Think Again on Schools & Careers

Ice Cream for Dinner

I have been reading a lot about the future of Career and Technical Education (CTE) lately and I must say that I do not understand where this sector of our public education system is headed. Maybe that is because I don’t know much about that world from personal experience. I never took shop in high school and the “Industrial Arts” classrooms were in a different wing of the comprehensive high school from where I used to teach. Yet, one could argue that I am now the founder of a CTE school. How is that possible for a guy who has to remind himself of the “lefty loosey and righty tighty” rule when using a screw driver?

About three years ago I had the great fortune of sitting in on board meetings of the education foundation for the Associated General Contractors-New Mexico Building Branch. They were struggling with their workforce development challenges, in particular, the sense that they were among the employers of last resort in New Mexico. It was ironic, because they believed their profession required them to be among the most facile business men and women in our community. They spoke about the mental agility it takes to work with owners, architects, engineers and the myriad government agencies in order to build a project on time and under budget. They also proudly spoke of the ethos of an industry where you are only as good as your word and hard work and perseverance make you a success.

In that board room we created a vision for ACE Leadership High School, a new school that could serve the very complex future work force development needs of the entire sector of the economy. I was optimistic we could solve their workforce development problems and design a school that would create a bridge that could cross the education and poverty divide. The school would be a way forward in breaking down the barriers between community and industry and help to overcome the challenges low income students of color face when they attend schools that are built for another era and another kind of worker.

I set out to read the industry trade journals and forecasts for labor force development and I discovered that the needs in the ACE professions were like those of most dynamic industries. The ability to think and adapt to new circumstances were the prized intellectual traits and that was familiar territory for an educator like me. I visited other AGC sponsored schools around the country and found them largely wanting, despite their high profiles and substantial industry investments- because of their focus on developing narrow skill sets (plumbing, diesel mechanics, etc.) In response, we set out on a quest to build an institution that could use the ACE professions as the context for a compelling and supremely relevant learning experience for young people. ACE Leadership is a sharp contrast to the trade school model because it asks students to think deeply about complex problems that are rooted in reality. As a result, we created a school that stresses nuanced thinking built upon excellent communication and collaboration skills—the definition of a modern education.

Although we are preparing our students for prosperous careers in the ACE professions, some worry that when the rest of the country comes out of the “Great Recession,” we New Mexicans may be stuck in a downward spiral. Mark Lautman, an economic development expert from New Mexico tells employers that everyone you are going to hire in the next 25 years has already born and since the baby boomers are getting older, many of the people we counted on to be highly skilled will soon be retired. Meanwhile, the skills expected from new workers are increasingly more sophisticated. He also warns people that if they are paying attention, they ought to be worried about a 60 percent graduation rate because it does not bode well for our prosperity. It used to be that the dropout rate was a problem for poor communities because there were plenty of middle class children who would graduate and go to college and ultimately fill the new high skilled jobs. However, the demographic trends forecast that there are fewer middle class children around who can be depended upon to power our economy forward. In other words, we cannot afford to disregard the potential of any of our young people.

One would think that our communities would make a deliberate effort to create a strategy to engage students who are in danger of dropping out of high school so that they can have rewarding careers in industries where there will be shortages. However, the study found that career academies are likely attracting students who are better prepared than most students and more motivated to graduate from high school and attend college. Also, these young people earn significantly more than their peers after graduation. Therefore, the young people who benefit from a career academy education are the same young people who were already well positioned to graduate, attend college, and earn a good living the education self-motivated students receive is the education that disengaged students need if we want our community to thrive.
Career academies are a missed opportunity for the children who need them the most. One could argue that they further exacerbate the inequity in our communities between students with many options and students with few options. Why have we not provided the best career focused education to the students that our community desperately needs to be productive?

