hitting the wall

Career and technical education programs are in vogue. So why is it so hard to start one?

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Students at Urban Assembly Maker Academy tried to design a straw basket that could catch a falling golf ball on the first day of school in 2015.

At Urban Assembly Maker Academy, Principal Luke Bauer wanted to start a program in “interaction design” — a field that focuses on how users interact with products like computers or phones.

But last year, when he looked into turning his vision into an official, certified career and technical education (CTE) program, he discovered that the idea didn’t fit into any of the typical categories approved by New York state.

“There are plenty of people right here in Lower Manhattan who are getting paid six figures to do that work,” Bauer said. Yet, his program was so foreign to the process, it felt like having “six heads,” he said.

In the end, he decided not to pursue an interaction design program — a disappointment to him and to his industry partners, who hoped it would create a “pipeline of talent” that could potentially lead some of his students to full-time jobs, Bauer said.

Bauer’s experience is emblematic of an ongoing tension. As career and technical education programs expand and morph into a dizzying array of new career fields, many are slowed down by the state’s long and stringent approval process.

That process — a comprehensive review that empowers schools to run a multi-year, career-focused curriculum — has “raised the quality and rigor of courses to better prepare students for college and career,” said Emily DeSantis, a state education department spokesperson.

Yet, others argue it discourages the creation of certified CTE programs and leaves little flexibility for schools trying to prepare students for new, and potentially lucrative, careers. The approval process can take years and often frustrates businesses partnering with schools, critics contend.

Employers involved in CTE programs surveyed in 2015 — including businesses, government agencies and nonprofits — said bureaucracy and slow response time are the biggest challenges in CTE work.

The “sense of urgency at [the State Education Department] doesn’t match the practical demands on the schools of a rapidly changing economy,” said Kathryn Wylde, CEO of the Partnership for New York City, a coalition of business leaders, which conducted the survey.

Wylde said she has been in contact with state officials and she is confident they are working to solve the problem. But for those trying to launch programs, those changes can’t come soon enough.

THE NEW VOCATIONAL EDUCATION

Over the past two decades, skill-based education has transformed from the traditional “vocational” tracks into “career and technical” education — and it’s more than just a name change.

Vocational ed was designed to help students enter the workforce right after high school with training in fields like auto repair or manufacturing. Today’s career and technical education still includes those fields, but also makes room for newer areas like computer science that often require education after high school. At the school level, that means seeking out partners in emerging industries, who will hopefully help match students with internships or even jobs after high school.

State and local officials have gotten behind CTE as a way to engage students in high school — and prepare them for what comes next.

“A career and technical education is where the strands all meet,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said last year. “And I’m very, very proud that New York City is being used as a model here for this effort.”

The number of city schools dedicated to CTE has more than tripled over the past decade, growing from 15 in 2004 to almost 50 in 2013, according to a recent Manhattan Institute study. Roughly 75 other schools offer CTE programs, with career-oriented courses provided as electives. About 40 percent of high school students take at least one CTE course, and nearly 10 percent attend a dedicated CTE school, according to Department of Education data cited in the report.

In 2009, New York state established a workgroup to rethink CTE and its goals. In part, that meant ensuring that CTE prepares students to go on to college. To help provide new graduation options and expand CTE programs, state officials also created a new regulation in 2014 that allows a technical exam to be substituted for one required high school exit exam, a policy known as “4+1.”

But as CTE programs keep growing — and with these new rules — there are lingering questions over whether a more dramatic shakeup is necessary.

RED TAPE

The problem, critics say, is that high-tech careers are changing all the time — by their very definition they are “emerging” and not conducive to a system that takes multiple years to approve.

State officials said they recommend that schools start putting an application together at least a year before they submit it. Yet, at a minimum, it takes about about four years to build a program the state will sign off on, said Eric Watts, former director of career and technical education at Urban Assembly, an organization that runs more than 20 career-themed schools. It’s not uncommon for it to take close to six years, he said.

In the meantime, schools are typically running the programs anyway.

“You’re getting approved to do something six years after you do it,” Watts said. “That doesn’t really make too much sense.”

If schools choose to forgo the certification process, they may have a tougher time securing federal funding and cannot provide their students with a CTE-endorsed diploma. But the biggest issue, he said, is that without a formal process, it’s harder to tell which programs are most worthwhile.

“That’s the scary part, teachers can do what they want, schools can do what they want,” Watts said.

FINDING TEACHERS

Leigh Ann DeLyser, director of education and research at CSNYC, who helped two city schools focused on software engineering through the approval process, said that overall, the state’s high standards are good for schools.

“The state’s process is rigorous on purpose,” DeLyser said. “It does take a few years because CTE actually is more than just classrooms and tests.”

The problem, she said, is there are not many models for programs like the ones she helped guide. “Being the pioneers makes it really difficult because you can’t just take and borrow from existing programs,” she said.

DeLyser added that teacher certification is especially tricky. CTE teachers are required to complete specific coursework, which means that those who work at tech companies — even teachers, in some cases — often have to go back and take extra classes to earn their certification, she said.

It is difficult enough to find industry professionals in high-paying tech jobs willing to take on CTE teaching positions without these extra requirements, said Principal Bauer from the Urban Assembly Maker School. In some cases, that could mean a $30,000 pay cut and switching to an entry-level job, he said.

State figures show the state was short about 450 CTE teachers in 2014-15 out of about 4,900 total CTE teacher positions.

