Revisiting CTE

Workforce training programs may soon look different in Memphis schools

Health care and information technology are among the career pathways that likely would be emphasized under a proposed revamp of career and technical education in Shelby County Schools.

Memphis students would get more opportunities to earn job certifications before graduation under a proposed revamp of career and technical education in Shelby County Schools.

Details of the overhaul are still under wraps, but Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin wants to make sure the district’s offerings align with the region’s most sought-after jobs. That may mean more classes focused on hot career fields like health care and information technology.

The school board is expected to get a first look at the proposal later this month.

Career and technical education, or CTE, is getting renewed attention under a state and federal push to prepare students for jobs of the future. And it’s especially important to students in Memphis because nearly half of graduates from Shelby County Schools don’t enroll in any formal education after high school and 21 percent aren’t working either — the highest rate in the nation.

Meanwhile, business leaders are talking with school leaders about improving education pathways to equip graduates for work in high-demand jobs that don’t necessarily require a college degree.

“We need our students to have work-based learning experiences and residencies and then [businesses] don’t even have to train them,” Griffin said. “They’ll come out with a license; we’re going to pay for it. They’ll come out with a license ready to work.”

Currently, the 27 traditional high schools in Tennessee’s largest district offer a total of 207 classes that explore 16 career paths ranging from finance to advanced manufacturing. About 20,000 students participate.

PHOTO: SCS
Hamilton High students tour Barnhart Crane and Rigging Co. in Memphis on National Manufacturing Day in 2016.

But of about 400 participating seniors who are eligible to gain job certification, less than half did so last school year. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson says that has got to change.  

“The point of revamping our CTE program is we don’t really have true effective career paths right now,” Hopson told school board members last week. “We spend $20 million on CTE, but its not designed to say that when I finish this program, I’ve got something I can go out to an employer and say ‘I’m skilled and I’m ready for this job and I’m certified.’”

Shelby County Schools has incentives to revamp its CTE programs. In response to a new federal education law, the Tennessee Department of Education will grade schools in part on how well they prepare students — not just for college, but for directly entering the workforce.

“It’s about making sure you can map and track and document and assess and quantify whether or not something is working,” said Terrence Brown, who co-directs CTE for the district. “And all of that has been on the college-bound, academic part of the house, not in trade and industry and skills and training. [Now] the age of accountability has now come to career and technical education.”

To measure a “ready graduate” under its new plan, Tennessee will look at how many students earned industry certification, took dual enrollment or Advanced Placement classes, passed military entrance exams, or earned a 21 or higher on the ACT. The metric accounts for 20 percent of school and district scores under a new grading system being rolled out later this year.

As part of its stepped-up commitment to workforce training, Shelby County Schools already has introduced a major change to one of its most historic high schools. East High began this school year to transition to an optional school focused on transportation logistics, engineering, and technology in partnership with several businesses such as global engineering manufacturer Cummins.

But the goal is to get a quarter of students districtwide participating in CTE by offering courses at more high schools. And the focus will be on equipping students for high-demand jobs that offer living wages in the Mid-South. More than 100 jobs fit that bill and not all require a college degree, according to a report from the Center for Economic Research in Tennessee. Those fields include electricians, machinists, medical record technicians, and computer support specialists, all of whom earned at least a median income of $40,000 per year in 2016.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos talks with students during a 2017 tour of career and technical education programs at Oakland High School in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has promoted the importance of career training by visiting schools with robust CTE programs such as one in Murfreesboro that she toured last November during her first stop in Tennessee as education secretary.

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who helped author the new federal education law, told Politico recently that updating how federal funds are allocated for CTE is one of his top priorities this year.

But some educators and advocates worry that CTE will become a second-tier track for students viewed as incapable of going to college — or that their advantage in a fast-changing workforce will be short-lived.

“We want to make sure we’re not doing what we use to do with (vocational-technical education),” said Maya Bugg, CEO of Tennessee Charter School Center. “My dad would tell me that, as a black male, they funneled him to vo-tech because you’re a black male.”

A 2015 Stanford University study of CTE programs in 11 countries showed short-term employment gains for students. However, the researchers also found that those students lacked the skills to adapt to changes in the economy later in life compared with peers with a more general education.

Brown said Shelby County’s redesigned program will focus on higher-wage jobs that students can get certified for during high school or can train for in technical schools after graduating. That could boost business prospects when big companies consider locating to Memphis — such as the city’s recent failed bid to land an Amazon headquarters.

“One of the things we believe Amazon was looking for was (information technology) people who could come off the bat and write code and set up cybersecurity,” Brown said. “If you have an IT certification, you’re going to be in demand.”

study says...

