Career and technical education: A pathway to success

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The New York Harbor School is both typical and unique. On any given day, you'll find its students in rigorous math, science and social studies classes. Yet, those same students will spend part of that same day either practicing for their scuba diving licenses, learning the latest techniques for loading a cargo ship or being taught how to spawn oysters.

The Harbor School is part of New York City's growing network of career and technical education (CTE) programs—public schools where students are simultaneously being prepared for careers and a postsecondary education.

New York Harbor School students practice the latest cargo loading techniquesNew York Harbor School students practice the latest cargo loading techniques.

New York City has 26,000 students in CTE programs in 38 schools. Twenty-seven new CTE schools have opened in the city since 2003. They offer hands-on training in everything from finance and Web design to transit electronics, aviation, and television and film production.

Growing and sustaining CTE programs—both in New York City and beyond—was one of the focuses of a conference co-sponsored by the United Federation of Teachers and the Albert Shanker Institute on Oct. 10-11 in New York City. It brought together an impressive lineup of policymakers, educators, researchers and advocates for career and technical education programs.

The conference, titled "Fulfilling the Promise of a Quality Education for All: 21st Century Career and Technical Education," featured speakers such as James Stone, director of the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education; Mario Cilento, president of the New York State AFL-CIO; Ronald Ferguson, senior lecturer at Harvard University; and John King, New York state education commissioner.

"The promise of this conference for me is to really come out of it with a national strategy" for advancing career and technical education, UFT President and AFT Vice President Michael Mulgrew told conference attendees.

Students at the New York Harbor School dissect oysters.Students at the New York Harbor School dissect oysters.

High-quality CTE programs, AFT President Randi Weingarten said, can help young people gain access to careers that will enable them to be successful in the new economy. They "open up more avenues of opportunities for our students."

Both Mulgrew and Weingarten rejected the notion that CTE programs provide a second-class education that targets low-income, minority students, which has been the knock against vocational education programs. "It is not tracking," asserted Mulgrew, who pointed out that CTE programs typically have higher graduation rates and higher college attendance rates than traditional high school programs.

Work-based learning high schools often engage their students in academics in ways that regular public schools can't, Weingarten said. CTE programs are a "very important model for how we create pathways to a high school diploma and college and career readiness."

Throughout the conference, CTE was praised for its ability to attract—and educate—high-performing students as well as those in need of remediation. "How do we re-brand and re-purpose CTE so that it's not seen as a second-tier education?" asked John Jackson, president of the Schott Foundation.

Many CTE schools are integrating the Common Core State Standards into their academic programs, said Kimberly Green, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of CTE Consortium, who sees the potential for even more of these connections. "CTE needs to have a seat at the table" in the conversations around the Common Core State Standards, she said.

Located on Governor's Island at the foot of Manhattan and accessible only by ferry, the New York Harbor School is currently in its 11th year. It receives funding from the New York Harbor Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to improving and promoting the harbor.

Like most CTE programs, the Harbor School thrives on its ability to develop partnerships with related industries. The school's partners include the National Park Service, marine science organizations, the New York Aquarium and local fisheries. These partners expose students to the field through internships and workplace visits.

The demand for seats in many CTE programs is increasing. This year, the New York Harbor School was able to accommodate a freshman class of 150, which was less than 15 percent of those who applied to attend the school.

New York City's Pathways in Technology Early College High School—or P-Tech—which opened in 2011, has as its core partners IBM and the City College of New York. The school offers a science, technology, engineering and math curriculum that leads to the simultaneous granting of a high school diploma and an associate degree. Every P-Tech student has a mentor from IBM as well as access to a paid internship with the company.

While New York City has been on the cutting edge of CTE programs, many other school districts also offer high-quality career-training programs. The Toledo (Ohio) Technology Academy is one such example. Toledo Tech's partners include the United Auto Workers union.

AFT Executive Vice President Francine Lawrence was on the board of Toledo Tech when she served as president of the Toledo Federation of Teachers. The school is a "true collaboration of business, education and labor," Lawrence told the conference.

The school's 15-year record of successfully educating Toledo students for jobs in high-paying technical fields such as engineering and electronics "dispels the perception that CTE is a track to nowhere," she said.

The conference concluded with a discussion centered around the policy paper "A Quality Education for All: A Career and Technical Education Policy Agenda." In order to support a strong national system of high-quality CTE programs, the paper calls for, among other things, the alignment of CTE with the Common Core and the reauthorization and full funding of the federal Perkins Act.

Conference organizers asked participants to review and comment on the policy paper, with an eye toward releasing it as a resource document and as a set of recommendations and principles around which the broader CTE community could rally. [Roger Glass/AFT staff photo]

October 18, 2013