Even when teachers are willing to take the leap, it’s a struggle for some to get approved because of the state’s current certification categories, critics say. There is only one category for new fields labeled “other/unique & emerging occupations.” Practically, that means a teacher who wants to teach “interaction design,” as Principal Bauer envisioned, might have to become certified in a broader area such as computer science rather than the actual field he or she wants to teach.

“If you go and look at the eligible [certification] titles, the jobs that we want to prepare our students for that are going to put them in the middle class or higher in new technologies, they are not [included in] the eligible CTE titles for the state,” Bauer said.

The result is schools have to “reinvent the wheel” every time they want to create a program outside of the designated list, said Tamar Jacoby, who co-authored the Manhattan Institute report. That can leave schools negotiating with the state and waiting “a long, long time,” to start a program, she said.

Aware of the need for more CTE teachers, the state’s Board of Regents approved more ways that teachers can earn a transitional license, which will allow them to enter the classroom based on various combinations of work experience, industry credentials, and enrollment in teacher-prep programs, giving them extra time to earn additional credits.

GETTING TO GRADUATION

Another hurdle for some CTE programs involves the state’s new 4+1 graduation policy.

Allowing CTE exams to double as graduation requirements was hailed as a big success by CTE advocates. The new policy, approved in 2014, was intended to encourage the creation of more CTE programs and to give students across New York state more ways to graduate.

But so far the policy is not even trickling down to some existing CTE schools. The state has an approved list of technical exams, but those exams do not cover all careers and do not always match schools’ specific programs.

For instance, the Academy for Careers in Technology and Film in Long Island City, Queens offers a CTE exam that yields an additional credential, but it is not approved as part of the 4+1 program, so it doesn’t count toward graduation, said principal Edgar Rodriguez.

A spokesperson for the State Education Department said the department is currently developing an application process for CTE programs to submit assessments that will be reviewed and potentially added to the list of eligible 4+1 graduation exams.

SKIPPING IT ALTOGETHER

In the meantime, these bureaucratic hurdles have left some schools feeling like it’s easier to ignore the approval process instead.

Urban Assembly is starting a new CTE technology-focused charter school, but decided its connections at Google and IBM would be easier to manage without the state’s stringent CTE teacher certification rules, said Eric Rivers, director of institutional advancement at Urban Assembly.

Dealing with the state CTE requirements “definitely makes it more challenging and I think that’s the reason we have decided to take the charter school route in this situation,” Rivers said.

Another teacher, Lane Rosen, who runs a marine science program at John Dewey High School in Brooklyn, came to a similar conclusion. He would like to gain some new attention for his program and a few extra perks for his students, but the process of earning CTE approval is too daunting for him to undertake, he said.

“It would be nice to have,” he said, “but I heard there’s a lot of red tape.”

Urban Assembly principal Bauer hopes to overcome the red tape — eventually. Bauer shifted his program’s focus and expects to be eligible to apply for state certification a year from now. Until then, he hopes he will not have to alter his plan more than he already has.

“I don’t know what it will look like two years from now,” he said. “I hope it gets approved.”

legal opinion

Tennessee’s attorney general sides with charter schools in battle over student information

PHOTO: TN.gov
Herbert H. Slatery III was appointed Tennessee attorney general in 2014 by Gov. Bill Haslam, for whom he previously served as general counsel.

Tennessee’s attorney general says requests for student contact information from state-run charter school operators don’t violate a federal student privacy law, but rather are “entirely consistent with it.”

The opinion from Herbert Slatery III, issued late on Wednesday in response to a request by Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, was a win for charter schools in their battle with the state’s two largest districts.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen

McQueen quickly responded by ordering school leaders in Memphis and Nashville to comply. In letters dispatched to Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Director Shawn Joseph of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, McQueen gave the districts a deadline, adding that they will face consequences if they refuse.

“If you do not provide this information by Sept. 25, 2017, to the (Achievement School District) and any other charter school or charter authorizer who has an outstanding request, we will be forced to consider actions to enforce the law,” she wrote.

Neither superintendent responded immediately to requests for comment, but school board leaders in both districts said Thursday that their attorneys were reviewing the matter.

Chris Caldwell, chairman for Shelby County’s board, said he’s also concerned “whether the timeframe stated gives us enough time to make sure families are aware of what is happening.”

Wednesday’s flurry of events heats up the battle that started in July when charter operators Green Dot and LEAD requested student contact information under the state’s new charter law, which gives districts 30 days to comply with such requests. School boards in both Memphis and Nashville refused, arguing they had the right under the federal student privacy law to restrict who gets the information and for what reasons.

The attorney general said sharing such information would not violate federal law.

The requested information falls under “student directory information,” and can be published by school districts without a parent’s permission. For Shelby County Schools, this type of information includes names, addresses, emails and phone numbers.


To learn what information is at stake and how it’s used, read our in-depth explainer.


The opinion also backs up the new state law, which directs districts to share information that charter operators say they need to recruit students and market their programs in Tennessee’s expanding school-choice environment.

However, the opinion allowed for districts to have a “reasonable period of time” to notify parents of their right to opt out of sharing such information. It was not clear from the opinion if the two school districts have exhausted that time.

A spokeswoman for Shelby County Schools said Tuesday the district had not yet distributed forms that would allow parents to opt out of having their students’ information shared, although the district’s parent-student handbook already includes instructions for doing so.

Below, you can read the attorney general’s opinion and McQueen’s letters to both superintendents:

Clarification, Sept. 14, 2017: This story has been updated to clarify the school boards’ arguments for not sharing the information.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.