BLURRING THE LINES: EDUCATING TOMORROW’S PROFESSIONALS BY TEACHING FOR RIGOR THROUGH RELEVANCE
Drs. Francis and Adina O’Hara
It is not clear where traditional academics and career and technical education begin and end in many of the United States’ highest performing and rapidly improving schools. Connecting school and work to ensure that high school students graduate with relevant skills that prepare them for both postsecondary education and the 21st century global workforce is a key strategy to whole-school change (Cushman, Steinberg, & Riordan, 1997; Poglinco, 1998). Several key studies (Mosteller, Light, & Sachs, 1996; Oxley, 1989; Pittman& Haughwout, 1987; U.S. Dept of Ed, 2000; Wasley et al, 2000;) also demonstrate that smaller school size reduces high school dropout rates. Career academies couple both of these strategies in reforming American high schools (Stern, Dayton, & Raby, 2010; Stern, Raby, & Dayton, 1992; Hanser, Elliott, & Gilroy, 1998). Beginning with an overview of the history of career and technical education and the career academy movement in the United States, this paper explains how transformational and constructivist leadership principles have guided a principal and his teachers in Scott County, Kentucky as they structurally designed a career academy and integrated curriculum within small learning communities to ensure student success in the 21st century global village.
A Brief History of Career and Technical Education in the United States
Vocational education funding is the only federal aid that provided America’s public high schools with significant resources throughout the 20th century (Brand, 2004). Federal legislation, beginning with the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917, focused vocational education, through funding and guidelines, on preparing youth for general labor market jobs resulting from the industrial revolution (Gray, 1991; Lynch, 2000). Intended for children of the working class, authors of the Smith-Hughes Act intentionally separated vocational education from classical curriculum assuming that these first generation high school graduates would not aspire to a profession.
Vocational education as a part of the American public school system has had a long and complex history of curricular segregation from traditional academics even when located within the same comprehensive high schools (Lynch, 2000). By 2000, 93 percent of America’s 15,200 comprehensive Grade 9-12 high schools offered introductory vocational education programs or courses such as word processing, introduction to computers, family and consumer science, and technology education as elective courses (Lynch, 2000). More specialized labor market programs such as agriculture, business and office, marketing, health, technology and communications, and trade and industrial are offered as alternatives to college preparatory courses in approximately 75 percent of comprehensive high schools in the United States (Boesel, Hudson, Deich, & Masten, 1994). In addition, students are enrolled in secondary vocational education courses for part of the day at the approximately 1,100 area vocational centers across the United States. These students take academic or general education courses at their “home” high school the other part of the day. In 2003, 18,500 high schools students were enrolled in Kentucky’s 40 locally operated area technology centers, while 23,200 attended the 53 state-operated KY Tech centers (Legislative Research Commission, 2003). Although federal vocational education legislation shifted throughout the 20th century, the general focus was on training students from the lower socio economic classes for work after high school, thus separating vocational and college preparatory high school tracks.
Whether as a response to the poor image of a dumbed-down curriculum, declining enrollments resulting from increased competition for a shrinking student population, or increased pressure from business and industry stakeholders, slow but important changes began taking place in the philosophy or rationale underpinning vocational education in the last part of the 20th century (Lynch, 2000). The Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act of 1984 first introduced integration of academic and technical education through a special program called Tech Prep, the adoption of applied academic subject courses, and focus on articulation from secondary to postsecondary education. The Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology Education Acts of 1990 and 1998 continued to support the expansion of the Tech Prep program that led to the widespread enrichment of academic content in vocational courses. As a result, the purpose of vocational education began shifting from occupational training to preparing students for both work and postsecondary education.
Changes in terminology occurred as ideas and initiatives evolved at both the state and national level. Significant change was exemplified when the American Vocational Association (AVA) renamed their professional association the Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE) in December of 1998. There is speculation that the official name of “vocational education” was changed to “career and technical education” because the first term had developed a stigma. The Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006 utilized the term career and technical education instead of vocational education for the first time in legislation (Brustein, 2006; Sabie, 2008, 48).
