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Cross-posted at Education Week.
In my last two blogs, I laid out a framework for thinking about career and technical education (CTE) in the United States. In this blog, I will use that framework to describe a structure for the reauthorization of the Perkins Act, the federal government’s education law for CTE.
I start from the premise that there should be two parts of the new Perkins Act. Part A would provide some funds to all the states on a formula basis for CTE with only general restrictions on the ways in which that money could be used. This, based on the argument that all states, having contributed to the federal government budget and, with an obligation to provide career and technical education, should get some assistance. But Part B would be based on a very different premise, namely that there is an urgent need to greatly improve our CTE system. Much is known about what highly effective CTE systems look like and the federal government has a strong obligation to spend its money on programs that will be effective.
I might point out that the first part of this legislation would act as a reasonable check on the second part. That is, states that did not agree with the premises of the second part or could not mount a proposal that could win in that competition would still be able to pursue their plan and prove that they could produce better results with their strategy than any of the states taking Part B funds could with the government’s strategy. An evaluator would be obligated to judge not just the Part B projects in relation to each other, but also in comparison to the Part A projects.
In the rest of this blog, I describe what the second part of this legislative package—the one intended to greatly improve career and technical education—might look like. Funding under this section of the law would be competitive, based on proposals from the states. Awards would be multi-year and continuation of the awards would be based on a showing that a good-faith effort was being made to carry out the funded proposal. The federal government would also fund a research program designed to assess the effects of the work underway as described above.
To receive funds under Part B, a state plan would have to do the following:
This new Perkins program should be designed so that the states have strong incentives not to create small pilot programs that never expand, but to develop new statewide systems that are designed to scale.
It should include funds to support the planning process in the states, enabling the states to use Perkins Part B planning money to send delegations of key state officials to the countries with the best career and technical education systems to see how they work and to understand the strategies and techniques they use to get their results.
That’s my dream. Go for the gold. Use Perkins not just to get a little better but to help the states prepared to make the effort to match the quality of the best career and technical education systems in the world. If we settle for anything less, bear in mind that it means that we are at the same time deciding to settle for a second-best economy and then consider the consequences of that decision.
Cross-posted at Education Week.
I tried to make three points in last week’s blog about the renewed interest in career and technical education. The first is that if career and technical education is to be useful, it has to be built on a sound command of the basic skills; much sounder than that possessed by the typical American high school graduate. The second is that it is important to reevaluate the kinds of careers we train students for in light of the speed with which advancing automation is destroying work that is routine, which covers many of the trades and occupations for which young people have traditionally trained. And the third is that modern career and technical education cannot be provided at scale without a complex institutional architecture of a kind that only a few nations have yet built.
I commend to your attention two responses I received to that blog. The first chided me for embracing a 1950s conception of career and technical education, for implying that career and technical education is only for the students at the bottom of the distribution, for ignoring the plight of the college graduates who have few employment prospects and mountains of debt to show for their investment in a four-year college education and for ignoring the current conception of career and technical education as integrating academics and a career/industry focus. The other commenter points to the inclusion of a career and technical education option within the International Baccalaureate program as a good example of a curriculum that combines a career and technical focus with serious academics.
The author of the first of these two comments might be surprised to discover that I have long advocated breaking down the barriers between career and technical education, on the one hand, and academic education on the other. Academic education should be more applied for everyone, and career and technical education has to be much more academically demanding, for everyone. The pathways we create for students should make it possible to move much more easily between career and technical education and academic pathways, in both directions. We may agree on that, but it is not clear how much else we agree on.
All education is, at least to some degree, career and technical education. We want students to enter the workforce with skills they can use to earn a decent living, whether those are the skills of a carpenter or a surgeon. Both the surgeon and the carpenter need both “theoretical” skills and practical skills. Both need book learning and an opportunity to learn on the job from someone with real expertise. The only difference between the carpenter and the surgeon is that it takes about 12 or 13 years of formal education and training to give a new carpenter a good start and it takes at least 19 or 20 years to do the same thing for a medical doctor. The question on the table here is what part of this trajectory has to be run in high school.
I have argued that the dynamics of global competition have combined with advancing automation to endanger growing numbers of occupations toward the lower end of the skill continuum. That has two effects on the way we need to think about what sort of education our students need. Because there is growing uncertainty about the half-life of any given job or career line, it is becoming necessary to provide all students with the skills and knowledge needed to learn new skills quickly and easily. This implies not just more skills and knowledge but also a deeper command of the underlying structures of many bodies of knowledge. And that implies a much better general education than most people needed to earn a living up to now. The second implication is that the initial level of technical skills needed to enter the labor market will be much higher, because the labor market demand for people with only basic skills and few if any technical skills is already low and declining fast.
