Which school do you want to support?
Should high school prepare you for college, or for work?
Many teachers and school leaders regard this as a false choice; school should prepare you for both, right? Certainly, the Common Core State Standards were developed with the idea that all students should graduate from high school prepared for both college and career, so that the course of their high school education would not limit their life options.
California's high schools once had a strong emphasis on career. For example, in 1987 nearly three-quarters of high school students were enrolled in courses explicitly designed to prepare them for a career. By 2014-15 somewhat less than half of California high school students were participating in courses deemed to have a career-oriented purpose, according to US Department of Education data from the Perkins Collaborative Resource Network. These courses, once known as "vocational education", are now generally classified as "career and technical education" under the inevitable acronym CTE.
California has had several systems for the delivery of CTE: middle school and high school courses, as well as community colleges, private universities and colleges, and Regional Occupational Centers and Programs (ROCPs). ROCPs provide high school students and adults training for specific jobs. Teachers in the programs come from particular industries with a minimum of five years industry-specific experience.
Vocationally-oriented programs, when effective, can provide a "pipeline" connection between high schools and employers. On one hand, this type of program is great, right? Participating students graduate directly to jobs in their community, and local employers build a deep connection with local schools. For some students, CTE helps increase their motivation and engagement with school by connecting schoolwork with the real world.
On the other hand, such pipelines raise civil rights concerns. A long-term study of economic microdata in the United States and other countries shows that over the course of time, students that pursue a career-oriented track in school tend to have "less adaptability and diminished employment later in life." If schools direct low-income students and students of color into career-oriented courses rather than college-oriented ones, they perpetuate economic divisions.
According to a poll by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), Californians broadly agree with the statement that "a college education is necessary for a person to be successful in today's work world." The poll found particular agreement with the statement among respondents who were nonwhite or who had lower household incomes. Only respondents who were white or who had higher incomes were more likely to agree with the statement "there are many ways to succeed in today's work world without a college education."
A high school reform strategy called Linked Learning attempts to put the idea of preparing all students for both college and career into practice. The idea is to develop programs that, according to advocates, can provide all students with access to a different kind of high school education, integrating rigorous academic instruction with a demanding technical curriculum and work-based learning. This approach leans heavily on decades of experience in California and nationally with career or partnership academies. With this approach, when well implemented, students have opportunities to "learn by doing" in a work setting, sometimes including formal internships. Research on the effectiveness of Linked Learning programs has shown particularly positive results for Latino students.
College is not for me. /
I want to work and earn. /
Teach me what I need /
so I can work and learn!
For high school students, internships are rare and hard to find. In general, they provide students with direct experience in a particular field or industry. High school students fortunate enough to land an internship gain experiences that can help them see their own future, and to sense their own strengths and weaknesses in a way that classroom experiences cannot deliver. An internship can also assist a student with determining whether or not they are on the right career path. And it’s often the first time that they must prepare a resume and practice job-interviewing skills.
Setting up effective internships requires that schools include local employers in planning and developing educational programs. Crossing organizational boundaries, and creating public-private partnerships has proved to be demanding work for everyone involved. It generally requires that schools or school districts have a staff person dedicated to the effort. As the Local Control Funding Formula puts districts in charge of more of their budgets, they have the opportunity to set aside funds for such programs, if they believe them effective. Unsurprisingly, the internet has sprouted solutions that savvy students can use to search for internships and other opportunities, such as idealist.org.
All of the following buzzwords relate to efforts to combine learning and career. Pay attention, now - there could be a test. Just sayin'.
Notice that "blended learning" is not on this list? That's because blended learning refers to the use of technology for learning in classrooms. Ah, the joys of education jargon...
No, there is not universal agreement that all high schools should provide internships or use the Linked Learning approach. In fact, there are strong advocates for more traditional Career Technical Education programs, many of which are offered through ROCPs. And there are strong voices that view CTE as a distraction from the hard work of creating and executing successful college-preparatory programs.
Realistically, not all students (or parents) want the same things out of their high school education, but nearly all see some college or other postsecondary education in their future. If academic and career preparation fall along a continuum, families can choose the right mix. But local schools need to be equipped to deliver both types of instruction at a high level of quality.
California has been taking steps toward that goal for many years. In 2005, the California State Board of Education(SBE) adopted a comprehensive set of CTE model curriculum standards designed for grades 7-12. The standards specified research-based learning goals in 58 career pathways in 15 industry sectors. The standards reflected both general knowledge and specific career-related skills. In 2013, the State Board adopted model curriculum standards for Career Technical Education aligned with the Common Core State Standards.
In addition, while the state eliminated most state categorical programs in 2013 as part of the shift to the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), it provided a separate funding stream to support regional Career Technical programs, particularly those that use the Linked Learning approach. Creating strong CTE offerings requires active participation and partnerships among local schools, ROCPs, employers, and colleges, particularly community colleges. By directing funds to regional centers, the state aims to make those kinds of partnerships more widespread, thus strengthening programs that include CTE.
In 2016, Education Trust-West examined the role of career-oriented courses in students' "pathways" after high school. In a study titled Meandering toward Graduation: Transcript Outcomes of High School Graduates, the authors document extensive mismatches in which courses students take vs. what they ought to take in order to be ready for college or career.
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