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Bridging the Gap: High School College Prep and Career/Technical Education

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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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Nancy Crouch's picture

Yes, they are teaching career exploration to 6th, 7th, & 8th graders. I am fairly new to this area but have often asked the question "are we providing the opportunity for students in both areas?" I read some of the comments and afraid that I must confess to being a parent that insisted that my son follow the college prep route. This is good but I wish he could have combined some CTE courses for real life experiences. All students should be allowed to do that and our shcool systems are finally making that opportunity available, with some limitations.

Mellica's picture

In this era of No Child Left Behind there are some states, one in particular, that have decided that the CTE track is no longer a viable option and so have scrapped it completely, leaving a large number of students, some of them special education students, in a seeming no man's land. My heart breaks for these students who now face the prospect of being subjected to a test heavy college prep track, a special education diploma if they are special education students (which is no more than a certificate of attendance, or dropping out. I am not sure which brilliant mind thought of this plan but I have no doubt that they have gone against the federal mandate by having left some children behind.

Bob Calder's picture
Bob Calder
Internet and Society

On one hand we have a government that demands schools make sure there are no dropouts and on the other, the funding is not high enough to let the institution maintain a broad range of courses simultaneously with supporting those students who don't find school easy to complete successfully.

If we want schools to be everything to everyone, we have to be able to fund that sort of broad-reaching institution.

Options include more instructional time but teachers tend to react negatively when we don't pay them for the additional hours.

Nancy Conneely's picture

Mr. Town's AP environmental science course is an excellent example of an education strategy that prepares all students to be college and career ready. The course provides students with rigorous academics coupled with relevant technical experience -- the ideal components of a quality career technical education (CTE) program or any education program.

While very few AP courses currently have a strong technical aspect, Mr. Town's AP environmental science class at Redmond High School is a perfect example of how technical skills can be added to academically demanding courses without taking away rigor. More AP courses should incorporate technical components as a way to truly prepare all students for college and careers. All students should be held to the same high standard, and CTE should not be used as a dumping ground for students who are perceived as not college-bound. All students, whether they plan to enroll in a 4-year university, a community college, an apprenticeship program or some other skills training program, should take CTE to prepare them for their future.

The National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium recently developed a new vision for CTE ( that will guide CTE's role in our nation's educational, workforce and economic success. Among the action steps in this new vision are the implementation of rigorous programs of study which provide students with high quality academics and technical training, an opportunity for dual credit, articulation with postsecondary, and lead to a postsecondary degree or industry recognized credential.

kelsey's picture

Very interesting post. I think it's important for students to know that they have options. It doesn't matter if students pick college or vocational school; their effort to continue with a higher education/training is key.

Chris Shannon's picture

We need to stop reinforcing a "CTE" versus "Academic" line of thinking. ALL students need to be career AND college ready. As much as critics malign the academic content of CTE, the academic preparation of students in college prep programming could also be called into question. Colleges are now questioning AP test results because they are seeing matriculating students with AP credit who are still underprepared for these subjects in college. Indeed, recently released ACT test results mirror current findings that even students in "college prep" tracking are not college-ready and require remediation.

Hurray for Mr. Town's approach of college AND career readiness! Let's take advantage of the Common Core movement to demonstrate to parents and educators alike how CTE provides the college and career readiness skills that institutions and employers crave, especially high-level critical thinking, communication and computational skills. If we can use the Common Core to create a common vernacular that bridges CTE and academics, then district funded/supported examples such as Mr. Town's may become the rule rather than the exception.

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

In the early days of manual arts in schools, it was widely recognized that teaching woodshop reinforced the other areas of curricula, allowing students to learn other subjects in less time. We would be better off eliminating AP classes and putting woodshop back for all students, including those who plan to go to college. We all learn better and retain knowledge longer when we learn hands-on.

Many students see little relevance between what they are required to learn in school and application of learning in their own lives. Hands-on learning fixes that. You can read more about it in my blog,

Hesi exam's picture

[quote]...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.[/quote]

I'm sure you will pass the exam. Good Luck!

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Hesi exam

Hesi exam's picture

Most of the candidates from these groups ask questions like "Where can I find free sample exam questions, I take the exam next week, tips from the group, where can I find the material for free, the tough questions, etc". The majority of respondents share their experiences and provide input to encourage them to help. When I looked at the exam tips related searches, I could see a few people respond "Yes. You should carefully read the questions and answers. You have to remember formulas Earned Value 'etc to share their experiences.

Bob Calder's picture
Bob Calder
Internet and Society

As opposed to an unaccredited online institution? How about the nation's powerhouse, where there is no inclusion of evolution? After all, we don't want to offend parents with facts! If you think Liberty's Jerry Falwell is still a good role model OK after his conviction for fraud, then go for it. Personally, I have a problem with any school that doesn't teach evolution as a fact and I certainly wouldn't send my child to a school whose founder had a run-in with the SEC.

Why not forget Virginia and go online to "that other state" where you can ignore history as well as science?

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