Career education making a comeback in US high schools


ANTIOCH, Calif. (AP) — There was an emergency in Room 14. Three girls injured, one with a broken thighbone and maybe something more serious. Snapping on sterile gloves and kneeling before the worst-off patient, two 17-year-olds went to work.

The pair cut open the girl’s pant leg, pinched her toes to see if she had feeling and fit her with a neck brace. Sweat flecked their faces by the time they had the patient — a perfectly healthy classmate — strapped to a back board 12 minutes later.

“You are acting like professionals and you haven’t even finished this class yet!” Gretchen Medel, an EMT who oversaw the mock exercise during the first responder course she teaches at a health care-focused high school east of San Francisco, told the students.

Decades after “shop class” became known as a lesser alternative for children deemed unfit for college, vocational education is making a comeback in many of the nation’s high schools. States such as California, Colorado and Louisiana are looking to rebranded “career pathways” that combine technical training with academics built around an industry theme as a way to get more young people to pursue some post-secondary education — whether it’s a certificate from a two-year school or a four-year degree.

Supporters of the renaissance hope it will keep students engaged and prepare them for the stable, middle-income jobs employers say they can’t fill.

“Career and technical education is really the perfect blend of the academic, the technical and the employability skills. Students come out college- and career-ready because they have the skills in all these essential areas,” Association for Career and Technical Education Executive Director LeeAnn Wilson said.

Congress has endorsed the revival of such hands-on learning, at least in concept. An education reform bill adopted last year includes career and technical education, or CTE, in the definition of a well-rounded K-12 education. Over the next year, lawmakers are expected to strengthen the federal law that provides about $1.1 billion a year for job training in grades 7-14.

The trend represents a course correction from efforts of the past 30 years that assumed exposing all students to the same college prep curriculum would be an antidote for achievement gaps, past inequities and the nation’s flagging economic competitiveness, said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

The “high school to Harvard pathway,” as Carnevale calls it, was not a cure-all; the percentage of high school graduates immediately enrolling in a four-year college only rose from 40 percent in 1990 to 42 percent in 2013, according to the most recent federal data.

While research on high schools that integrate career exploration with academics has shown positive effects for attendance and graduation rates, some education experts worry it could lead to a new form of tracking.

“I think we can identify 9th grade students who have career interests and build a rich, challenging curriculum around those interests. That’s a smart thing to do,” Kevin Welner, who directs the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder, said.

“What’s not smart is to identify 9th grade students who are academically struggling and then track them into these separate academic programs that have watered-down expectations and watered-down instruction,” he said.

Nowhere has the renewed embrace of work-based learning been stronger than in California, which expects to spend $900 million to reinvigorate career and technical education at high schools by 2019.

The money comes on top of another $500 million the state has awarded to partnerships of public school districts, community colleges and employers promising to prepare students for jobs in fields that do not require four years of college.

The private James Irvine Foundation also has spent over $100 million in the last decade to promote “linked learning” — a strategy that weaves technical courses, interaction with industry professionals and practical skills such as public speaking into a career-focused college prep curriculum.

“Being in a pathway helps students connect the dots: ‘Oh, this is what the math is for,'” Linked Learning Alliance President Christopher Cabaldon said.

Elsewhere, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, wants to devote $75 million over five years to equipment that would modernize and expand career and technical education. Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York has pledged $21 million to take a technology high school model that IBM started in Brooklyn statewide in seven years.

Dozier-Libbey Medical High School, where Medel teachers, is located next to a hospital that is the largest employer in the city of Antioch, a former mill, mining and ranching town 45 miles east of San Francisco.

The school district is one of the first in California to have every student participate in a career pathway. Eighth-graders apply to their top four choices among the 10 spread out over three high schools, with spaces awarded through a lottery.

Since enrolling as a freshman, Joshua Espinosa, 17, has set his sights on becoming a paramedic.

“You actually get help from professionals that actually teach at other schools, so I think it’s pretty cool,” he said. “It makes me want to do it even more.”

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