A New Frame of Reference
We started ACE Leadership High School is focused on educating low income students of color. AGC understood that their future was tied to a work force that was nearly 90 percent Latino, of which, 50 percent had no high school diploma. It was founded on the principle that all our graduates would transition to college, or an industry apprenticeship, giving a diploma from ACE Leadership currency in the marketplace. That notion has hooked many of our students who need tangible results from their efforts. With the help of our industry partners, we re-imagined the content and activities of every class so that teaching and learning occur forcefully in and through the ACE context. We did not save the Architecture Construction and Engineering (ACE) lens for our electives like most other trade schools or career academies. This meant re-designing the school schedule to serve our instructional priorities. Most CTE focused schools stack their curriculum, having students to take a series of core content classes and then attend a different block of career-oriented “elective” classes. Simply put, under those circumstances, the career focus is an add-on to the regular day. At ACE Leadership, all classes are career focused because Math, Science, Humanities, and Spanish all must and do apply to the ACE professions. In essence, we have rejected the current paradigm that expects students to eat their vegetables before they get desert.

MDRC, a nonprofit social policy research organization, and the Association for Career and Technical Education have both recommended that the separation between career and core classes be eliminated and that they become one in the same. Both organizations know that the distinction is a barrier to effective schooling. According to a study of career academies, MDRC stated that “. . . although the Academies were more likely to expose students to applied and work-related learning activities, they typically did not truly integrate academic and career-related curricula and instructional practice . . .” However, the authors stop short of acknowledging why the integrated approach is so difficult to implement, possibly because it requires fundamental restructuring of the prior notions of the school day. No longer would we accept the current structure where students first take a series of core classes and then attend career focused electives. It also means that we must revision the distinction between the universal core curriculum and career focus electives. Instead, they should be one in the same. Currently, when schools are able to integrate the core curriculum with career focused electives in traditional CTE schools, it is a situational variation from the traditional practice.

Less is More
The literature about the future of CTE stresses the need to provide a variety of experiences for young people to explore careers. It describes job shadowing, internships, and dabbling in many different industries to understand career options. In other words, it stops short of asking students to commit to a career while in high school. In fact, one of the values of a career academy model is that it allows for variety so that students can transfer in or out of the program and according to a recent MDRC study only 55 percent of students stayed in the career academy where they had enrolled. Inherent in the career academy design is that breath is superior to depth. The role of CTE is to retain the core curriculum, and then expose students to a breath of careers through the electives in the academies which is encouraged by allowing transfers in and out of the program. While I agree with the general theme that choices are good, I disagree that the core curriculum and elective system with easy entry and exit actually serves the students.

A school that focuses on a single sector (ACE, Health Care, Information Technology, etc.) promotes deep thinking and nuanced understanding. For example, at ACE Leadership students encounter problems through the lens of architecture, construction and engineering. They learn the entire scope of a project and when they choose a career focus because they understand the way in which it relates to an overall project. The ACE context ensures that students are capable of becoming leaders whether they choose to work in the field or in a design studio. We embrace the complexity of the industry and by doing so we give our students the opportunity to think about nuanced problems which opening the door to more learning.

“Less is More” is one of the common principles promoted by the Coalition of Essential Schools and Cathleen Cushman describes it in the following way, “This commonsensical observation holds true in extensive research findings about how humans learn. In the last few decades cognitive theorists have firmly established that we come to know things . . . by thinking them through. This is an active process; it puts information into a meaningful context and asks us to struggle with its complexities and contradictions. When we use information to serve our real needs in this way, research shows, we remember it.”

For me, the conclusion is inescapable. We should create career focused schools that rooted in deep intellectual rigor and relevancy. Adaptable, problem solving workers who are capable of thinking deeply about challenges is what is needed to meet our future workforce needs. That fact demands that we provide our young people an excellent education, one that prepares them to adapt to an unknown future. We think the model described above does just that.

Tony Monfiletto is a native of Albuquerque New Mexico and has worked in school reform since 1990.  He began his career at the Chicago Panel on Public School Policy helping to promote the restructuring of the Chicago Public Schools. Tony was the founder and lead administrator at Amy Biehl High School. In 2010, Tony began work on ACE Leadership High School, the first in a network of the next generation of STEM schools in New Mexico. His efforts were recognized by "Partners for Developing Futures" a grant making intermediary that funds charter school leaders of color.  He was the founding President of the New Mexico Coalition of Charter Schools, and currently serves as a member of the New Mexico Community Foundation. In June of 2010 he was named a Theodore Sizer Fellow by the Forum for Education and Democracy.