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Less class time and more real-world training

Posted by Marjorie Pritchard  November 16, 2011 01:01 PM

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By David Crane

In "The Sound of Music,'' Maria is ensconced in an Austrian convent, where she’s branded a "flibbidy-gigit'' – a girl who, among other transgressions, "waltzes to mass and whistles on the stair.''

"How do you solve a problem like Maria?'' the nuns sing. "How do you make her stay and listen to what you say?''

The answer, ironically, is not to make her stay but to send her out into the real world. Packing her guitar, she takes a position as a governess – a role well-suited to her talents and aspirations.

Maria may have been the most famous screen character to benefit from what is currently known as Career and Technical Education.

In many CTE programs in Massachusetts, students spend half their time in academic classes and half engaged in hands-on learning of their chosen occupation in real-world settings. Computer technology students install and maintain computers and networks in entire school systems. Culinary students operate restaurants. Carpentry students build houses.

Academics and CTE instruction are synthesized in a cohesive curriculum. In our successful CTE schools, despite half the academic time, students far outpace their comprehensive high school peers in MCAS scores, daily attendance and graduation rates.

They graduate from high school with academic skills and the industry-recognized certifications that enable them to choose to further their formal educations or to postpone or eschew more formal education in favor of entering the workforce and beginning to make a living. These are the only students who reach the hallowed goal of being college and career ready.

Not every Austrian girl is meant to serve the church, and not every American is meant to have a desk job, the principal reward for obtaining a college degree. Two-thirds of students in the Commonwealth do not attempt or complete the requirements to earn a college degree, but less than 15 percent of high school seats are in CTE programs. Accordingly, half of our students enter the world neither college nor career ready.

CTE should form the backbone of our secondary education system, as it does in places like Germany, where it is instrumental in maintaining the stability of a vibrant manufacturing base despite the country’s high wages and strong social support system. The key is to establish partnerships between CTE high schools and local businesses that utilize skilled labor. A major car dealership, for example, would assist the auto repair shop to obtain the equipment and tailor instruction to meet the needs of the industry, provide internships and, in return, have direct access to a stream of trained future employees.

The need for CTE is even more pressing in our inner-cities, where high school dropout rates approach 50 percent.

There is a movement afoot to improve existing CTE programs. The Joint Committee on Education recently conducted hearings on a bill to allow CTE schools to offer occupational programs not currently allowed under the law and to study whether to allow CTE schools to award associate degrees. Imagine the advantage that students will have leaving high school with two-years of college free of charge and the skills and credentials needed to make a living.

In Boston, Mayor Menino is looking to provide avenues beyond local community colleges for workforce development, and Superintendent Johnson has authorized an evaluation of Madison Park, the only CTE program in the city. Madison, in an effort to concentrate on improving its MCAS scores, had eliminated opportunities for most students to do internships and coops in their chosen fields.

Though counter-intuitive, to reduce dropout rates and raise academic achievement, students need less time in academic class and more time in vibrant CTE programs doing authentic, real-world work that motivates them by engaging their interests and talents.

David Crane is cofounder of the Josiah Quincy Upper School, a Boston pilot school, and managing director of the ECCO Foundation.

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