Tuesday | February 16, 2010

Education reform will fail a vast number of U.S. students unless the role of career and technical education (CTE, formerly called vocational education) is reconsidered, recast and placed in the mainstream of K-12 curriculum design. These were some of the conclusions of a small group of top federal and state policymakers, educators, business and labor leaders, practitioners, researchers and other workforce experts who took part in an informal conversation on Feb. 17, hosted by AFT president Randi Weingarten and sponsored by the Albert Shanker Institute.

Weingarten was joined at the meeting by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan; West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin; West Virginia First Lady Gayle Manchin, who is a member of the state board of education; and White House special counselor for manufacturing Ron Bloom; as well as other policymakers, scholars and specialists. (See complete list of participants.)

The meeting, titled "Modernizing Career and Technical Education, High School's Neglected Resource for Comprehensive Postsecondary Preparation," was the first in a series of conversations that will be led by Weingarten and hosted by the Shanker Institute. These informal meetings are designed to promote frank discussion about critical questions in American education and public policy. The bipartisan conversations will include individuals with differing viewpoints on the issue at hand, and are designed, in part, as a response to the current, very polarized political environment in the nation's capital. The conversation format assumes the expertise of all participants, and emphasizes the personal exchange of views and analysis. It was a private gathering, with no formal presentations and no press.

The initial discussion featured spirited exchanges on the role of CTE, noting that CTE historically has been accorded second-class status in American education, despite the increasing expectations for job expertise, the high labor market demand for skills, and the excellent wages that are often available for job credentials based on them. The participants also noted that secondary school programs aimed at preparing students for careers, and the postsecondary training that is often required, have a record of reducing dropout rates, especially among the most disadvantaged and at-risk youth. There is a clear record of postsecondary educational achievement for graduates of strong technical high schools. In other words, a high-quality CTE program that incorporates rigorous math and English instruction, taught in a "ready for work" context, can be a solid foundation for success at both two-year and four-year postsecondary institutions.

Still, the history of CTE as a repository for disadvantaged and less-skilled students, and the mantra of "college for all," has led to suspicion by some minority and working-class families that their children are being unfairly "tracked" into such programs, without being given an "equal opportunity to learn." One response to this dilemma that has gained some traction in the policy community is the notion of "multiple pathways." This idea recognizes that there can be more than one road to educational and occupational achievement, and encourages the development of rigorous coursework that is presented in a career or occupational context. The increasingly technical and quantitative skills required by the modern economy, in fact, demand unrelenting attention to student performance and achievement, which cannot be sacrificed in any educational setting.

Some experts also noted that, in the world's highest-achieving nations, there is a heavy emphasis on career, vocational and occupational education. While students in those countries take achievement tests (and do better than U.S. students, typically), the focus is on skills, and achievement for its own sake, not simply test results. Students are taught to take pride in the concrete skills they master, to respect those skills in others, and to accept that it takes hard work to achieve their occupational aspirations.

The participants discussed and debated a number of other issues, such as the role of business in education, the efficacy of expanding school hours, leveraging private-sector resources effectively, the importance of middle school achievement, and the proper role of testing and accountability. At the conversation's end, participants agreed that they wanted to continue this dialogue, and that a report of the substance of the discussion would be written and circulated among the group for comment and recommendations for further action.

View full list of participants