The Career Academy Movement
Since A Nation at Risk was released in 1983, education reform has been an important topic for policy makers in the United States. However, much of the focus has been on reforming the early grades to improve basic reading and math skills for elementary students (Brand, 2004). Likewise federal education funding was slanted toward elementary and middle schools. Although the No Child Left Behind Act holds high schools and school districts accountable for high school graduation rates and student performance on high school assessments, high school reform has been largely ignored in the United States until recently.
Throughout the last decade, a ground swell of reports has drawn attention to problems in America’s high schools, focusing on high dropout rates and the lack of student engagement in learning and preparation for college. For example, Balfanz and Legters (2004) found that a typical freshman class shrinks by at least 40 percent by the time the students reach their senior year in nearly one in five regular or vocational high schools that enroll 300 or more students in the United States. Swanson (2004) reported that nearly one-third (32 percent) of all public high school students in the United States fail to graduate. Minority (American Indian, Hispanic, and Black) students have little more than a 50-50 chance of finishing high school while graduation rates are 75 and 77 percent respectively for white and Asian students nationally. The graduation rates for students who attend high poverty, racially segregated, and urban high schools lag behind their peers by 15 to 18 percent. Similarly, Greene and Forster (2004) reported that only 32 percent of all students are prepared to attend four-year colleges after high school. Likewise, only 20 percent of all black and 16 percent of Hispanic students leave high school college ready. Reporting similar graduation and college readiness results, Venezia, Kirst, and Antonio (2003) suggest that the main reason for poor student preparation for college, high remediation rates, and low college completion rates is that these students are not acquiring college-ready skills in the K-12 system.
Taking a different approach, the National Research Council of the National Academies explored how adolescents learn and what motivates them in their 2003 report, Engaging Schools: Fostering High School Students’ Motivation to Learn. Focusing on the student’s perspective, this report calls for making learning relevant by “creat[ing] a set of circumstances in which students take pleasure in learning and come to believe that the information and skills they are being asked to learn are important or meaningful for them and worth their efforts, and that they can reasonably expect to be able to learn the material.” To rescue the “forgotten” students who make up more than half the population in most American high schools by abandoning the watered down coursework found in the general track and strengthening vocational programs, the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) launched the High Schools that Work (HSTW) program in 1987 (Bottoms & Presson, 1995). Over time, HSTW has evolved the concept of connecting the academic core to the world beyond school to make learning relevant and thus improve student achievement.
Career academies are a natural means to accomplish these goals (Brand, 2004). Career academies are structures for schooling which group teachers and students in small schools within schools, focus learning within the context of a career major or special interest, provide internships or experiential learning in workplaces or community service, incorporate activities that involve adult mentors in the community, and develop strong links between high school and postsecondary education.
Although career academies and the High Schools that Work (HSTW) project predated the school-to-work movement, they were explicitly named as one of the key strategies of the 1994 School-to-Work Opportunities Act because they exemplified ideas that the school-to-work movement sought to generalize (Stern, Dayton, & Raby, 2010). The federal School-to-Work Opportunities Act (STWOA) of 1994 called for giving all students access to work-based learning programs and providing money for integration of academic and technical programs to enable development of student career majors. Despite the name, school-to-work programs were not designed to train students for entry-level jobs upon graduation from high school. Rather, the school-to-work movement created various kinds of curricular pathways with career-related themes in an attempt to prepare students for college in addition to equipping them with work related knowledge and skills by making the high school curriculum more coherent and meaningful for students.
