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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Career Tech Meets College Prep: Ten Tips to Get Going

Practical advice for taking those first steps.
By Kathy Baron

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


Career academies and pathways have now been around long enough that researchers and educators have a good handle on what works best. These 10 tips draw on the expertise of the California Department of Education, ConnectEd, MDRC's research report, and many teachers and administrators in the Elk Grove Unified School District and at Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet High School.

1. Identify Local Industries and Occupations

This new phase of career technical education is aimed at infusing academics with real-world job skills, but not for just any jobs. One goal should be to identify the specific industries, businesses, and occupations in your region that need skilled, educated employees.

Some good places to start are chambers of commerce, community colleges, and professional associations. They’re all in the business of knowing where the job growth is and what skills and knowledge are required. Your students’ parents are also a great resource.

2. Find Compatible Partners

CTE is all about collaboration, so partnerships between teachers, students, labor organizations, and employers are key. Teachers from different departments create interdisciplinary curriculum, bringing together such seemingly disparate subjects as wood shop, physics, and computer-aided design. Professionals come in as mentors. And industries provide internships, job-shadowing experiences, materials, and sometimes money. In return, they have a role in shaping the next generation of skilled and knowledgeable workers. (Click here to learn more about partnerships.)

3. Make it Rigorous, Real, and Relevant

Students in career academies and pathways are expected to master both academic information and practical skills.

Academies intermingle these lessons through project-based learning, internships, apprenticeships and mentoring, and job shadowing. By integrating academics, career skills, and hands-on learning, students are more engaged in the subject, and they get to make connections that may lead to jobs down the road.

4. Align CTE with Academic and Industry-Endorsed Standards

Many states and education organizations now have standards for career technical education, much like those for core academic subjects. California's State Board of Education adopted CTE standards in 2005 and 2007 (download) that were developed by a partnership of business, labor, and education leaders.

The state has also aligned many CTE courses with California's "a-g" curriculum, the classes required for admission to the University of California and California State University systems. More than 6,500 CTE courses qualify for some "a-g" credit, according to a review by EdSource, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-research group in California.

Classes already approved by the University of California and California State University are a good place to start, notes Robert Harriman, head counselor at Laguna Creek High School. He says, "Weave into those courses the enhancements that are specific to your academy."

5. Personalize Learning and Provide Student-Support Services

Academies are like families. They tend to be small, and the students travel from class to class together. Shawn Sullivan's animation students at Sheldon High School share Thanksgiving dinners and go on out-of- town field trips. He says the whole class benefits when students form bonds and feel responsible for one another. That familiarity also allows academy teachers get to know their students' academic strengths and needs, and in that way, they can provide support and personalized learning.

6. Reach Out to At-Risk Students

CTE has shown some of its best results with students who might otherwise have dropped out of high school or just gotten by without any plan for their future. A randomized study by MDRC found that students in academies were less likely to drop out, had significantly better attendance, and had a 20 percent higher college-application rate than their peers not in academies.

Academies put much of their effort into reaching eighth graders, says Robert Harriman, head counselor at Laguna Creek High School. Teachers and academy students will spend an entire day at a middle school, handing out brochures and giving presentations to every eighth-grade class. Afterwards, they walk around the classroom to talk with students one-on-one.

There is a financial incentive for hard-hitting recruitment. Under the California Education Code , half the students in academies funded by the state's California Partnership Academy program must be at risk for dropping out of school. The code defines "at risk" as a history of poor attendance, being a year or more behind grade level, having low motivation or disinterest, and being economically disadvantaged.

7. Don't Wait for High School

Career and technical education can begin in elementary school. Bravo's Joseph Cocozza has developed a hands-on, project-based program he calls Science for Life that his Bravo students help teach at a local elementary school. Cocozza's colleague, Mark Humayun, director of a cutting-edge research lab at USC's medical school says, "When you're forging and developing a new area, you're going to need the people to carry the flag forward. If possible, that should include elementary and middle school students."

8. Use Multiple Assessments

Multiple pathways require multiple assessments. There's no getting around the emphasis on standards-based and high-stakes testing these days, but CTE also requires a wider breadth of measuring student achievement. Students should be able to demonstrate their proficiency in career and technical skills as well as their academic knowledge and the ability to apply one to the other. Mentors and supervisors in internship programs should complete reviews and observations in which they look at a student's behavior, work habits, and ability to complete tasks.

9. Take Advantage of Professional-Development Programs

Career academies change the culture of education and the role of the teacher in ways that most colleges of education haven't caught up with. Teachers are expected to work collaboratively with colleagues in schools and professionals in the community to develop interdisciplinary curriculum, project-based learning, and career-related internships. Schools are increasingly sending their teachers to professional-development programs run by for-profit education organizations that certify both the teachers and the career-pathway programs. At the same time, school districts and a handful of colleges of education are offering CTE classes as part of their teacher-certification programs. San Diego State University is a leader in this area with a program that other California State University campuses are beginning to emulate. On a local level, California's San Joaquin County Office of Education has started the Teachers College of San Joaquin to train administrators and teachers in the local school districts.

10. Keep Parents in the Loop

Any successful school reform requires parent support, and when it comes to career and technical education, the first step is to get parents past the historic stigma of what was once known as vocational education.

Once they're on board, parents can be valuable participants in CTE programs. Think of career day at school on steroids. Instead of simply asking parents to sit on a panel for a few hours to discuss their jobs, established programs like those in Elk Grove always reach out to parents to be mentors and to offer internships and suggestions for local business partnerships.

Bravo Medical Magnet High School gets parents engaged by offering night classes on parenting taught in several languages and by having freshman orientation programs that parents are expected to attend along with their kids.

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