Let’s Persevere With College and Career Ready

By: JoEllen Lynch 
Kid, I’m Sorry, but You’re Just Not College Material.” This provocative Petrilli post attacked a core edreform goal of preparing all students for success in college. It also kicked off quite a discussion (see more responses here).
For me this string goes back (aging myself) over twenty years since we moved from “voc” ed to CTE to CTE college ready.  As we all know voc ed resulted in dropouts who required a “training” program and we all remember the results from the Federal training grants.  I was responsible at GSS for both the youth employment and Adult employment programs (in addition to the school and family work).  Though most of the youth programs were gutted by congress due to low outcomes (etc.) the adult programs and outcomes essentially demanded that we recruit high performing adults, recently unemployed with skills to meet the performance outcomes. GSS eventually decided to close those programs because our service population was not prepared to meet them.  We collaborated with CDC’s for industry specific programs that were privately funded – needless to say – only one of those efforts resulted in meaningful employment.
A few things I’ve learned. First, it’s a myth that CTE meets the needs of low performing kids from low performing schools. So, it depends on what problem we are trying to solve. Are we just looking for more models for students who enter high school fully prepared, or are we trying to create models that will address the needs of kids who are not?  I think many people feel that CTE is an answer for the unprepared, this notion is not based on data or an understanding of the demands of good CTE schools.
Industry is requiring the same level of skill as colleges. CTE credentials are actually a higher bar for high school graduation.  To do CTE well, that is all students engaged in a CTE sequence are prepared for an industry ready 21st Century career — is a goal that is higher than our current high school diploma requirements.  Since CTE should be framed as an additional credential — in that it is a sequence in preparation for a specific technical career and requires the attainment of credits beyond those required for a diploma — we looked at the data in New York to see who actually graduated from those schools. No surprise, the higher performing entering 9th graders performed well and completed CTE — the same kids got left behind. Actually, solid CTE is a higher bar — not a lower bar.
In our attempt in New York to get the unions and major industry to guarantee apprenticeships to our kids — their requirements demanded the recruitment of higher performing students.  No surprise there either. Most jobs require kids to have advanced computer skills, writing and reading and collaboration skills — that they are “trainable.”
On the policy front in CTE there is work to be done. Where is the data on the achievement level of kids entering high school behind in CTE programs that proves its validity for this population?  Are those students “employable” and employed upon graduation? The funds available for CTE come with harrowing requirements from states. Standards include the requirement that career technical teachers need to be CTE licensed in the training area. This reduces the human capital pool for high schools dramatically.
The community college data in New York showed that to enter fully prepared and not languish in developmental courses — students were required to score at a high level on ELA and Algebra regents. In other words, college ready. NY State did some interesting work on that and NYC now has a “college ready” metric in its school progress reports. So that bar, doesn’t change the conversation. It all gets back to the same thing — are the students educated to a level where they can achieve in “training”, apprenticeships, community college or college. Are we committed to the resources and do we have the approaches to get students there.
I too fear that this discussion and movement of resources to the CTE model will exclude more students who are behind from educational opportunities. At the district level resources are tight and action follows resources. More funds for CTE and there will be more CTE. More prepared kids will have more options — that’s great but not enough.  There are vast members of the community that demand that high school result in jobs.  Increasing CTE programs helps mayors and systems answer that question.  We have not convinced folks that college ready and job ready are the same thing. We certainly don’t want to return to the old “voc-ed” models that are not aligned to the current needs of the workforces and our economy.
We are not equipped financially, nor has there been any sign of this commitment to get more kids on grade level as they enter adolescence.  Too many students still need deep recuperation entering high school and dedicated resources and models to get them to goal.  We still have not figured that out. We know a bit more… but as you know, the lack of high quality recuperative curriculum, common core based modules for high schools (ugh try to find good ones) and resources for supports is a daunting task for high school developers. Adding CTE credentials is not going to solve this.
I think folks with good intentions think that CTE will solve the problem of unemployment for low performing kids.  We know that is not necessarily the case.  If we just want to add to the options for fully prepared kids — then CTE just adds to the pathways for them. Fine to do that if they are quality market driven programs embedded in a college/career ready curriculum.  In a system with lots of resources it’s a good thing to do for those kids who want it.
It will not, however, improve the outcomes for the vast majority of our kids who are not fully prepared.  It’s those kids we continue to worry about and seek to educate.
I get frustrated sometimes that we refuse to commit resources to the adolescents we have and continue to fail in our systems.  We need the people, tools and models to get all students work and college ready. We are very far from meeting this goal and I see very little nationally that convinces me that we have dedicated resources to address the gaps in curriculum and models to do this.  We need to “rethink” our goals that are getting attached to CTE. The question remains — What do we do in adolescence to fully prepare young people to have fulfilling lives and a living wage?
We have to take this seriously and double down on efforts to engage high quality literacy and numeracy across the high school curriculum. We need better adolescent learning environments that are adaptable to the needs of the population they serve.  What can we do to accelerate their learning from the low baseline at entry so that they can participate in the pathways that lead to careers and college. We need adaptive high school modules that are engaging, data driven and will work for kids with special needs. Let’s persevere.
JoEllen Lynch currently serves as Executive Director of Springpoint, a national organization that partners with school districts and networks to establish new, innovative high schools. See a December feature on Springpoint.

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JoEllen Lynch is right on. Fantastic to have someone of her experience attest to what really happens for many under-prepared kids in most CTE programs. Essentially, to be career "trainable" includes having a similar high level of literacy and numeracy skills to the college-ready. As for new models, I see some of the latest competency-based schools as pointing the way to a possible solution for students who enter high school below level (as well as for those at level and above). These schools offer personalization of learning supports in order to achieve high standards and, because they are not tied to Carnegie units, the opportunity for accelerated learning.


Well said JoEllen, thanks for your clear and forceful post.

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