High school curricular reform in the United States stresses the need for students to demonstrate high academic and rigorous industry standards, technology, related general education knowledge, and general employment competencies across all aspects of an industry (Lynch, 2000). Thus, the nature and types of programs being offered in America’s high schools have begun targeting new student and employer audiences. By the year 2000, approximately 250 career, specialty, or vocational high schools in the United States offered a full day curriculum including academic or general education courses and career and technical courses to prepare students for postsecondary education and work in a specific industry or occupation. High school reform initiatives, such as the school-to-work movement, the Coalition of Essential Schools, and the small-schools movement, include career academies as key strategies.
Educational Leadership Theories Guide the Development of a Career Academy
Critical theorists such as Foster (1989) point out that much of educational administration fails to deal with issues that are essentially educational because administrative theory is derived from business management. In order for administration to be truly educational, it needs to deal particularly with educational issues such as the work of teachers, curriculum development, and the role of students. Transformational leadership enables faculty and staff to engage in shared decision making as they work to build curriculum, design a mission, achieve goals, and establish long-term plans for the future of the school (Lambert, 1995). Transformational and constructivist leadership principles guide Elkhorn Crossing School’s principal and teachers in Scott County, Kentucky as they structurally design a career academy and integrate curriculum within small learning communities.
Understanding how individuals come to know is not a new debate. Almost a century ago, John Dewey challenged the dominant norms of modern society “by suggesting that education is an internal process in which the learner uses prior knowledge and experience to shape meaning and to construct new knowledge” (Lambert, 1995, p. 1). Dewey’s understanding of the elusive and changing reality underlying education and society is still insightful today. In her book, The Constructivist Leader, Linda Lambert (1995) acknowledges the significance of John Dewey’s voice in suggesting new directions for the structure of schooling in the 21st century. Lambert asserted that leadership must be redefined to allow educators to “engage in reciprocal processes that would call forth their ideas and successful experiences and enable them to make sense of their world together” (p. 29). Applying these leadership principles, the philosophy of Elkhorn Crossing School is that small, personalized learning villages led by teaching teams integrating curriculum across core content and career based disciplines with guidance from professionals working in the field provide students with 21st century skills for the global economy.
ECS offers students an inquiry-based learning environment where the lines between “technical” and “academic” are deliberately blurred. Students will take one career course and two core academic courses within the same village. ECS has three different learning villages: Project Lead the Way (PLTW) Pre-Engineering Village consisting of engineering, mathematics, and English; Project Lead the Way (PLTW) Biomedical Science Village consisting of biomedical sciences, mathematics, and science; and Media Arts Village consisting of media arts, science, and English. Each area of concentration is equally important in the students’ overall educational experience. Students will attend for half a day at Elkhorn Crossing School and the other half a day at Scott County High School in either the morning session or afternoon session.
Lambert (1995) emphasizes the importance of creating educational communities in which adults develop “collective meaning together” in a continual process of learning. Each village within Elkhorn Crossing School consists of three teachers collaborating to intersect their curriculums wherever possible. For example, engineering, mathematics, and English teachers in the Project Lead the Way Engineering Village collaborate to helps students understand how engineers and technicians use math, science, and technology in an engineering problem solving process to benefit people. Relevant literature on the social and political consequences of technological change offers opportunities for reflection and develops critical thinking skills. These truths coincide with Collins’ (2001) concept that “we should only do those things that we can get passionate about” (p. 109). The teaching staff selected for Elkhorn Crossing School is composed of highly qualified scholars and experts in their fields who exhibit a passion for teaching today’s students.
The teachers at ECS frame the curriculum around answering questions and solving problems. Integration at ECS means that issues are addressed as they are found in the real world; in teams, studying questions and themes that cut across academic disciplines within a school village. For example, the Human Body Systems course in the Biomedical Science Village engages students in the study of the processes, structures, and interactions of the human body systems. Important concepts in the course include: communication, transport of substances, locomotion, metabolic processes, defense, and protection. The central theme is how the body systems work together to maintain homeostasis and good health. The systems are studied as parts of a whole, working together to keep the amazing human machine functioning at an optimal level. Students design experiments, investigate the structures and functions of body systems, and use data acquisition software to monitor body functions such as muscle movement, reflex and voluntary actions, and respiratory operation. Students work through interesting real world cases and often play the role of biomedical professionals to solve medical mysteries. ECS encourages each student to work toward a “school to career” thought process through project based class work with real world application.
