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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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Bob Calder's picture
Bob Calder
Internet and Society

There is a context you remember from your own days in school and it's correct. Today's CTE bleed-over into academic territory is the result of panic in CTE.

When NCLB stress on reading, writing, and math resulted in schools shedding "unnecessary" courses, those left behind (how ironically evangelical) decided their disciplines had to become relevant to survive. Science first, Social Studies next. Administrators that have to hire extra reading and math coaches also have to make hard choices about what to cut.

In Florida, the CTE folks have successfully lobbied for extra points to the school grade for students achieving "professional certification" in a fashion similar to the extra you get for enrollment in AP classes.

As time goes by, the state realizes we are adapting to their rules and it makes new ones to fix problems that inevitably result in new adaptations and new problems; test scores make up less and less of our school grade. Saying everybody can succeed in AP seems like a rationalization to me. But it saved lots of jobs. Given time, we will see professional certification in some pretty odd things. (Honestly I deleted some really funny stuff here.)

Reading this, I would like to be able to dial down the harshness but I think it is reasonable if not universally true. Also it is good to reflect on some of the management technique reflected in hiring temporary workers who don't see the way reformers want to change the context of the workplace. They didn't expect it to react the way it did, and that's funny (CTE) in and of itself. I'm happy to see recent graduates of Ivy League universities catch on and begin to ask questions; and that's good too.

Cindy Miller's picture

High school graduates must be prepared to succeed at the next level--whether they choose to attend college or begin a career. The goal of high school should be clear: to prepare graduates for life after high school by teaching them the skills and knowledge that are essential to college and workforce training readiness. This is the reason that we were able to establish at this point in time 15 CTE dual college credit courses with our local community college and universities. In today's more competitive and diverse world, earning a high school diploma alone is not enough. As Mr. Town mentioned in this article, all students are capable of meeting higher expectations and taking challenging courses, but they also need to see the relevance of what they are taking by applying those knowledge and skills to real world opportunities.

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