Wine flowed freely at the Sutter Club in late October amid the enthusiastic chatter of educators and the business community. Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) was rallying support around a plan to plug $250 million into a new style of high school instruction that combines rigorous academics with real-world technical instruction and workplace internships — something businesses have been clamoring about for generations.
But beneath the smiles and handshakes was the naked fact that no one could say for certain how this money will be spent. In order for the dollars to fulfill their stated purpose of promoting ‘career pathways’ — that is, transforming high schools into incubators for regional industry — California’s education delivery system will require a dramatic overhaul. Curriculums need to be redrawn, teachers need to be retrained and companies need to avail themselves to schools like never before.
This entire infrastructure is benefited from a one-time injection of $250 million, but that is roughly 1/200 of the state’s annual K-12 budget. The career pathways push is one of Steinberg’s final legacy projects before he terms out. Nobody calls it a dumb endeavor, but some vocational education experts are concerned the program boosters have underestimated the challenge.
“It’s new. It’s this shiny bubble, and everybody wants to make it work so they devote all this energy to it. Over time, does that stuff stay sustainable? All great ideas eventually disintegrate into hard work. It’s that second, third, tenth, twentieth year that you really find out,” says Jim Aschwanden, a former member of the California State Board of Education and longtime organizer of work-based education.
“I’m less enthusiastic about shiny bubbles,” he adds. “Glossing it over is not going to make it so.”
Nevertheless, the need to bring career training to the Capital Region is critical. As recently pointed out by The New York Times, the number of students pursuing engineering and computer science is falling while the demand for those jobs is increasing.
Job applicants most commonly lack critical thinking, problem solving, professionalism and writing, according to a 2013 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management. These are three of the most heavily emphasized areas covered in career technical education, the modern term for vocational education.
There’s also the fact that only slightly more than three quarters of California high school students graduate after four years, and dropouts have overwhelmingly told pollsters that students would be more engaged if high school was more applicable to real-life job opportunities.
The primary barrier to vocational education is that, in the lingering era of No Child Left Behind, school districts must direct nearly all discretionary resources toward core academic subjects — namely English and math. Some experts note the problem was compounded in 2008 when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger took an axe to school spending requirements, allowing local educators to move funding away from career education and into the areas where they were measured.
After 2008, annual state and federal funding for career technical education programs fell by approximately 40 percent.
In 2012, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation that directed the California Department of Education to begin measuring schools by their efforts at college-and-career readiness instead of only through bubble tests assessing a student’s rote memorization. But state officials have not yet identified a way to assess the effectiveness of career training programs.
The state doesn’t track participation data in career education, and even if it did, it would be difficult to measure schools equally because the quality, design and presence of these programs vary by region.
Moreover, vocational programs by nature provide something that is hard to measure — an interest in a subject area that encourages young people to stay in school and pass other courses they care less about.
“What data point do you give for the personal growth of a kid, for the fact that they are staying in school because they want to come to that program? There is no digit. That’s always going to be the Achilles heal of career tech,” says Aschwanden, who is also the executive director of the California Agricultural Teachers Association.
In recent years, however, career education has seen a ray of hope — that is, a chance for educators to completely redesign their delivery system.
In 2010, California signed up for Common Core, a state-led initiative that ushers in a teaching style that encourages new kinds of critical thinking and problem solving. The curriculum involves more writing in English and math. Instead of just solving problems, students have to describe various elements and how they reached particular answers. The course of study also demands that students conduct more research and use technology.
California now belongs to a group of 26 states developing assessments for Common Core. Late last year, the state discontinued statewide bubble tests to begin a pilot-testing program for the new system.
Schools now have an unprecedented opportunity to take a systematic approach to career education, says Christopher Cabaldon, executive director of the Linked Learning Alliance. But the programs will only thrive if educators view them as a high school redesign strategy, he says.
Historically, vocational education courses have been separate from the overall instruction happening within the school or district, creating a disconnect from the academic areas where schools are measured. It also makes them “super expensive,” says Cabaldon.
“That’s why getting to scale makes so much difference,” he says. “Just defaulting to the way we’ve always done it will get us really low levels of aspiration and low levels of sustainable impact.”
Fortunately, schools in the Capital Region have already taken a significant step toward that elemental approach. In 2011, the state attempted to gauge regional interest in career technical education by asking districts to describe how they would spend career education dollars if they were ever made available.
A group of 21 Sacramento-area school districts across seven counties responded by creating ‘Capital Region Academies for the Next Economy.’ The program envisions a series of regional partnerships where teachers and students are trained in industries prioritized by the ‘Next Economy’ plan, a multifaceted effort by local business representatives to strengthen the area’s most promising industries.
“What we’re trying to do is really counter-cultural to how education ordinarily functions. It is to promote this cooperative, collaborative approach. It’s difficult, but we think long term its going to pay off for us,” says David Butler, CEO of NextEd, a nonprofit that acts as a liaison between districts and businesses.
The plan is to model Sacramento’s program off a similar operation in Nashville that integrates members of the local Chamber of Commerce. Under that program, the city’s 12 schools operate 42 ‘academies,’ or schools within schools, aligned to six broadly defined industries.
The Nashville program survives off of more than 200 partnerships between schools and individual businesses. Nashville’s business community supplies three levels of volunteer engagement. On the first level, business partners act as guest speakers, host field trips or job shadowing days and work with teachers to design projects aligned to the curriculum. The second level establishes industry-specific councils that meet quarterly and provide oversight and assistance to the related cluster of academies. The councils hold educators and businesses accountable to the agreed-upon curriculum and work to identify and improve problems such as under-enrollment.
Finally, the third tier, known as the CEO Champions committee, assembles business leaders, the mayor and the district superintendent for quarterly meetings on the overall effectiveness of the academies program and how to expand it.
Communities wishing to emulate the Academies of Nashville program shouldn’t underestimate the vast commitment needed from local businesses, says Marc Hill, chief policy officer for the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce. Last year, companies provided the equivalent of $2.6 million in volunteer hours and equipment donations, plus two full-time staff positions at the chamber.
“What adds urgency to this is our workforce needs,” says Hill. “We do projections, and we see tens of thousands of jobs over the next decade that won’t be filled unless we improve our education outcomes.”
The Nashville program, which began in 2006, is just now beginning to expand the number of internships offered for upperclassmen, though, similar to California, data isn’t available on the number of graduates who enter the industries they are trained for.
The other major challenge, says Hill, is tying the industry-centric curriculum to educational standards. Each academy has a team of teachers in math, English, science and career education who all direct instruction around an industry theme.
“This is the most difficult part: getting teachers to work together across subjects and bring it into the standards,” says Hill. “It is fundamentally changing the way that high school works.”
Back in California, David Butler doesn’t downplay the challenges, noting that political and bureaucratic barriers have long kept schools from partnering with businesses, despite expressed interest on both sides. And when it comes to providing job shadowing and internships, there are myriad liability issues around labor and supervision, necessitating the need for intermediaries to organize both sides.
But Butler says he is well positioned to conduct that work. “It takes a lot of trust and a lot of coordination,” he says, “but nothing brings people to table like money.”
For more information, contact NextEd at email@example.com or the Linked Learning Alliance at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thomas Hanns Jr. was homeless when he first enrolled in classes at Sacramento City College, one of four main campuses that make up the Los Rios Community College District.
At first glimpse, online classes sound like a revolutionary cure for numerous problems plaguing California universities. They allow scores of students to enroll in college for a nominal fee and gain access to top-notch professors from elite schools.