Rather than emphasizing the actions performed by a specific leader, constructivist leadership stresses the reciprocal process of relationships between the leader and his or her community that enables “participants in an educational community to construct meanings that lead toward a common purpose of schooling” (Lambert, 1995, p. 33). At Elkhorn Crossing School, students learn how to apply critical thinking and presentation skills, maintain a professional, positive attitude, develop a strong work ethic, and hone the ability to collaborate with others through project based learning. Students demonstrate these soft skills through presentations to higher education and professional mentors from the local community. For example, students in Media Arts learn to use their designs to communicate ideas to the world through professional presentations. Integration of two co-curricular organizations will further the leadership opportunities and learning in the Media Arts program. All ECS students use technology to research, produce, and present across disciplines. For example, Media Arts students will learn story development, background design, scenic layout, cinematography, directing, screenwriting and special effects in video production as they produce documentaries and short films. Focusing on web design and interactive media and audio production, Media Arts students will also produce and edit personal soundtracks.
Emphasizing student learning outcomes, Elkhorn Crossing School reports assessment of student learning through traditional grades in the following areas:
1. Content: This grade reflects the student’s mastery of the course content.
2. Work Ethic/Effort: Reflects the student’s commitment to complete assignments and attend class.
3. Collaboration: This grade reflects the student’s ability to work within a group.
4. Critical Thinking: Reflects the student’s ability to analyze and synthesize information.
5. Writing Mechanics: Reflects the student’s mastery of grammar, spelling, and literary content.
6. Projects: Reflects student’s progress/completion of class project with accompanying research.
7. Presentation Skills: Reflects the student’s ability to present information effectively to audiences.
Elkhorn Crossing School’s mission is to provide students with a high quality broad-based education that will serve them well in all phases of adult life in the 21st century global village.
A Strategy for Educational Reform in Developing Countries
Transformational and constructivist leadership theories could be applied to the restructuring of high schools not only in the United States but also in other democratic nations. Foster (1989) asserted that the ultimate goal of leadership should be social change and human emancipation to achieve and refine communities of human beings. He wrote, “Leadership is and must be socially critical, it does not reside in an individual but in the relationship between individuals, and it is oriented towards social vision and change, not simply, or only, organizational goals” (p. 46). An Australian critical theorist, Smyth (1989), explained that transformational leadership enables people to change their lives from one of suffering to one of fulfillment by arriving at a new level of self-understanding.
The constructivist leadership perspective also “suggests new directions for the structure of schooling and new roles for those who lead schools” (Lambert, 1995, p. 1). Lambert (1995) asserted, “Schooling must be organized and led in such a way that these learning processes provide direction and momentum to human and educational development” (p. 29). The structure of career academies or small learning villages within schools has the potential for wide application in developing countries where segregation of groups of people and/or curriculum has historically occurred within schools and school systems that inhibits the holistic growth and development of all adults and students. Lambert (1995) explains that “bound by rules, schedules, policies, hierarchical roles, and time-worn practices, educators often experience cultures that limit interaction and mitigate against professional growth” (p. 28). He pointed out that, “Growth and development are prompted by discrepancy or ‘disequilibrium’ between what is believed to be true and what is now revealing itself in experience” (p. 2). Psychologists and philosophers assert that the process of knowing involves an individual’s reformulation of their worldview to make sense of conflicting experiences and information. Transformational and constructivist leadership principles applied within career academies challenge high school administrators, teachers, and students to work collaboratively in small learning communities focused on a career major or special interest that is relevant to students, employers, community members, and postsecondary educators.
