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In a hallway of Chelsea Career and Technical Education High School in New York City, paper stars emblazoned with the names of successful students proclaim: “I’m going to college!” A nearby bulletin board offers information about the SAT and PSAT exams.

Students in an Advanced Placement English course discuss the concept of “verbal irony” in Herman Hesse’s allegorical novel Siddhartha. The names of all seniors are listed on Principal Brian Rosenbloom’s wall, along with a list of the courses and exams they need to pass in order to graduate.

The strong emphasis on academics and college preparation I witnessed during a 2009 visit to Chelsea High is part of a new effort to strengthen “career and technical education” (CTE) academically.

career and technical programs
Career and technical center students (Courtesy Southern Regional Education Board)

Call it “vocational education” and educators in the field will correct you. Gone are the days when schools steered students they didn’t consider college material into auto repair, hairstyling, carpentry or the secretarial trade. But educators also are acknowledging that not all students should be pushed automatically into college-prep courses that in many cases have been anything but. The latest approach aims to marry academic rigor and college preparation with career and technical classes, and that’s what I hoped to see during my visit to Chelsea.

The push for greater rigor in CTE programs is being fueled by governors, state legislators, foundations and educators who recognize that workplaces today require far more critical thinking, communication and technological skills than workplaces of the past. They fear the college-for-all approach is not only inappropriate for many students but also could be boosting high school dropout rates. Yet, the old-style voc-ed courses won’t lead to success on the job either. Taking career-oriented courses should open doors, not close them. That’s why new-style CTE programs also offer strong academic and college-prep classes.

All of this becomes even more important in these tough economic times, when economists say that education becomes even more valuable. Before visiting Chelsea High, I was both curious and skeptical of how the word “rigor” might be associated with an institution that had a 50 percent graduation rate in 2008. What could possibly be rigorous about a high school known for crime and vandalism, one that had earned a reputation as a “dumping ground” for students who may have had a vague intention of getting job training – but who for the most part lost interest and dropped out?

“Some of these [career tech] schools fell into the trap of warehousing kids,” acknowledged Gregg Betheil, who heads New York City’s efforts to integrate academics with technical training. He is the author of “Next-Generation Career and Technical Education in New York City”, a July 2008 report in which the words “rigor” or “rigorous” appear 49 times in 68 pages. Rigor, Betheil said, “is a lost concept in many classrooms.”

Chelsea’s Rosenbloom, who took over the once-failing school in 2008, told me that his most important challenge is to keep students from dropping out. “The first thing I did was meet with all the seniors who had no idea what [courses] they needed to graduate,” he said.

To be fair, Chelsea is not the best illustration of what the new CTE model is trying to accomplish, although Rosenbloom hopes it will be. Promising examples abound elsewhere; the 2,000-student Aviation High School in the New York City borough of Queens, for example, has since 1925 trained thousands of students as aircraft technicians while they earned two years of college credit. In all, New York City has some 110,000 students enrolled in 320 CTE programs, and they offer vastly different experiences.

In California, the new “Linked Learning” concept developed by The California Center for College and Career seeks to establish partnerships with health professionals and construction, engineering and architectural firms that encourage students to stay in school, graduate and go on to college.

In 2005, approximately 1 in 5 graduates of public high schools completed an occupational concentration, the most popular of which were computer technology, health care, and auto mechanics and repair. U.S governors are now pushing programs that emphasize computer networking and sophisticated science and technological skills. Meanwhile, the White House’s 2011 budget request would include $1.3 billion in state grants for programs that help ensure high school students meet college- and career-ready standards.

Those interested in career and technical education should read Mike Rose’s The Mind at Work. Rose, a professor at UCLA, spent several of his high school years on a vocational track before becoming the first in his family to go to college, and he writes eloquently about his experience.

“The historical problem is no one thought career tech had to be rigorous,” says Rose, who urges everyone to pay close attention to the quality of instruction and training in the new CTE schools, which can be wildly uneven.

“Stand close to the kids and ask them to talk about the work they are doing,” Rose suggests. “What kinds of questions are the teachers asking of them?” Rose says that good teaching, more than anything else, determines just how rigorous a CTE program or experience is. A teacher should be able to excite and stimulate students while explaining what angle a window must be placed at and how a central power source works.

“Do the teachers look for or create multiple opportunities for kids to be thinking on their feet and applying what they have learned? Is there any intellectual work going on, any troubleshooting, any problem-solving?” Rose asks.

Creating rigorous CTE programs, concurs New York City’s Betheil, “is a teacher-by-teacher challenge. We can assist them by creating the conditions where it is more likely rigor can occur.

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