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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Bridging the Gap: High School College Prep and Career/Technical Education

Several weeks ago, I called Mike Town to talk about environmental education. I ended up wrestling, once again, with issues of high school tracking.

Town, who teaches environmental science at Washington's Redmond High School, was recently named the inaugural winner of the NEA Foundation's Green Prize in Public Education. He was also recognized for Outstanding Service to Environmental Education by the North American Association for Environmental Education in 2009. He seemed like the guy to talk to about environmental education.

And he was. He told me about the Cool School Challenge, a program (available for free online) he helped develop to engage students and teachers in reducing their school's greenhouse gas emissions. The strategies they use can be as simple as lighting control, recycling, and carpooling. Nationwide, the program has saved over 1.6 million pounds of carbon dioxide. It has also saved his school more than $100,000 in energy and waste costs over the past three years.

The Power of Purpose

He and his students are now taking the approach to scale in their community. They have joined with the local government in the Eco-Office Challenge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in other buildings across the city, starting with Redmond's six fire stations.

His students also designed a new transportation plan for the city of Redmond, using everything from bikes to light rail to buses and more to link city residents to a town center and to link the surrounding communities together. They study green building, drafting floor plans and building three-dimensional models of green homes. And they design completely new, sustainable communities -- their transportation, agriculture, water waste, building strategies and more. I am a bit jealous I never got to do anything like it in high school.

But even before telling me about all the interesting things he and his students do, Town floored me.

Town: I teach AP [Advanced Placement] environmental science. I also teach a course in environmental design and sustainability. And I'm a CTE teacher -- both of these classes are CTE. CTE is career and technical education.

O'Brien: AP environmental science is considered career and tech ed?

Town: Mine is.

I was shocked. When I was in high school, CTE and college-prep were completely different tracks. "Smart" kids did not take CTE courses. And, vice versa. Kids who were considered "not smart" did not take AP courses.

What about that divide?

Town: With 200 kids enrolled in our AP environmental science class, and with all of them taking the AP test and getting vocational credit, we can break that barrier down. And when the kids do projects it allows them to get out of their stereotype, the kind of cliquish deal about the brainiacs and the voc[ational] kids. We have a really strong belief, or I certainly do, that most kids can succeed in AP classes. We have to eliminate the barriers to those classes. For this class, we really like to attract those students who are economically disadvantaged and show them that, yes, they are smart enough to go to college.

Debunking Old Ideas

Town's approach got me thinking about CTE in education reform discussions. I most often hear about CTE as a strategy for engaging students who are at risk of dropping out -- and research suggests it does reduce dropout rates when implemented well. But it is not often discussed as a way to prepare students for college, just as a way to keep them in high school.

And CTE is often a subject of debate. Which students take CTE versus college-prep courses? In even offering CTE, do we confine certain students -- mainly low-income students -- to a certain place in society? Shouldn't all kids be held to the same (higher) standard?

It is a complicated issue. And after my conversation with Town, I looked into it. I found research on the outcomes of CTE. But I found very little on efforts similar to Town's: college-level courses with technical education components. While many advocate increasing rigor in CTE courses, few advocate increasing the technical aspect of AP courses. Does that mean there will always be two tracks?

I still struggle with why it has to be that way. Wouldn't high-achieving kids, as well as struggling students, benefit from real-world and technical skills? Why don't more high schools combine CTE and college-prep courses?

We look forward to your comments and ideas on this topic!

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Doug Stowe's picture
Doug Stowe
K-12 wood shop

Prior to the Smith Hughes Act in 1917, Educational Sloyd presented the idea that engagement of the hands in learning was essential for all, not just those not going to college. If you read Charles A. Bennett History of Industrial Arts Education, you learn that his history ended in 1917, even though it was published in 1937, because Smith Hughes ended the important debate and effectively divided the manual arts from intellectual pursuits, at least in the minds of most educators.

It was a tragic mistake. As described by John Ruskin, "Time and Tide", 1883 "Let the youth once learn to take a straight shaving off a plank, or draw a fine curve without faltering, or lay a brick level in its mortar, and he has learned a multitude of other matters which no lips of man could ever teach him." ALL children benefit from hands-on learning, not just those not going to college. They benefit in intellect, but also benefit in enthusiasm. Wisdom of the Hands Doug Stowe

Sue Olenski's picture
Sue Olenski
Grad student, school counselor

...Holland's Realistic types of people who are down to earth and practical (the techies) NEED the strongly Investigative type (scientists) and vice versa.

To affirm Mr.Stowe's points, there was a time earlier in history when very highly educated people like Jefferson applied the theory 'stuff' to solve problems with a physical dimension on his plantation. Of course others did the manual labor.

