere in their educations, but also—when they’re so disposed—in their jobs, even in their marriages.”

Some countries — Singapore, Switzerland, Germany — offer high-quality career and technical education linked to apprenticeships and jobs, he writes. The U.S. pushed a “bachelor degree or bust” strategy, writes Petrilli.  “The number of bachelor degrees has increased a bit, but the size of the ‘bust’ is much, much larger.”

How to succeed without a degree

High school graduates with “high credentials” — but no college — earn almost as much as four-year college graduates at the age of 26, concludes a Center for Public Education report. High-credentialed workers earn higher wages and are more likely to be working full-time than those with two-year degrees or “some college,” according to Path Least Taken III: Rigor and Focus in High School Pays Dividends in the Future.

In high school, they completed Algebra 2 and advanced science, earned a C-plus average or better and completed three or more related career-focused courses. After graduation, they earned a professional license or certificate in the same career field.

Get practical: ‘A BA in every pot’ is a fantasy


Credit: Christopher Corr, Getty Images/Ikon Images

Vocational education, now known as “career tech ed (CTE),” is back in vogue, says Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce. Young people need a “middle path” to middle-class jobs that don’t require a bachelor’s degree, he tells KUNC reporter Claudio Sanchez. However, Carnevale wouldn’t want his own son or daughter in CTE.

. . . a huge number of technical certificates that take a year to complete, pay more than a [four-year] college degree. You can make a lot more money with a certificate in heating, ventilation and air conditioning.

Still, “high school to Harvard” is the “tried-and-true path” to success, says Carnevale. “Until we invest enough to build an alternative pathway and respect real work in the U.S., I wouldn’t risk my child’s [education], even though I know that learning by doing is more powerful than learning with your head alone in school.”

Thirty to 40 percent of young people say ‘school is irrelevant.’ But saying to [parents], ‘I’m going to send your kid to trade school,’ will not appeal to people.

CTE will succeed if it develops a broad set of skills while teaching technical skills, Carnevale says.

In Europe and Singapore, businesses help design training programs and hire the graduates. That’s a “long shot” in the U.S., says Carnevale.

For more than 30 years, the U.S. has rejected practical, applied learning.

Every year, more than 400,000 young people in the top half of their high school class go to college, and eight years later they have not earned either a two- or four-year degree or certificate. So at some point, failure matters. Education reform in pursuit of academic excellence is floundering. We need to change our curriculum. The notion that the Common Core will make people college and career ready is largely a fantasy.

“Politicians want to put a BA in every pot,” says Carnevale.

Career academies challenge college for all

Most 12th graders aren’t prepared to succeed in college, according to NAEP, but nearly all are told it’s the only path to a decent job. Nearly two-thirds of high school graduates go directly to college. Two-thirds of high school graduates go directly to college. Those who fail to earn a degree — about 45 percent — will struggle to earn a living and pay back student loans.

Students including Joshua Espinosa, left, steady the head of Jacqueline Villalobo during an exercise in EMC First Responder class as emergency medical technician Gretchen Medel, background left, supervises at Dozier-Libbey Medical High School in Antioch, Calif. Photo: Ben Margot, AP

Students practice paramedic skills at Dozier-Libbey Medical High School in Antioch, Calif. Photo: Ben Margot, AP

“Vocational education is “making a comeback,” reports AP. However, the goal of new “career pathways” programs isn’t to get students from high school to the workforce. Often the aim is to motivate students “to pursue some post-secondary education — whether it’s a certificate from a two-year school or a four-year degree.”

Educators are afraid that the new career-tech will be a lesser alternative to the college track.

“I think we can identify 9th grade students who have career interests and build a rich, challenging curriculum around those interests,” Kevin Welner, who directs the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder, said.

“What’s not smart is to identify 9th grade students who are academically struggling and then track them into these separate academic programs that have watered-down expectations and watered-down instruction,” he said.

That concern is the focus of Melinda Anderson’s story on career academies in The Atlantic.

Often a school within a larger school, “career academies generally feature small learning communities, integrate business and industry partnerships, and provide students with a curriculum blending traditional and technical courses,” she writes.

Eighth-grader Keller Wessel works on a project in his Gateway to Technology class at Deer Park Junior/Senior High School in Cincinnati.

Eighth-grader Keller Wessel works on a project in his Gateway to Technology class at Deer Park Junior/Senior High School in Cincinnati.

For “students at highest risk of dropping out, participation in career academies improved attendance and the likelihood of graduating on time,” a 2008 MDRC study found. Several years later, male students had found higher-paying jobs.

However, high schools that serve predominantly white, middle-class students are more likely to offer career pathways that lead to college, she writes.

At Cincinnati’s Deer Park Career Academy, students in grades seven through 12 choose from career pathways that include digital design and civil engineering.

At Atlantic High in Delray Beach, Florida, where a majority of students come from lower-income, non-white families, the career academy is devoted to law enforcement careers.

How to help working-class kids

Poor and working-class Americans are falling further behind college-educated workers, writes Mike Petrilli, editor of Education for Upward Mobility. Their frustration, expressed in the improbable rise of Donald Trump, is finally drawing attention.  We need ways to help kids from left-behind families “learn the skills they need to compete for middle-class and high-wage jobs.”

Earning a four-year degree is one route to upward mobility, but it can’t be the only option.

Only 14 percent of students from lower-income families will complete four-year degrees, estimates Andrew Kelly. There’s a big pay-off for those who graduate, but what about everyone else?

“High-quality career and technical education, culminating in industry-recognized post-secondary credentials” is a viable path to the middle class, writes Petrilli.

But most students follow the “bachelor’s degree or bust” model. For disadvantaged students, that often leads to remedial classes at a community college, frustration and failure.

Petrilli also makes a pitch for paying attention to the learning needs of high-achieving, low-income students and encouraging young people to follow the “success sequence.”

Even young people with just a high school diploma can make it into the middle class if they complete high school, work full-time and delay parenthood until they are 21 and married, writes Petrilli, citing research by Isabel Sawhill and Ron Haskins.

What can schools do? Persuading students they’re on the path to a decent job is a good first step.

How schools can close marriage gap

Schools can promote marriage and upward mobility by preparing disadvantaged students for college or careers, writes Mike Petrilli. High-quality career and technical education (CTE) is a “solid pathway to postsecondary education and remunerative and satisfying work.”

“Middle-skill jobs” that require a vocational certificate or two-year degree pay well in fields such as health care and information technology, Petrilli writes. While European countries prepare 40 to 70 percent of young people for technical jobs, “we remain obsessed with the four-year college degree” in the U.S. Fewer high school students are concentrating in career and technical education here than 20 years ago.

A student at Oklahoma’s Ardmore High School, works on an assignment for his Biotechnical program, which is designed to lead to careers in fields like chemistry and microbiology. (Photo by Tom Fields/Oklahoma

A student at Oklahoma’s Ardmore High School, works on an assignment for his Biotechnical program. (Photo by Tom Fields/Oklahoma

“Career academies” — typically small vocational programs within large high schools — combine academic and technical training. A randomized MDRC study found career-academy graduates earned more, worked more and were more strongly attached to the labor market, compared to a control group, writes Petrilli.  The effect was strongest for black and Latino males.

Even more striking is that, years after high school, career-academy graduates were more likely to be married and living with their spouse than their peers in a control group.

It’s not clear whether they “developed skills that helped them form more stable relationships or became more ‘marriageable’ because of their stronger career prospects,” writes Petrilli.

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.