chasing a diploma

Can you avoid conflict in the break room? It could now help you graduate from high school in New York

PHOTO: Seth McConnell, The Denver Post

What should you do if you’re throwing an office party but you can’t store food in the company refrigerator — cancel the party, hide the food and hope no one notices, or politely ask for permission?

What if your coworkers are grumbling about the new dress code mandating starched shirts? Should you refuse to follow the code, join their protests, or work together to suggest a change?

Students in New York state can now earn a high school diploma, in part, by answering questions like those.

Students still need to pass the famously rigorous Regents exams in order to graduate, too. But recent changes, sparked by growing criticism about students trapped by tougher graduation requirements, mean that instead of passing five, they only need to pass four. A work-readiness credential can now replace the fifth.

Among the ways students can earn that credential: passing a multiple-choice test designed to assess broad entry-level work skills. The tests emphasize real-life situations and peg questions to middle school-level reading and math skills.

State officials say new option will help more students get to graduation — and allow students to show they have what it takes to succeed in the workplace. But some are now worried that it could be simple enough to allow any student to circumvent higher-level work.

”I think you’re creating an opportunity which is more or less a universal opportunity” to check off a graduation requirement, James Tallon, a member of New York’s Board of Regents, said about the credential last month.

The idea was that students would spend hundreds of hours on vocational coursework and job shadowing. One option for earning the credential — designed in 2013 for students with disabilities — has students spend 216 hours on a combination of coursework and work-based learning.

But the regulation also allows students to forgo that path for one of four approved work-readiness tests — potentially a more attractive option for schools under pressure to get more students over the finish line.

State officials defended the exams, saying that they require preparation and noting that schools must also offer work experience. The rules do not say students have to participate, though. And with graduation just months away, some schools are exploring the test option for this year’s seniors.

“There is no way to get kids, at this point, [option] number one for this year,” said Erin Stark, director of special education at New Visions for Public Schools, which operates seven charter high schools in the city. “There isn’t enough time.”

Last year, New York began allowing students to swap in another test for one of their five required Regents exams. Some of the new options require career training in subjects such as accounting and welding, and officials say they are meant to help students who are unlikely to go to college gain valuable skills that they can deploy immediately after graduation.

The new work-readiness option has also raised eyebrows among some involved with career and technical programs, who see a double standard emerging.

Over the past few years, the state convened a “blue ribbon” commission complete with a study by researchers from Harvard and Cornell to ensure that the technical exams approved to take the place of Regents exams were comparable and rigorous.

Connie Costley, the president of the New York State Association for Career and Technical Education and a teacher in Kingston, New York, fears students will use the new pathway to avoid more challenging — and useful — courses.

“We question whether it has the rigor that the Regents exams does,” Costley said. “A lot of time and energy and money went into saying, if you pass this [CTE] exam, it has to be equal.”

The work-readiness exams do not aspire to test the same skills as Regents or CTE exams, and state officials said making direct comparisons between the two was unfair.

It is unclear how many students could end up graduating because of the credential. About 1,800 students earned the CDOS credential last year, when it was available only for students with disabilities and didn’t help students earn a traditional diploma.

Some high schools have someone like Stark calling their attention to the testing option, but others are just starting to investigate what the credential could mean for their students.

At Brooklyn’s Abraham Lincoln High School, principal Ari Hoogenboom is hopeful that the new pathway will be a big boost for those on the edge of graduating. While discussing the option requiring work-based experience, Hoogenboom said it might allow up to 30 additional students to graduate high school.

“I don’t just want to graduate kids for the sake of graduating them, but at the same time, at a certain point, [failing students] almost seems abusive,” Hoogenboom said.

That was the logic used by Regents as they approved the new option, which was passed as an emergency regulation that the board must vote to make permanent in June. Back in March, some Regents raised concerns about the credential’s rigor. But those were eventually outweighed by a desire to help students graduate this year.

“If I’m going to err,” Regent Beverly Ouderkirk said before the vote, “I want to err on the side of kids.”

Update: This story was updated to reflect that Erin Stark, the director of special education at New Visions for Public Schools, works with seven charter high schools in the city.

Where the jobs are

Chicago invests $12 million into expanding pathway to construction trades

PHOTO: PHOTO: Steve Hendershot / Chalkbeat
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel visits Prosser Career Academy Thursday, Sept. 6, 2018, to announce a $12 million investment in vocational education.

What happens when Mayor Rahm Emanuel headlines a pep rally in a sweltering, Northwest Side high-school gymnasium to promote a $12 million investment in vocational education?

Lots of HVAC jokes, for one thing. And some students fanning themselves with the signs they’d been given that read “Thank you” and “Mr. Mayor.”

As he makes rounds in the city touting his accomplishments  — after announcing Tuesday that he would not run for reelection in February — Emanuel was flanked Thursday morning by luminaries from Chicago Public Schools, area trade unions and employers such as ComEd. On Wednesday, he dropped in on a pre-kindergarten class to push his early-education initiative.

Thursday, there was also lots of enthusiasm about the city’s push to develop career and technical education curricula, to bolster economic opportunity in the neighborhoods.