What this adds up to for our schools is a need to raise dramatically the floor level of basic academic knowledge and skills needed by high school graduates. In addition, they must ensure that all our students either leave high school with a formal qualification that will enable them to begin a career requiring much higher levels of technical skill than the well-paying jobs of 30 years ago or provide students the high level of academic skill needed to go on to the next stage of an education that will eventually result in highly marketable occupational skills of the kind that the surgeon, the accountant, the engineer, or the teacher needs.
In my last blog, I was writing about the student who graduates or fails to graduate high school now with only a 7th or 8th grade literacy level, poor writing skills and a poor command of middle school mathematics. I was pointing out that the outlook for these students—who constitute the majority of all of our high school students—will not be improved much by giving them modest vocational skills if we do nothing to greatly raise their basic skills. Most will be eaten alive by advancing automation and the waning effects of outsourcing.
But the author of the first response to my blog is also right. The situation is also grim for high school graduates who went to college with only 7th or 8th grade literacy, a poor command of middle school mathematics and weak writing skills who then leave college, if they make it through, with “no marketable skills and a mountain of debt.”
The author of that first response offers a solution to these challenges, namely integrating academic education with career and technical education. To which I would say, well, maybe. It depends on what that actually means. If it means a high school program that produces more students who cannot read at least at a 12th (not 7th or 8th) grade level, cannot write well and cannot do algebra, probability and statistics and are not qualified either to get the equivalent of a journeyman’s certificate in a skilled trade or to succeed in a typical college program leading to a rewarding career, then I would say I am not interested.
I do not want to be misunderstood on this point. I think that most students who are good at academics would benefit from a much more applied form of education, mixing theory and application seamlessly in their curriculum. And I am absolutely convinced that students in strictly vocational programs will fail economically if they have not had an intellectually demanding curriculum in school. Yes, we can agree on that.
But I have no use for curricula that are applied and engaging for students and academically undemanding and vaporous. They can lead to more engagement for students and a real buzz in the school, less retention and higher graduation rates. But they will cheat these kids when as adults their initial jobs are automated and they do not have a strong enough education to make it worth anyone’s while to invest in their further education. They will be left in the dust. It is a form of fraud for the student, who has been led to believe that they have been given something of value that turns out to have little value when the chips are down.
And I do not have much use, either, for something that is called career and technical education but does not lead to a qualification. Students who have had some time in a career cluster and some work experience have exposure but they do not have what the Europeans call a qualification. You have a qualification if an employer looks at your certificate and says, yup, you have passed a demanding written and practical evaluation that people in my company think is a good measure of your ability to hit the ground running in a career that demands a high level of technical skill.
Last week’s blog asked what our goal ought to be for career and technical education. From my point of view, it has to be both to enable the student—sooner or later—to get a widely recognized certificate saying that the student has the qualifications needed to embark on a rewarding career when the student enters the workforce and an education that will enable that student to learn how to do another kind of challenging and rewarding work easily and quickly when the need arises, a kind of work that automated equipment is not likely to be doing anytime soon. The International Baccalaureate Career-Related Programme probably does that for some students. But few students anywhere take the IB Programme in the early and middle grades, even fewer in schools serving mainly students from low-income and/or minority families. And the vast majority of IB students go on to four-year college. But what about the more than half of all students who do not go on to a four-year college? It is very important that we ask ourselves what we are doing for them. At the moment, the answer is very little.
Cross-posted at Education Week.
After many years in the wilderness, career and technical education—AKA vocational education—shows signs of awakening from a long sleep. The victim first of a revulsion against tracking and then of a virtually exclusive focus on academic achievement (thought to be at odds with the acquisition of vocational skills), career and technical education is enjoying something of a renaissance. We read that it was a major focus of the most recent meeting of the nation’s chief state school officers. And the Fordham Institute, long one of the major sources of support for a demanding academic curriculum, has just released a paper extolling the virtues of career and technical education.
I am of mixed minds about this. On the one hand, I see this development as long overdue, desperately needed by students who have been largely forgotten, who are leaving high school with few skills and no prospects in an environment in which jobs for such people are fast drying up, and no less desperately needed by employers who would pay well for young people with the skills they need but who cannot find them. That part of me applauds this reawakening interest in career and technical education.
But there is another part of me that sees the United States once again more than willing to settle for a third-rate system, when it could have a first-rate one. The Fordham study of the career and technical education system in Arkansas finds that students who take a sequence of career and technical education courses in high school are more likely to complete high school than similar students who have not participated, more likely to attend two- and four-year colleges, more likely to succeed in those college settings and more likely to earn more after high school.
