June 24, 2012

Ready for College, Ready for Career

The Alliance for Excellent Education argues for career and technical education in high school

The Alliance for Excellent Education is just one of many organizations dedicated to improving the nation’s schools. But like a lot of organizations focusing on school reform and college and career readiness for students, the Alliance generally flies under the radar of most parents.

That's because the organization’s policy and advocacy efforts target decision makers; their work highlights how school transformations can help every child—particularly those at risk of failing to graduate—prepare “for postsecondary learning and success in life.” That is not to say the Alliance doesn’t have relevance for parents. The organization routinely publishes resources intended to help parents advocate for better schools in their local communities. This includes a helpful list of the 10 “elements of a successful high school.

In a recently released policy brief, the Alliance argues that the nation’s high schools need to better integrate career and technical education, work-based learning, and academics. According to the brief, doing so will help boost student achievement and give kids a broader set of options for college and career. Bob Wise, president of the Alliance and former governor of West Virginia, notes that such integration is especially needed in today’s economy.

“When delivered properly, career and technical education keeps students engaged in their schoolwork, offers real-life relevancy through connections to the workforce, and, when combined with a college-prep curriculum...provides the academic rigor students need to succeed in additional education after high school—a must in today’s economy.”
   Bob Wise, Alliance for
   Excellent Education

The recommendation comes as Congress considers reauthorizing the Perkins Act, which represents the nation’s largest federal investment in career and technical education. In April 2012, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan proposed a plan for reauthorization that would better match career and technical education with current labor needs; promote collaboration across industry and education; improve academic outcomes; and allow for local level innovations in work-based education programs.

According to the Alliance, programs that integrate academic content with technical education can benefit students from a range of backgrounds. They can also help drive education reform at a time when college and career readiness need to be more deeply ingrained in high school learning. As they argue, reauthorization of the Perkins Act should align with the Workforce Investment Act, which supports local adult and youth services that emphasize basic skills, enable academic and occupational training, and give exposure to the job market. The Perkins Act should also better align with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known lately as No Child Left Behind. Alignment with these federal programs would help ensure “that all relevant federal policies and programs are focused on ensuring that all students have the opportunity to graduate from high school ready for college and a career.”

Readying students for life after high school is of increasing focus for educators, administrators, and policymakers, particularly given the nation’s surging dropout rate and ongoing challenges in the economy and job market. As recently as February, the unemployment rate for high school dropouts stood at 13.1 percent, compared to 8.4 percent for high school graduates. The rate for college graduates was just 4.2 percent at the time.

“American students often leave high school unprepared for the immediate challenges they face in college and the workplace," according to the Alliance. One way to change that is to make the real world relevance of their schoolwork clear. Research has shown that students tend to feel more connected to what they’re learning when they’re able to apply related skills in the process. The Alliance for Excellent Education argues that career and technical education shouldn’t be separate and distinct from other high school programs. They’re not alone. The recently adopted and soon-to-be implemented Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts and Mathematics also highlight the need for skill building across subjects to support college and career readiness goals. The Alliance applauds that step, but also notes that such programs should include rigorous coursework aligned to college expectations; education themes for in-demand industries; work-based learning; and comprehensive support services.

A number of schools are beginning to implement programs that do all that, including those in California that support the Linked Learning approach. That's a start. As Wise puts it, efforts like California’s Linked Learning help “to eliminate the gap between what students learn in the classroom and what they learn on the job. The end results are high school graduates who are better prepared to succeed in college and a career and employers who are more satisfied with their workers."

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