Part of a $1 billion capital plan announced over the summer, the $12 million investment at Charles A. Prosser Career Academy will expand the school’s vocational training beyond its current emphasis on the hospitality industry to include construction trades including carpentry, electricity and, of course, HVAC.  

Many welcome such initiatives as a long time coming. Vocational preparation has been deemphasized in favor of college-preparatory programs, said Charles LoVerde, a trustee of a training center run by the Laborers’ International Union of North America. He’s glad to see the investment.

The city’s current construction trades program launched in 2016 at Dunbar Career Academy High in predominantly black Bronzeville. Prosser makes access easier for West Side students, including the predominantly Latino residents of Belmont Cragin, where it is located.

“Dunbar is a great program, but my kids are not going to go to Dunbar because it’s just too far — it would take them two hours to get there,” said 36th Ward Alderman Gilbert Villegas, who pushed Emanuel to launch Prosser’s CTE program.

Access is important because CTE offerings are among the district’s most in-demand programs, according to a report released last month by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. Demand is not even across demographics, however, with vocational programs more popular among low-performing students, students from economically isolated elementary schools, and black students, according to the report.

Almost one in five seats at district high schools focus on vocational education. But Dunbar’s — and now Prosser’s — focus on the construction trades has Emanuel and Villegas excited, because Chicago’s construction boom means that jobs are readily available.

“There’s not a building trade in Chicago — a carpenter, an electrician, a bricklayer, a painter, an operating engineer — that has anybody left on the bench,” Emanuel told the crowd at Prosser.

Villegas sketched out an idealized, full-career path for a graduate of the new program — one that includes buying a home and raising a family in Belmont Cragin. “I see it as a pipeline that would extend our ability to maintain the Northwest Side as middle class,” Villegas said.

The investment in Prosser comes as part of a broader, national effort to invest in career-technical education. In July, Congress overwhelmingly reauthorized  a national $1.1 billion program for job training and related programs.

The new program at Prosser not only will give more students access to training in the building trades, but also will provide proximity to some labor partners. The Laborers’ International Union of North America operates a training center less than a mile from Prosser, where students will have a chance to learn and also visit job sites, LoVerde said.

He said that college-track programs also have their place, but career education presents a clear path to a steady income.

“This gives [unions] a focused path to recruit and find students who are looking for a different path,” LoVerde said. “Becoming a career construction laborer is a job for life.”

future of work

Tennessee approves its first-ever computer science standards for K-8 schools

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post

With regional jobs related to computer science going unfilled, Tennessee soon will introduce academic standards designed specifically to strengthen those skills beginning in elementary school.

The state Board of Education gave final approval Friday to Tennessee’s first-ever computer science standards for elementary and middle schools. The benchmarks will reach classrooms in the fall of 2019.

In the works for a year, they’ll replace computer technology standards that were last revised in 2011.

State officials say the current standards don’t capture the critical components of computer science, a growing field with jobs especially in healthcare, transportation, and banking. In 2015 across Tennessee, for instance, only a third of the 90,000 jobs posted for workers in IT, or information technology, were filled.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the employment gap represents a huge opportunity for students as the state also emphasizes instruction in science, technology, engineering, and math, also known as STEM.

“We don’t have enough students actually interested in computer science because they don’t know what it is,” she told members of the board earlier this year. McQueen cited research showing that 50 percent of people who pursue STEM careers trace their interest to exposure in first or second grade.

“Getting kids interested really does matter at those very, very early ages,” she said.

For elementary schools, the new standards will focus on introducing students to the basics of computer systems and programs — and helping them learn about safe and responsible device practices, such as protecting private information and using passwords securely.

For middle schools, students will study computer-related calculations and information-processing skills used to create computer programs. They’ll also discuss “digital citizenship,” which covers how to interact safely with people and content online. And they’ll explore career opportunities related to computer science.

Except for instruction in coding and computer programming — which will be taught as a stand-alone class — the skills are to be integrated into existing core classes in English, math, science and social studies. They’re “things our teachers are already doing,” said Melissa Haun, math coordinator for the Tennessee Department of Education, of most of the new computer science standards.

“We’re not asking teachers to do more things or give them a heavier workload. We’re asking them to be aware of the standards and be deliberate in how they can enhance their instruction with technology because we are in a very very digital world that moves very fast,” Haun told the state board in April.

"We don’t have enough students actually interested in computer science because they don’t know what it is."Candice McQueen, commissioner of education

School districts will have discretion on how to add coding and computer programming instruction to the mix. Many school systems already are piloting such curriculums after investing in digital devices in the ongoing transition to computerized state testing.

McQueen said coding represents “one of the most underutilized opportunities that we have.”

“If you can get kids to think like a coder and the problem-solving that occurs with that, … you can start to inspire them around opportunities,” she said. “That coding skill set, and the language of coding, opens up about 75 percent of jobs that they may have never thought about before.”

Computer science marks the latest new standards for Tennessee, which has or is in the process of revamping benchmarks in all four core areas of instruction.

New English and math standards start their second year this fall, new science standards are about to begin, and new ones for social studies reach classrooms in the fall of 2019, the same year of the first-ever standards for computer science.