Brainiacs of blue collar families in my Dad's time were frequently found at the Technical high schools. I think the problem comes from our contemporary educational 'Sorting Process'--the Hat from Harry Potter!

Poor readers are consigned to vocational tracks rather than being remediated. Strong readers get better vocabularies and end up in AP classes. Teachers don't usually develop a wide variety of skills but end up in completely verbal (not practical) educational curricula themselves.

And we as a society end up with levee failures and out of control oil eruptions. Reminds me of an old poster-- something about a society that honors its philosophers more than its plumbers ends up with theories and pipes that don't hold water.

Doug Stowe's picture
Doug Stowe
K-12 wood shop

The quote to which you refer:

"An excellent plumber is infinitely more valuable than an incompetent philosopher. The society that scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water."--John Gardner, Excellence, 1961

On the point of poor readers... Educators are challenged in their efforts to implement a multiple intelligences approach, by the fact that teachers are selected from among those who are college educated, having a demonstrated facility in language but often little else. Put a teacher under stress in front of a classroom, and he will resort to the means of teaching most accessible in his proven repertoire. Talk, talk, test.

When we have high school science teachers who have also proven themselves in craftsmanship, music or dance and are given the latitude to use them in class, we'll know we are making progress in engaging all learners at a higher level of accomplishment.

Bob Calder's picture
Bob Calder
Internet and Society

Doug, I agree heartily but see two trends that are good. First, science is heading back toward a project-based curriculum fairly rapidly (for education.) High stakes testing will hold that back as will safety concerns. Second, "maker" culture is absolutely booming in schools as a cultural value among geek kids.

Doug Stowe's picture
Doug Stowe
K-12 wood shop

I agree that the maker culture is making a comeback. Etsy.com is a good place to go and witness what's happening. The dreadful economy has a bit to do with it, but also, there is a growing disappointment with manufactured goods. My 4th grade students told me that with the exception of what they make in wood shop, all their toys are made in China. I asked, "What's wrong with that?" "Chinese made toys break," one replied. "Well, don't the toys you make in wood shop break?" I asked. "No, we take care of them." And so, kids know that things that take human energy to make have a different value than things that are spewed from modern manufacturing.

Dan Perna's picture

Over the past seven years, I have been doing curriculum and instructional coaching in Career and Technical Centers. The rigor and relevance of quality CTE programs provides an established pathway to finding potential leaders in the sciences, engineering, electronics, computer science, and architecture. I find the reading and math requirements in most CTE programs to be far more applicable to engaging high level academic performance than the traditional high school programs that I saw as a high school principal. Not only must CTE students learn high level academic concepts, they also must apply those concepts to engaged activities that help the students see "why we learn". I have found many CTE students who were "placed" in the career center only because these students did not like to learn for learning's sake. These students want to know why they are learning and what makes the rigorous content important. If the United States wants to compete in the 21st Century economic environment, more students need to be engaged in the type of learning required in CTE's. Preparing to do well on tests does not identify the students who have innovative thoughts and a willingness to learn for a purpose. CTE's can prepare students for college with both intellect and application skills.

John Perales's picture

As a newer CTE instructor, one of my biggest hurdles is the misconception about what today's CTE classes are really about. When parents think about CTE, all they can see is the type of students that took vocational classs when they were in high school. CTE improves studetns learning academicly and professionally. I am glad to hear about the positive happenings of CTE. Keep up the good job!

Doug Stowe's picture
Doug Stowe
K-12 wood shop

At Arkansas public universities, 38% of students earn a degree within 6 years, and 62% fail to do so. That means that we are doing a great number of things wrong from the get-go. We push kids into college unprepared, with too little enthusiasm for learning, because it is a widely sold concept that college and career success are inseparably entwined. One suggestion for the U of A is to reduce graduation requirements, and reduce rigor, making it easier for students to graduate.

Instead, I suggest that we begin looking at educational enthusiasm. What is it that sells students on learning in the first place? My premise is that all students need the hands-on, hearts-engaged connections that were traditionally formed by wood shop, culinary arts, music, athletics, and the decorative arts.

Julie Hutto's picture

I am a CTE teacher, teaching Marketing and Work Place Readiness. Academics are incorporated into my curriculum. I could not teach either of these without math, reading and english grammar. All students today must be prepared for life, not just college or not just a job. All careers whether "professional" requiring a college degree, or skill related, not requiring a degree, require that the students be able to communicate with people. They must be literate which includes reading, writing and arithmitic. I think CTE teachers and academic teachers need to partner together to create a curriculm that focus more on the success of the student, and not what department we belong to.

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