Yup, that is what you would—or should—expect. These students are being matched against students who typically struggle in school and often drop out. They are often barely able to read the 7th or 8th grade level texts they are expected to read in high school. They might have a job in a fast food restaurant in high school or do some other unskilled work and expect to keep doing the same after they graduate, so what is the point of staying in except to hang out with their friends? But, when offered an opportunity to do something that looks like it might lead to something better than making pizzas, or delivering them, why not jump at it? The three career and technical education courses they are taking may or may not deliver economically valuable skills, but they probably can engage the young person, give him or her a reason to work harder in school and to learn more, to complete, and, having had some success in school, go on for more education.
There is nothing wrong with any of this and much right with it. It is a lot better than nothing at all. It can be made even better by requiring that course sequences lead to employer-recognized qualifications. Even better if it comes with some sort of work experience, so that the student finds out that the employer expects the worker to show up on time, put in some serious work, dress decently and be civil with colleagues.
But then I ask myself: “Is that all? Are we going to be satisfied with that?” We know that the typical high school graduate reads at the 7th or 8th grade level, that the majority of high school graduates have trouble with Algebra I, the majority of high school graduates write poorly and the students we are talking about here typically do less well than the average student. These students typically leave high school four or five grade levels below where they would have be in mathematics and English literacy to take advantage of a demanding technical education curriculum of the kind I see being talked about. I know of community colleges shutting down their programs in advanced welding and computer systems management—two year programs leading to careers paying very well—because they cannot find enough students who can read and do math at the level required by these programs. So let’s not kid ourselves. If our high schools develop career and technical education programs that really will prepare students for the kinds of rewarding technical careers that will be increasingly available, those students will have to be much better prepared for them than they are now. If such programs are created and nothing is done to radically improve their preparation for them, the students will fail in large numbers and the standards will be lowered to a point at which they can meet them, which is what we usually do.
The nations that set the international benchmark for career and technical education are Singapore and Switzerland. Singapore has a streaming system that begins at the end of the fourth grade. Most of the students in the lowest stream wind up in the Singapore Institute for Technical Education, which is their upper secondary career and technical education system, the one that is done in the last two or three years of what we would call high school. The students in that lowest stream, on average, score above the median score for all students taking the PISA tests. That means that they score above the average for all American high school students in reading, mathematics, science and problem solving. That means that they are going into a career and technical education system in which they are expected to read texts set to literacy levels several years beyond what our high school students are expected to read. They can do both mathematics and science at the same level. The same thing is true in Switzerland.
In the Swiss and Singaporean apprenticeship systems, both of which are the subject of reports by NCEE’s Center on International Education Benchmarking, government and the business community work together to set very demanding occupational skills standards that are used to contract training programs, evaluate the accomplishments of and hire trainees. Trainees get extensive experience working either in actual businesses or in school-based businesses that look for all the world like the real thing. Their instructors, in school and on the employers’ premises, have to meet a stringent set of qualifications, both in the field being trained for and in the relevant pedagogy. Those qualifications include recent experience in the field in which they are training. Employers are obligated to provide training in the full range of skills demanded by the field or to contribute to an employer association that will train in the areas the employer cannot. Employers are also required to pay the apprentices on a schedule that is agreed nationwide. Singapore relies more heavily on school-based apprenticeships and Switzerland on employer-based apprenticeships, but both are able to provide students with state-of-the-art industry environments in which to train.
In the United States, we count students as being in career and technical education if they have taken a three-course sequence in a technical field. That would be regarded as some kind of joke in Switzerland or Singapore. If you are a career and technical education student in Switzerland or Singapore at the upper secondary level, you are engaged in a multi-year, multi-faceted program designed to provide a very high level of preparation for a demanding technical career.
These two countries have built a demanding system of career and technical education on the foundation of two of the most successful basic education systems in the world. Their career and technical education systems are set to globally benchmarked standards of student performance, deeply involve their employers, and provide authentic state-of-the-art equipment and highly trained instructors with deep and recent industry experience.
Massachusetts has a widely admired system of upper secondary career and technical education. That it is Massachusetts is, in my view, no accident. Its elementary and secondary education system has topped the NAEP league tables for years.
