Friday, March 08, 2013

COLLEGE AND CAREER: Can this Marriage Succeed?

Themes in the News by UCLA IDEA |


03-08-2013   ::  Career and technical education (CTE) is a quiet player in today’s school-reform turmoil. Headlines are dominated by standardized testing, charter schools, budget crises, school closings, teachers and their unions. Reasons for the neglect of CTE are sometimes misguided and sometimes legitimate.

It has long been clear that a college degree, on average, dramatically improves job and income prospects. On the whole, the “college-for-all” movement has been a positive effort to counter the old “shop class” and “low-track” models that schools often saw as alternatives for students who were not college-bound—those not successful or interested in academic classes. One outcome of that tracking model is that students from poor families and students of color are disproportionately enrolled in classes that do not prepare them for either college or for high-level jobs and careers. On the other hand, a consistent criticism of high school academics, as traditionally taught, is that they offer too few real-world applications of classroom learning; don’t take advantage of community resources and mentoring; and are boring even for students who can easily master the academics.

A number of schools now believe—and have evidence—that they can marry the best of CTE’s relevant, hands-on experiences with the critical thinking and academic preparation that today’s workforce requires.

Earlier this week, state Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, organized a trip for his colleagues to Long Beach Unified, where they witnessed how the district is successfully preparing its students for both college and career (SI&A Cabinet Report, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times). The two-day trip also included a visit to Long Beach City College to learn about the successful partnerships between k-12 and postsecondary institutions.

In Long Beach, the senators had a chance to observe Linked Learning, or what some have dubbed “the new CTE.” Linked Learning is an approach to schooling that integrates rigorous academics with real-world context and skills and prepares students for a wide range of postsecondary opportunities including careers in specific fields. This focus on Linked Learning comes at a time when CTE advocates fear that career and technical education will be imperiled under a proposal from Gov. Jerry Brown to grant local districts more flexibility and autonomy in how they spend their funds (SI&A Cabinet Report).

Sen. Roderick Wright, D-Los Angeles, said he was a proponent of CTE because it is one way to keep students engaged. “The reason that a lot of my kids tell me they drop out is because their high school diploma ain’t worth nothin’ anyway so why should they stay” (SI&A Cabinet Report).

Long Beach Unified, the state’s third-largest district was a Broad Prize finalist, which honors urban school districts demonstrating high performance and improvement in achievement and reducing achievement gaps among low-income and minority students. And it has received international recognition for its programs (EdSource Today).

“Education needs to change to accommodate the needs of the 21st century economy and workforce,” said Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara. “It’s very interesting and exciting to see what looks like a cutting-edge approach” (Contra Costa Times).

What the senators may not have seen during their brief visit was that this type of success does not just happen overnight. Long Beach has been working for years to create the conditions that allow Linked Learning to take root and flourish.

What is evident in Long Beach is mirrored in hundreds of Linked Learning sites across the state. UCLA IDEA has studied 10 sites and highlighted, in a forthcoming publication, the main conditions needed for Linked Learning to work as meaningful reform.

  1. A commitment to equity:  Linked Learning pathways start off with desired student outcomes to shape curriculum and support structures so all students graduate college- and career-ready.
  2. An integrated curriculum:  Linked Learning sites approach teaching and learning in a more holistic fashion through cross-curricular integration and real-world applications that give students a better understanding of and relevance for their learning.
  3. A culture of care and support:  Because Linked Learning pathways serve small populations, they’re able to foment relationships between adults and students whereby teachers are better able to identify students’ needs.
  4. Grounding in the real world:  Linked Learning sites partner with multiple stakeholders—business, community, postsecondary institutions—to augment their programs.
  5. Collaborative working environment:  Teachers work together to identify students’ needs and take advantage of each others’ strengths and interests.
  6. Redefining success:  Linked Learning sties are working to assess students’ growth and achievement through multiple measures, outside the normative accountability measures.

This week’s Long Beach field trip provides a rare opportunity for policymakers to build awareness about Linked Learning and to inspire confidence in the capacity of districts, schools, and partners to innovate and drive systemic improvements in student outcomes.

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