Vocational Education Means Schools That Work

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“Schools That Work,” a new report from the Center for an Urban Future, urges New York City education officials to place career and technical education (CTE) programs at the center of ongoing efforts to improve city high schools. The study finds that even though CTE schools long have been one of the most overlooked and under-funded parts of the school system, CTE students in New York graduate from high school at sharply higher rates and are four times less likely to drop out before graduating than the city’s overall high school population. It also shows that these schools—which offer programs formerly known as vocational education—have the potential to play a critical role in creating a steady stream of skilled workers for several occupations in New York that are expected to have shortages, from airline mechanics to opticians.

The report shows that despite the outdated perception of these schools as a dumping ground for students who lack the intelligence or maturity to succeed in an academic environment, more than two-thirds of CTE students go on to college after graduating, and the limited data available suggests they out-perform their non-CTE counterparts once there. The Center for an Urban Future criticizes Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein for virtually ignoring CTE during the first six years of the administration’s school reforms, but commends the mayor for creating a task force earlier this year to make recommendations on how to improve CTE programs. The task force is expected to release its suggestions next month.

In addition to the data on graduation and dropout rates, the report notes that attendance at New York City’s 21 dedicated CTE high schools in the 2007-2008 school year is about a point above the citywide high school average; at some of the most successful CTE schools, attendance runs as much as ten points above the city average. CTE students in the five boroughs achieve these superior educational outcomes despite the fact that compared to the citywide high school population, students at the 21 CTE high schools tend to be poorer (based on percentages qualifying for free lunch); more likely to be over-age for their grade level; and lower-skilled in terms of standardized testing for English and Math.

Among the problems identified in the report is the limited staff support for CTE programs within the city’s Department of Education (DOE). Last summer, the CTE division was slashed from 27 workers to 10—or just one more CTE staff member than boasts San Diego, which has a population about one-seventh of New York City’s and proportionately smaller school enrollment. Inadequate budgets are another major concern: Most CTE schools struggle to pay for the machines, tools and supplies they need to effectively teach a vocational curriculum. An outdated and inefficient procurement process, in which schools cannot spend more than $250 per month with a single vendor and can only purchase items from DOE-approved vendors, further handicaps efforts to keep labs well-stocked and up to date. CTE programs can turn to private-sector businesses for help with equipment, curriculum and other needs, but the very different cultures of the business world and the education bureaucracy can create frustration for company leaders who engage with the system.

Above all, CTE continues to contend with the outdated perception that career-focused education is a second-tier system for students of less intelligence or ambition—despite rigorous programs that require participants to pass the same battery of Regents exams for graduation that all city students must take in addition to their vocational sequences.

Here is an excerpt from “Schools That Work”:

After six tumultuous years of school reform in New York City, champions and critics argue over progress made on graduation rates and test scores, the value of new systems of accountability and what mayoral control has meant for the city. But while the debate rages on, too many city students still leave high school without diplomas or the skills required for success in the world of work that awaits them.

CTE not only boosts educational outcomes for at-risk youth, but holds great value for the city’s economy as well. The industries for which CTE programs train students—from optometry and nursing to information technology and automotive maintenance—are virtually certain to offer job openings in large numbers over the next couple decades, thanks to a combination of natural job growth and baby boomer retirements. Most careers for which CTE instruction prepares students are high-demand, well-compensated occupations that for the most part cannot be outsourced, and do not necessarily require a four-year college diploma.

Until now, CTE has not figured into the Bloomberg administration’s sweeping education reform agenda. However, in his January 2008 State of the City speech, Mayor Michael Bloomberg praised career and technical education and announced the formation of a task force, chaired by former Mayor David Dinkins, to make recommendations on how to further improve CTE programs. The administration’s new focus on CTE is heartening, but as this report shows, realizing the promise of CTE will require a fundamental change in attitude toward career-focused education from top officials at the city’s Department of Education as well as a long-term commitment from city and state officials, the State Board of Regents and the business community to ensure that CTE schools have the resources and flexibility they require.

The secret of career and technical education is, simply, context and relevance. CTE imparts academic skills through real-world applications. While requiring students to meet the same high academic standards as those at academic high schools in order to graduate, the 21 dedicated CTE high schools across the five boroughs also help students prepare for potential careers as dental lab technicians, nurse assistants, electricians, subway maintenance technicians, IT support workers, aircraft mechanics, chefs and dozens of other occupations. Rather than wondering why it’s important to learn geometry, students grasp that the concept on the chalkboard relates to something real.

CTE’s hands-on approach to education is largely producing positive outcomes. Attendance at a number of the CTE schools is well above citywide averages (see page 10). Some of the schools are national models, and most are deemed effective by the city. Half of the 18 CTE high schools that received grades under the Department of Education’s controversial report cards released last autumn received As or Bs.
Others struggle: three CTE high schools got failing grades, falling short on the same measures of graduation rates and standardized testing that bedevil high schools of all descriptions.

Those low marks indicate that obstacles remain for the success of CTE programs—and perhaps the biggest is the enduring sense that only low achievers are ticketed for vocational studies. In an age where “college for all” has become an unlikely rallying cry, all too many parents, who remember what “voc ed” meant a generation ago when they were in school, regard career and technical education with something resembling horror.

Unfortunately, the bias against CTE isn’t just limited to students and parents. Political officials and top administrators in the Department of Education (DOE), and the Board of Education before it, and no small number of teachers themselves, shared the disdain. “There’s been a huge divide between the academic and vocational worlds for years,” says Betsy Brand, director of the American Youth Policy Forum. “Most academic teachers aren’t really exposed to the requirements of the economy and workplace. They don’t know how the world of work has changed.”

Another important reason why CTE has been denied its due is that for decades education administrators at the city level showed no appreciation for the full value of these programs. Indeed, since the Bloomberg administration gained control of city schools in 2002 and further increased the emphasis on standardized testing, CTE enrollment in New York City sharply declined—from 118,892 in the 2002-2003 school year to 103,172 in 2006-2007.

Focused solely on college admissions—and concerned little if at all with how the city will or won’t meet its projected workforce needs—education policymakers have paid no attention to the successful outcomes of high school graduates who go on to remunerative and stable careers in fields from graphic communications and cosmetology to aviation maintenance and carpentry. Even today, on the statistical assessments that DOE requires each year from every school, there is no methodological rigor applied to “students’ post-secondary plans” beyond surveying graduating seniors—and there is absolutely no tracking of students’ outcomes after they leave high school.

“What if a kid graduates from Automotive High School and gets an apprenticeship at one of the best dealerships in the city?” asks Stanley Schair, an attorney at the midtown firm of Bond, Schoeneck and King and the longtime chairperson of the city’s CTE Advisory Council, a collection of educators, businesspeople and advocates that meets quarterly to support CTE programs. “Isn’t that a fantastic outcome? That’s what he went to school for.”

Another major obstacle has been that CTE programs have struggled to make do with inadequate resources. As the Independent Budget Office reported in August 2007, CTE schools have been underfunded compared to the citywide norm over the past few years, a state of affairs that has only partly been remedied under the Fair Student Funding budget formula adopted for the 2007-2008 school year. The IBO found that average per student spending in CTE schools significantly lagged the average in all city high schools.

To read more of “Schools That Work,” click here.

– David Jason Fischer