Balfanz, R. & Legters, N. (2004). Locating the dropout crisis: Which high schools produce the nation’s dropout? Where are they located? Who attends them? Johns Hopkins University: Center for Social Organization of Schools.
Boesel, D., Hudson, L., Deich, S., & Masten, C. (1994). Participation in and quality of vocational education, national assessment of vocational education, Vol. II. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement.
Bottoms, G. & Presson, A. (1995). Improving High Schools for Career-Bound Youth: Reform through a Multistate Network. In Grubb, W.N. (ed.): Education through occupations in American high schools. New York, NY: Teachers College Press. Volume 2, pp. 35-54.
Brand, B. (2004). Reforming high schools: The role for career academies. Berkeley, CA: Career Academy Support Network.
Brustein, M. (2006). Perkins Act of 2006: The official guide. Alexandria, VA: Association of Career and Technical Education.
Cushman, K., Steinberg, A., & Riordan, R. (1997). Connecting school and work as a means to whole-school change. Providence, RI: Coalition of Essential Schools, Brown University.
Gray, K. (1991). Vocational education in high school: A modern phoenix? Phi Delta Kappan, 71(6), 437-445.
Foster, W. F. (1989). Toward a critical practice of leadership. In J. Smyth (Ed.), Critical perspectives on educational leadership (pp. 39-62). London: Falmer.
Greene, J. P. & Forster, G. (2004). Public high school graduation and college readiness rates in the United States. New York: Manhattan Institute, Center for Civic Innovation.
Hanser, L. M., Elliott, M. N. & Gilroy, C. L. (forthcoming; 1998 draft). Career academies: evidence of positive student outcomes. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.
Lambert , L. (1995). The constructivist leader. New York: Teachers College Press.
Legislative Research Commission. (2003). A study of secondary career and technical education (Research Report No. 315). Frankfort, KY: Author.
Lynch, R. L. (2000). High school career and technical education for the first decade of the 21st century. Journal of Vocational Education Research, 25(2), 1-3.
Mosteller, F., Light, R. J., & Sachs, J. A. (1996). Sustained inquiry in education: Lessons in skill grouping and class size. Harvard Education Review, 66(4), 707-842.
National Research Council, National Academies of Science. 2004. Engaging schools: fostering high school students’ motivation to learn. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
Oxley, D. (1989). Smaller is better: How the house plan can make large high schools less anonymous. American Educator, 13(1), 28-31, 51-52.
Pittman, R.B. & Haughwout, P., (1987). Influence of school size on dropout rate. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 9(4), 337-343.
Poglinco, S. M. (1998). Career academies as a support for students’ college goals: Perceptions of students, teachers, and administrators in three academies. Paper prepared for the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Diego. New York: Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation.
Sabie, A. (2008). How Tech Prep works in Kentucky. In A. Sabie (Ed.), The pathway from Baghdad to Tech Prep: A success story (pp. 75-90). Waco, TX: CORD, Inc.
Smyth, J. (Ed.) (1989). Critical perspectives on educational leadership. London: Falmer.
Stern, D., Raby, M., & Dayton, C. (1992). Career academies: Partnerships for reconstructing American high schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Stern, D., Dayton, C., & Raby, M. (2010). Career academies: A proven strategy to prepare high school students for college and careers. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Swanson, C. B. (2004). Who graduates? Who doesn’t? A statistical portrait of publc high school graduation, Class of 2001. Washington, DC: Urban Institute.
U.S. Department of Education (2000). Making the case for smaller learning communities. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Venezia, A. Kirst, M. & Antonio, A. (2003). Betraying the college dream: How disconnected K-12 and postsecondary education systems undermine student aspirations. Stanford, CA: Stanford Institute for Higher Education Research.
Wasley, P. A., Fine, M., Gladden, M., Holland, N. E., King, S. P., Mosak, E., & Powell, L. C. (2000). Small schools, great strides: A study of new small schools in Chicago. New York: The Bank Street College of Education.