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.

Vo-tech grads head to college

Southeastern Regional Vocational Technical senior Jonathan Berry fires up an oscilloscope in the electronic engineering shop. Berry will be headed for W.P.I. this fall instead of immediately heading into the work force.

Southeastern Regional Vocational Technical senior Jonathan Berry fires up an oscilloscope in the electronic engineering shop. Berry will attend Worcester Polytechnic Institute. (Photo: George Rizer for the Boston Globe)

Massachusetts’ well-regarded vocational schools are sending more graduates to college, not to the workforce, reports the Boston Globe.

Once viewed as a place for student slackers with no college ambition, Massachusetts vocational high schools are increasing academic standards, offering honors classes, and producing more college-bound students than ever before.

Employers are seeking more formal education for entry-level workers in the fastest-growing career sectors, such as information technology, environmental studies, engineering, biotechnology, and health care, said Patrick Collins, superintendent at Assabet Valley Tech.

Vocational schools still are seen as academically inferior, said Daniel O’Connell, superintendent of North Shore Tech. Some 29.7 percent of seniors in the class of 2013 went on to four-year colleges and universities, up from 15.1 percent five years earlier.

“Vocational education has changed so drastically,’’ he said. “If you were a vokie you worked with your hands and were a discipline problem. That’s archaic. But it’s still a process to educate the public. Each year that goes by, people realize more and more what the opportunities are with a technical education.’’

All students take the Massachusetts curriculum and must pass the state exam to graduate.

Only 30 percent of young people will earn a four-year degree, says Bill Symonds. He’s co-author of Harvard’s 2011 Pathways to Prosperity report, which argued that U.S. high schools should provide a variety of paths to adulthood.

Chris Symonds working in the kitchen at Blue Ginger.  Chris is heading to the elite Culinary Institute of America. (Photo: Emily Hanford)

Chris Symonds working in the kitchen at Blue Ginger, a Wellesley restaurant. Chris is heading to the elite Culinary Institute of America. (Photo: Emily Hanford)

His son attends Minuteman, a 21st century vocational high school in Lexington, Mass., reports American RadioWorks

Chris, was a C- minus student who loved to cook. The local high school had no courses to prepare students for a career in cooking.

In the wealthy, well-educated Boston suburbs, “there is a tremendous bias against” vocational education,  says Symonds. But Chris knew it was the right choice for him.

In middle school, he asked himself, “Why am I learning this?” Always behind, “I just felt so stupid.”

. . .  once he got to Minuteman, he started to see why he needed to learn math and English. Chris is now a senior, about to graduate in the top 10 percent of his class.

“In culinary arts, there’s not just the side of, ‘Make this recipe and put it out,’” he says. “There’s the side of, multiply this recipe. Break it down. Make more, make less. There’s the side of hospitality, and learning how to write out business plans, pay wages, make a profit.”

Students who’ve failed in traditional schools can do well at Minuteman, says Michelle Roche, the director of career and technical education. “They’re standing on their feet, they’re working with their hands, they figure out a problem,” she says. “And success breeds success.”

“Every year, some one million students leave before earning a high school degree,” writes Symonds in Pathways to Prosperity. “Many drop out because they struggle academically. But large numbers say they dropped out because they felt their classes were not interesting, and that high school was unrelentingly boring. In other words, they didn’t believe high school was relevant, or providing a pathway to achieving their dreams.”

Career and technical education can engage students and widen their options — including going to college — says Symonds.

Study: Charters do more with less

Public charter schools produce similar or higher test scores with much less money, concludes a productivity analysis by researchers at the University of Arkansas’ department of education reform. Overall, charters are 40 to 41 percent more cost effective in reading and math compared to traditional public schools, the study concluded.cover-productivity-of-charters

The return on investment is almost 3 percent higher if a student spends one year in a public charter school and a 19 percent higher if a student spends half of their K-12 education (6.5 years) in a charter school.

Researchers analyzed National Assessment of Education Progress reading and math scores and data from CREDO studies. They controlled for students’ poverty and special education status.

Walton Family Foundation, which supports school choice, funded the study, but did not play any role in designing it, researchers say.

Massachusetts has some of the most effective charter schools in the nation, especially in Boston, yet the state Senate refused to raise the cap on charter seats, writes Jim Stergios in the Boston Herald. It’s like the old segregationists standing in the schoolhouse door, he writes.

Update: The productivity comparison is unfair because charters educate fewer English Learners and special ed students, who generate more funding, responds the National School Boards Association.  In addition, “traditional public schools are much more likely than charter schools to provide costly services such as transportation and extracurricular activities such as athletics, band, theater, and civic clubs.”

What have college grads learned?

It’s not enough to push more students to a college degree, writes Richard M. Freeland, commissioner of higher education in Massachusetts.  We need a way to evaluate how much students have learned.

As part of Massachusetts’ Vision Project, public colleges and universities have created a statewide framework to assess student learning outcomes.

PARCC test is ‘stupid, impossible’ and ‘weird’

As a big supporter of Common Core standards, literacy consultant Rebecca Steinitz asked her seventh-grade daughter to take a practice test released by the PARCC consortium. It’s a “stupid, impossible test” filled with “weird questions” that “make no sense,” reported Eva.