There are two big messages here. The first is we will fail our students if we pretend that we can provide them with valuable technical skills in high school if they failed to acquire world-class basic skills before they get there. The second is that if we end up providing our career and technical education students only the routine skills we usually provide them with, they will be of no value to the employers who are buying the automated equipment that is making those routine skills irrelevant. If we fail to provide our global firms with the workforce they need, they will leave the United States for countries that can provide the much more complex skills now demanded. Either way, whether you look at it from the point of view of what our students need to live rewarding lives or what our employers need to stay competitive, we need to completely rethink not just our career and technical education system, but also the basic education system on which it rests. I would commend to your attention the Pathways to Prosperity Network, which is building a network of states interested in doing much more than providing three occupationally related courses to students who might otherwise drop out of school.
Cross-posted at Education Week.
I am surrounded by boxes of books. Consolidating collections that have led, ’til now, separate existences. Among them are my education books. There are many that I have not opened in years, but I cannot give them away. They are dear friends. Some bring to mind vividly the circumstances in which I read them. Some changed my life. Some brought insights that I only recognized years later. Taken together, they are in many ways the warp and woof of my intellectual life. So I have carted them around, a bit like Linus and his blanket.
I thought I might name some of them, as if you were a colleague in the room with me as I take them out of the boxes, turn them over in my hands, open them to a random page and start to read, forgetting my mission and indeed the whole world, remembering only to let you know from time to time why I treasure this or that volume. If none of this interests you, my apologies. I will not be the least bit offended if you skip this bit of reminiscence and pick up again with next week’s blog.
I begin with a book by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobsen called Pygmalion in the Classroom, published in 1968. In it, the authors tell of a research project in which teachers are told that students with high measured IQs have low IQs and the converse. Yes, you guessed it: The students with high IQs are given very unchallenging work and end up achieving at low levels. But, guess what? The students with low measured IQs, but believed by the teachers to have high IQs, end up achieving way above the levels predicted by their IQs. This study made an indelible impression on me. I have since come to the view that the most pernicious failing of our education system is the low expectations we have for all of our students relative to other countries, and for our low-income, minority, limited-English-speaking and special education students in particular. If there is one research study to read, this may be it.
There is Jerome Bruner’s little volume called The Process of Education, summarizing a 1959 meeting in which the author elegantly captures the spirit of this country’s last great effort to engage the country’s leading mathematicians and scientists in a collaboration with first-rate school teachers to undertake a wholesale renewal of school curriculum. I remember reading it with great excitement. Looking at it now, I wonder at the way this country has managed to convince itself that classroom teachers, carrying a teaching load that is among the heaviest in the industrialized world, could possibly muster the time and intellectual resources needed to create a curriculum that could come close to matching both the intellectual rigor and the capacity for engagement demonstrated all those years ago by the the Elementary Science Study, PSSC Physics, the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, the School Mathematics Study Group and others like them. How could we have imagined that the United States could achieve world-class results simply be developing standards like the Common Core without putting at least as much effort into creating a vibrant, intellectually challenging and engaging curriculum of the sort Bruner describes?
There is Village School Downtown, a small, now much-beaten-up book by Peter Schrag. It came out in 1965, at about the same time as Jonathan Kozol’s much more popular Death at an Early Age. Both described the tumultuous events surrounding the desegregation of the Boston Public Schools and the busing system that was used. Kozol’s book was full of righteous anger at the Boston Irish who controlled the Boston Schools and Louise Day Hicks, the city council demagogue who built her career on opposition to busing. Kozol saw the situation as a conflict of moral absolutes, all the bad guys on one side, all the good guys on the other.
I have a vivid memory, though, of picking up Schrag’s book and getting a much more complex picture. Schrag portrayed a South Boston Irish community in which, for generations, middle class lace-curtain Irish teachers had taught the sons and daughters of their friends and neighbors in a tight-knit community that shared the same religious, cultural and social background and, in the process, produced students who became valued, contributing members of their community. And then, as Schrag tells it, the Great Migration of African Americans from the South began and many of those families came to Boston, bringing a very different history, values, customs, expectations and culture. He showed how, when the Irish teachers used the techniques that had worked so well for them for so many years with the Boston Irish students and had the same expectations for them, they did not work at all. Schrag showed how this frustration led to real anger among the teachers when the well-off suburbanites who were hosting parties for Jonathan Kozol in the suburbs wrote cutting letters to the editor of the Boston Globe about the unwillingness of the South Boston Irish to take in large numbers of African-Americans into their schools.
Schrag was one of the nation’s most perceptive reporters, and his effort to put himself into the shoes of the people being so widely pilloried made a deep impression on me. My sympathies were surely with the African-American kids who were facing enormous obstacles as they tried to get a decent education, but Schrag taught me to be suspicious of armchair liberals in communities like the one I lived in who were themselves doing nothing to address the problem except criticize the behavior of people who they did not care to understand. I have ever since taken the view that, if I want to help solve a problem, I had better start by trying to put myself in the shoes of the people whose behavior I am trying to change, so I can understand why they are behaving as the do.
