Merging Career Tech with College Prep: Why It's Succeeding

Teacher and student looking at an eye model; student welder

Developing technical skills through hands-on learning is keeping kids in school and setting them up for success in college and the job market.

Credit: Ethan Pines


We've seen it in the movies -- a group of teens with slicked-back hair, grease-stained jeans, and faded black leather jackets tinker with a car engine. Meanwhile, inside the school, the college-bound nerds with glasses, pressed pants and dresses, and pimply complexions square off on the debate team. These two stereotypes -- one blue collar, one white -- and all their attendant socioeconomic implications for the students' futures may still be hanging on with some screenwriters. But in a growing number of today's high schools, the model has been blown up, replaced with a focus on preparing all students for both college and a diverse array of jobs and careers after high school.

This new approach, often called career and technical education (CTE), "represents the first substantive change in high schools since they were first created in the late 1800s," observes Nancy Farnan, director of the School of Teacher Education at San Diego State University. Traditional high schools, with separate departments for each academic subject, have been around since 1893, when a task force known as the Committee of Ten, appointed by the National Education Association, released its report recommending how to standardize American high schools.

CTE is almost diametrically opposite in its approach. It's all about fusion and collaboration; transforming the 3 R's from reading, writing and arithmetic, to rigor, relevancy and relationships -- among students, teachers and industry. Teachers work collaboratively to create a seamless curriculum that infuses English, math, science, and history with career skills in everything from green energy to health sciences. Students get to apply their course work in the real world through internships and apprenticeships -- and are more likely to graduate.

The two most prominent efforts to support CTE in California are the California Partnership Academies funded by the State Department of Education, and Linked Learning, managed by ConnectEd: The California Center for College and Career, that's funded by the Irvine Foundation (which also provided funding for this installment of "Schools That Work"). These programs combine rigorous academics with hands-on learning in a specific business or industry.

Multiple Paths; One Mission

On any given day at Francisco Bravo, students, in a steady stream, leave the campus bound for unconventional high school activities. Some walk the few blocks to the University of Southern California's University Hospital to volunteer, others hop buses to internships at dentists' offices, and a third group dons lab coats and medical gloves to collaborate side-by-side with researchers at USC's Keck School of Medicine, developing everything from new cancer drugs to prosthetic retinas.

Several hundred miles to the north, near Sacramento, is room P-5 at Laguna Creek High School, in the Elk Grove Unified School District. The space could pass for a not-so-mad scientist's laboratory where even the lab rats might find it difficult to navigate the maze of wind turbines, solar-powered go-karts, and pails of green goo that fill the room. It's here that students in the Green Energy Technology Academy (GETA) harness the power of the sun and the wind and make use of flaxseed juice, vegetable oil waste, and homegrown algae searching for renewable sources of energy that may one day run our cars, industries, and homes.

Boy welding a fence post

OVERVIEW VIDEO: Connecting High School to College and Career

Running Time: 03:52 min.

Elk Grove Unified School District operates 17 academies -- from agriculture to sports careers -- with new programs being planned all the time. The district has developed its own academy-certification process and a Teacher Education Institute. One of it's academies is among the first of ConnectEd's model programs.

Though there's no single approach to career and technical education, the programs fall into three main categories.

Career Academies: Sometimes referred to as multiple pathways, career academies are typically small learning communities within larger high schools that focus on an industry theme that's important to the region, such as health, building trades, or engineering. Although structures differ, studies have shown the most successful career academies contain four core components:

  • a rigorous college-preparatory curriculum that uses project-based learning to give lessons real-world context and relevance
  • a career technical curriculum of at least three year-long courses that are infused into the core academics
  • community partnerships that include job shadowing, internships, or mentorships
  • a strong network of support services to help students master the academic and career content

Career-Themed High Schools: Large or small, these are entire high schools that provide students with training and instruction in a specific career or industry -- without skimping on academics. Once enrolled, students may specialize even further. Even though Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet, in the Los Angeles Unified School District, is a health-themed high school, students can choose to study in preparation for any number of health- and science-related careers under that broad theme.

Career Pathways: The closest relative to traditional vocational education, these are a series of progressive courses, offered over three or four years, that teach students a set of skills within a particular field. Sheldon High School, in the Elk Grove Unified School District, offers students classes in building trades and animation. The animation program is structured like a small studio in which students are assigned specific jobs, the kind that exist in a real animation house, and the teacher expects them to work as a team to write, animate, and produce a short film.

Positive Momentum

The state of California alone funds about 500 career academies today, up from two in 1981, and it's estimated that an equal number operate with private and federal funds. And these academies are drawing the attention of education researchers. One of the most rigorous studies, conducted by James J. Kemple and Jason C. Snipes for MDRC (formerly Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation), followed over 1,700 students at 9 urban high schools who applied to one of nine career academies, and were then randomly assigned either to the career academy or a traditional high school program. The study found substantial improvements for students considered at high risk for dropping out.

  • The drop-out rate for high-risk students was 32 percent in the control group compared to 21 percent for students in the academy.
  • Academy students had higher attendance rates than those in the control group, amounting to an additional 11 days of school a year over four years.
  • Nearly twice as many high-risk academy students as high-risk non-academy students completed the required academic core subjects.
  • In California, 50 percent of high-risk career academy seniors submitted applications to a two- or four-year college, compared to 35 percent of high-risk seniors in the non-academy group.

According to several studies, graduates of career academies also fare better in the job market because they get to practice job skills through internships and mentoring, both vital elements of Linked Learning-style programs. Without industry partnerships, the building-trades pathway at Elk Grove's Sheldon High School wouldn't exist, says wood and metal shop teacher Jeff Merker, who's been there from the start. Local construction companies donate extra wood and supplies and provide financial support. In return, Merker sends them graduates with a solid foundation to step into their first professional environment. He coaches them on all aspects of professional behavior: work ethics, social skills, even personal hygiene. Explains Merker, "Employers want to know that the kids are dependable. Can they put forth an honest day's work? I constantly reinforce those traits in my efforts with the kids."

Big Fiscal Payoff

There is also an emerging financial upside for the state of California as CTE programs expand and improve. A California Dropout Research Project report found that, after deducting the public costs of keeping more students in school, each additional high school graduate contributes more than $115,000 to the federal coffers, and nearly $54,000 to California's state and local governments over the course of that graduate's lifetime. Add to that the commensurate per-graduate savings in health care, welfare, and crime-related costs, and California stands to gain up to $392,000 for each additional high school graduate. Multiply that by the 19 percent of Californians who drop out of high school between their freshman and senior years, and you begin to see what a brave new CTE-fueled financial future might look like.

So it should come as no surprise that the California Department of Education is now calling for a revision to the state education code to declare "the purpose of high school is to educate and prepare all students to be postsecondary and career ready upon high school graduation."

In this segment of "Schools That Work" we'll show you how schools are making career and technical-education programs work -- for the teachers, the students, and the budget. We have how-to guides, free downloads, and resources used by those schools as well as in-depth videos showing the programs in action and introducing you to the remarkable cast of students, teachers, and administrators who are sustaining these high-impact innovations.

This article originally published on 9/27/2010

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