Eva aced Massachusetts’ old exams, her mother writes on the Huffington Post. (It’s an open letter to President Obama, whose private-schooled daughters won’t take core-aligned exams, but that’s just a gimmick.) Next year, Eva will take a PARCC-designed exam in school.

Here’s one of the “crazy” questions on the practice test:

You have learned about electricity by reading two articles, “Energy Story” and “Conducting Solutions,” and viewing a video clip titled “Hands-On Science with Squishy Circuits.” In an essay, compare the purpose of the three sources. Then analyze how each source uses explanations, demonstrations, or descriptions of experiments to help accomplish its purpose. Be sure to discuss important differences and similarities between the information gained from the video and the information provided in the articles. Support your response with evidence from each source.

Seventh graders “know how to compare and contrast, and they know how to provide evidence,” writes Steinitz. But “unpacking this prompt, let alone accomplishing it,” would feel “impossible” to most as it did for Eva.

Eva missed 10 of 45 multiple-choice questions scoring in the C range. That means most of her classmates would fail.

Steinitz, who earned a PhD in English, has trained and coached high school English teachers. She missed seven of 36 questions on the 11th-grade practice test.

She thinks ninth graders aren’t ready to read a passage from Bleak House and third graders would be stumped by the abstraction in this essay prompt:

Old Mother West Wind and the Sandwitch both try to teach important lessons to characters in the stories. Write an essay that explains how Old Mother West Wind’s and the Sandwitch’s words and actions are important to the plots of the stories. Use what you learned about the characters to support your essay.

Steinitz believes Common Core standards could help bring a rigorous, challenging, engaging curriculum to every classroom. “But the standards won’t succeed if the tests used to assess them are confusing, developmentally inappropriate, and so hard that even good students can’t do well on them.”

Teaching question: Can teachers prepare students to tackle questions like these?

Political question: If the parents of good students see them earning C’s on new tests, will support for Common Core collapse?

What do students learn in college?

Massachusetts is leading a nine-state effort to measure what students learn in college. The plan is to compare students’ work, including term papers and lab reports, rather than using a standardized test.

A three-year bachelor’s of applied science degree will cost $13,000 to $15,000 for Texas students. The competency-based degree, developed by South Texas College and Texas A&M University at Commerce, mixes online and face-to-face learning.

2014: It’s time for universal proficiency!

It’s 2014:  All students will be proficient in reading and math, Mike Petrilli reminds us. It’s the law!

Each State shall establish a timeline for adequate yearly progress. The timeline shall ensure that not later than 12 years after the end of the 2001–2002 school year, all students in each group described in subparagraph (C)(v) will meet or exceed the State’s proficient level of academic achievement.

– No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, section 1111(2)(F)

The next time someone talks about all students being college and career ready, a highly effective teacher in every classroom or eradicating childhood poverty, remember “universal proficiency by 2014,” Petrilli suggests.

The No Child Left Behind generation — today’s 11th graders started school after the law passed — are doing better he writes. 

NCLB kids were fourth graders in 2007:

Reading scores for the lowest-performing students and for black and Hispanic students all shot up four points (almost half a grade) over 2002’s baseline and math scores went up a whopping five points for all students, for white students, and for Hispanic students over a 2003 baseline, and black scores rocketed an incredible six points.

And in 2011, as eighth graders:

Reading scores for the lowest-performing students and for black students shot up four points over 2007’s baseline, while Hispanic students gained five points, and math scores were up three points over 2007, with Hispanic students gaining five points.

Yet just a third of the NCLB Generation had become proficient readers by the eighth grade. For Blacks and Hispanics, it was 15 and 19 percent, respectively. The results for mathematics were just a few points higher.

Still, these incremental gains add up to about half a year of extra learning, on average, writes Petrilli. That’s not enough, but it’s something.

Next time around, the goals should be high but achievable, writes Petrilli. For example, in the next six years, let’s try to get the national average to the level already achieved by Massachusetts students.

Performance funding spreads in higher ed

Massachusetts will link half of community college funding to performance metrics, such as raising graduation rates, meeting the state’s workforce needs and improving success rates for minority students.

Federal  job training dollars would go to colleges that collaborate with employers on workforce credentials, under a bill by Sen. Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat, and Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican. The bill includes a pay-for-performance pilot.

U.S. is above average in math, science

U.S. eighth graders in 36 states outperform the international average, reports the National Center for Education Statistics. In science, U.S. students in 46 states outscored the global competition.

However, even in the top-performing states — Massachusetts, Vermont and Minnesota — fewer U.S. students scored at the highest levels than students in several East Asian countries, notes the New York Times.

“It’s better news than we’re used to,” said David Driscoll, the chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for the national exams commonly known as the Nation’s Report Card. “But it’s still not anything to allow us to rest on our laurels.”

While 19 percent of eighth graders in Massachusetts, the highest-performing state, scored at the advanced level in math, close to 50 percent were advanced in South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan.

Twenty-four percent of Massachusetts students achieved the advanced level, compared with 40 percent in Singapore.

France, Germany, Denmark, China and India did not participate, notes Paul Peterson, a Harvard education professor.

This global math achievement graph, via Education Week, shows the U.S. tied with Britain. South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan — you sense a pattern perhaps — do the best.

In science, the top seven performers globally are: Singapore, Massachusetts, Taiwan, Vermont, South Korea, Japan and New Hampshire.

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.