Years later, I picked up a volume by Charles M. Payne titled So Much Reform, So Little Change: The Persistence of Failure in Urban Schools. Oh my, I said, this one really tells it like it is. Of all the books I have read on urban education, this one is head and shoulders above the others. Eloquent, powerful, beautifully written, it is relentlessly insightful and honest. Like Schrag, Payne sees the appalling waste, the stunted opportunities and the distance between rhetoric and reality in the mundane shuffle of life in our urban schools. My own organization has been working in schools and districts like the ones he describes since the late 1980s and the world he details precisely the world we have seen in these institutions. Payne understands that many of his readers will see his book as an indictment of the professional educators he portrays. But Payne understands, as Schrag did, and Kozol did not, that he is portraying ordinary people caught in the trap of a dysfunctional institution. It is painful to scan through this book again. When he wrote it, seven or eight years ago, he had a good deal of hope for the Chicago Public Schools, which figure large in the book. I wonder what he would say now. Perhaps the title of the book is the answer.
Two books that sit side by side on my shelves anchor my understanding of how and why the American education system took its current form. The first is Education and the Cult of Efficiency by Raymond Callahan. The other is The One Best System by David Tyack. Together, they show how the Progressive Era wrapped itself around the admiration of most Americans for the achievements of the mass-production model of industrial development that was powering the United States to world economic dominance. That was a model in which most workers were expected to do as they were told by engineers who used scientific methods to figure out the one best way to get the work done. For anyone who despairs of changing our education system because change seems so impossible, it should be inspiring, for over the course of a mere 25 or 30 years, enormous changes were made in the governance, management, staffing, organization and financing of American education. And, at least as I see it, the changes the country made then are, one and all, the sources of the biggest problems we face now. It is very instructive to go back through these pages to recall how and why it all happened and to remind ourselves that today’s solution is tomorrow’s challenge if we fail to adapt to a constantly changing environment. We are now preparing our students for a world that no longer exists, a world described very well in these two books.
Here’s another pair for you: Peter Drucker’s The Age of Discontinuity and Douglas McGregor’s The Human Side of Enterprise. In the first, Drucker, in 1969, foresees that the nations and companies that build their competitive advantage around the ability to do “knowledge work” will be those that succeed. Almost 50 years later, the United States has not quite got the message. We are still educating our children for a world in which the majority leave school with only basic literacy. Almost half a century ago, Drucker saw that it would no longer be enough and he explains why in his very accessible and very persuasive prose. His book has anchored my view of the challenge our schools would be up against since I first read it.
McGregor’s book came out in 1960, anticipating Drucker’s. In it, he says that as long as the managers in the mass production economy described by Callahan expect workers to try to do as little work as possible and to do it poorly, they will get what they expect, but when they start expecting workers to act more like professionals and treat them as professionals, then the workers will put everything they have into it and do the best work of which they are capable. These latter workers are the very ones that Drucker went on to describe as the kind of future workforce the United States would need. Though neither of them knew it, both were describing the way we would have to change how we recruit, train, manage and support our teachers half a century later. I commend both books to your attention all these years later.
I cannot resist another pair: The Learning Gap: Why Our Schools Are Failing and What We Can Learn From Japanese and Chinese Education by Harold Stevenson and James Stigler (1992) and Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics by Liping Ma (1999). These two books set a standard for international comparative studies of education that has rarely been met since. Stevenson and Stigler introduced a whole generation of American educators to Japanese lesson study and, in the process, opened the eyes of many to the possibility that we have a lot to learn from education systems overseas. I stand here flipping through the pages of Liping Ma’s book thinking, “No one reading these pages can doubt for one minute that the typical rural elementary school teacher in China likely has a much deeper command of the mathematics of arithmetic than the typical suburban elementary school teacher in the United States.” She does this not with declarative statements saying so, but in one careful description of actual practice after another. Both books, very different in style, are brilliant demonstrations of the power of the comparative method.
All of the books I have mentioned strike me as fresh and relevant today as they were when I bought them some decades ago, and I commend all to your attention. But there is one book on my shelves I would characterize as not just important and relevant but also as wise. And that is Lee Shulman’s The Wisdom of Practice: Essays on Teaching, Learning, and Learning to Teach. I find myself returning to it again and again. Try it. I predict you will find yourself doing the same thing.
Date: May 20, 2016
Date: May 13, 2016
Date: May 5, 2016
Date: April 29, 2016
Date: April 21, 2016