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State embraces CTE as path forward for job creation

22nd January 2018   ·   0 Comments

By Michael Stein
Contributing Writer

Over the past five years, there has been a profound philosophical shift in how the Louisiana Department of Education approaches career and technical education (CTE). Once seen as an educational dead end, CTE in Louisiana is transforming into real, valuable career preparation and not just for students with lower academic performance.

Under the leadership of Superintendent John White, the Education Department has undergone a transformation since his inauguration in 2012.

“The broadest change is the de-stigmatization of CTE,” says Ken Bradford, assistant superintendent in the Office of Student Opportunities. “The perception used to be that CTE was a dumping ground and last resort for students. Now we’re seeing college bound students, some of the more academically higher achieving students, actually engaging in CTE.”

For decades, Americans have viewed four-year college as the sole path to financial stability. This perception is justified: in 2015, college graduates earned 56 percent more than high school graduates, according to the Economic Policy Institute. But with a collective student loan debt of $1.4 trillion in the United States, there are reasons to doubt this one-size-fits-all prescription.

Some education advocates say that the income gap between high school and college graduates is partially due to the lack of career preparation in high schools. Secondary education has largely become a launching ground for college bound students, a place where kids can prepare for test taking and the academic rigor of a university. This leaves students with two options: go to college or enter the job market with relatively few tangible skills.

But after years of dormancy, CTE is getting more attention from education policy makers. Louisiana, usually slow to adopt new educational methods, is embracing the trend.

Using a program called Jump Start, Louisiana completely overhauled its approach to CTE starting in the 2013-14 school year. The number of high school students in Louisiana now receiving career credentials has increased by nearly 350 percent since 2013 and the number of teachers trained in career preparation every year has increased by 600 percent.

Prior to Jump Start, eighth-graders who weren’t proficient in language or math were legally required to enter the career track when they started high school. “That was very stigmatizing,” says Bradford, who’s been with the Department of Education since 2001. These tracking systems were consistently shown to be biased against economically-disadvantaged students and students of color.

And those courses weren’t necessarily preparing students for a career. “You took a bundle of six classes. And this was really just a hodgepodge of courses,” Bradford says. The array of technical courses offered to high school students was largely determined by the skills that their school’s teachers happened to have. “There was no business and industry engagement with these course, there was no post-secondary engagement.”

Now, instead of receiving a script from the state, individual school systems work with regional industries, businesses and local colleges to create career “pathways.” These pathways are then submitted to the state for approval. To gain approval, they must align with high-wage, high-demand jobs.

And now, these pathways have to culminate in an industry certification. Since business leaders help design these courses, the hope is that the certifications will be taken seriously by employers and actually help fresh graduates get hired right out of the gate.

This decentralized model also provides flexibility for school systems, allowing them to pinpoint the industries with the highest earning potential in their regions. Schools are now engaging with their region’s economies, working in conjunction with economic development councils to ensure that their student’s skill sets match the needs of the future economy. In New Orleans, for example, schools are working to create a coastal restoration pathway.

A vital component of Jump Start is that it doesn’t force students into “tracks.” The new “pathways” are more than just a rebranding technique. A student’s pathway is continually developed and refined over years, starting in the eighth grade, through an open dialogue between students, parents, counselors and principles.

To incentivize schools to participate and create new programs, the state has revamped the school report card formula. Now, CTE courses are valued at the same level as AP courses. The state also provides roughly $480 per student for each CTE course they take. Even with these incentives, the success of these courses will ultimately come down to the actions of each individual school and its ability to adapt to the new system.

Through Jump Start, the state also provides $17.5 million for after school or summer CTE programs. One of these in New Orleans is Operation Spark, which teaches kids how to code so they can step into the programming jobs the city is trying to attract. Another is Uncommon Construction, which pays students to build houses and uses a portion of the profits to create scholarships for them. The benefit to students goes beyond just an education in construction, says founder Aaron Frumin.

Frumin says that his organization emphasizes “soft skills” that go beyond construction industry knowledge. “Our goal is to cultivate the kinds of qualities that will help young people be successful whatever their post-secondary path may be. There are things like showing up on time, bringing energy and enthusiasm to work, graciously excepting criticism and so on.”

Some worry that CTE will steer students away from college. But a recent study by Shaun M. Dougherty at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute concluded that CTE courses had no effect on a student’s chances of going to a four-year college. In fact, the study found that students on a CTE track were marginally more likely to attend a two-year college and 21 percent more likely to graduate high school.

But Dougherty’s study is one of the few to analyze the educational and employment affects of CTE programs. And this is perhaps the biggest source of skepticism around CTE: a lack of data. The few existing studies are useful, but even their authors acknowledge that more analysis is required before concrete conclusions can be drawn.

Among the CTE studies that do exist, most conclude that CTE is positive for students. But a study that came out this summer cautions against too much optimism.

The researchers found that while CTE helps students gain higher wages early in their careers, their lack of general skills put them at a disadvantage later in life as the economy shifts and they are required to adapt. In response to the study, Dougherty told The Atlantic, “There might be a long-term trade-off [in CTE programs], but none of us can forecast accurately what will happen, even on average, with much reliability.”

It will be years before we understand the effects of Jump Start on Louisiana’s education system. But with historically low academic achievement and one of the worst poverty rates in the country, the state is ready to try something new.

This article originally published in the January 22, 2018 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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