One big upside of career and tech programs? They push more kids to graduate

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A student at Aviation High School in Queens.

As a high school teacher in Pennsylvania, Shaun Dougherty noticed that students in career-focused programs seemed much more engaged than his other students.

Now a researcher, Dougherty set out to see whether data backed up his experience. Could the programs not just prepare students for the workforce, but keep students from dropping out of school?

To find out, Dougherty studied Massachusetts’ 36 vocational and technical high schools, where students alternate between academic coursework and full-time work in areas like auto repair, graphic design, and machine technology. What he found was striking: At those schools, students were substantially more likely to graduate high school than similar peers at typical high schools.

“The intention for CTE is to help with skill development for long-term career and earnings potential,” said Dougherty, an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut. “The fact that it’s having this payoff on high school graduation is a positive, but perhaps unintended, consequence.”

Career and technical programs can come with downsides, too — in particular, offering training in skills that may eventually become obsolete or devalued. But the new research bolsters the academic case for the programs, a rare education initiative that carries bipartisan imprimatur.

In the study, published last month in the peer-reviewed journal Education Finance and Policy, Dougherty finds that the career and tech high school students came out far ahead of similar students on a number of metrics.

In addition to being 21 percentage points more likely to graduate high school, students from low-income families scored slightly higher on standardized tests. Graduation rates were also higher for higher-income students, though they did not see any test-score gains.

Those are encouraging results. Still, it’s possible that the students who chose to attend the vocational high schools were more motivated than their peers to begin with, skewing the results.

Dougherty addresses this by narrowing his lens to just three schools and using a different approach to nail down cause and effect. Using school admissions data, he compares students who just missed the cut-off to earn entry to students who just barely earned a spot — the idea being that the two groups of students are essentially identical.

Again, the results show that the career and technical schools notably increase the chances of graduating high school for both higher- and low-income students: by 7 to 10 percentage points and possibly more. In this case, there was no clear effect on test scores.

The approaches in tandem suggest Massachusetts’ career-focused high schools really do boost graduation rates.

That’s consistent with recent studies on career and tech programs in a variety of settings. Analyses of data from Philadelphia and Wake County, North Carolina found that students who randomly won a chance to attend a career-focused high school were more likely to graduate high school and attend college.  

Other research by Dougherty has found that students in Arkansas who took several career-focused courses in one focus area are more likely to graduate than similar students who don’t. And using national data, two other recent studies found that students who took more CTE courses, particularly later in high school, were also more likely to graduate on time, compared to demographically similar students. (Keep in mind, though, that these studies are less able to clearly isolate cause and effect.)

That research generally doesn’t show clear positive effects on math and reading test scores — but the students also don’t find negative effects, which to Dougherty is an encouraging sign.

“One of the classic concerns with vocational and technical education is that by specializing in an area of training you might be trading off general knowledge,” he said. “You wouldn’t necessarily expect their test scores to be higher, but we might worry that they would be lower.”

The reason for the career and technical schools’ particular success is unclear. It could be that CTE programs are particularly effective at boosting non-academic skills like grit — or that students benefit from peers all motivated to participate in the same program.

Dougherty suggests that students may benefit from being able to select a school or program that’s a good fit for them. He also points to the specific regional structure of CTE schools in Massachusetts, where the “learning environment may make learning more relevant and engaging, while simultaneously reducing the stigma associated with participating in CTE, and providing better mentorship opportunities.”

Still, Dougherty cautions that the positive finding doesn’t necessarily mean that policymakers should rush to expand the programs. One concern is that growing such offerings could actually train too many students for a small pool of specific jobs. Another is that it’s not clear what makes a high-quality program.

“I’m very skeptical that we know exactly how to scale it well,” Dougherty said.

career oriented

Newark looks to build school-to-work ‘pipeline’ by boosting vocational education

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Monique Baptiste-Good (left), vice president of programs for Newark Alliance, and Erin Sweeney, executive director of Schools That Can Newark, helped launch a new coalition devoted to expanding vocational education in Newark.

Newark has an employment problem — and the school district wants to help.

While more than half of jobs in the city pay more than $40,000 annually, just 10 percent of those jobs go to Newark residents. Instead, most Newarkers have lower-paying jobs, while about 8 percent are unemployed.

The mayor has targeted local employers, challenging them last year to hire 2,020 Newark residents by 2020. Now, the school system is focused on the other side of the equation: training workers. employees.

“We can hire more Newark residents,” said interim schools Superintendent Robert Gregory, “but we need to make sure that they’re prepared for the positions that they step into.”

To do that, Newark Public Schools is looking to strengthen and expand its vocational programs — also called “career and technical education,” or CTE — that provide students with in-demand job skills and sometimes even college credit by the time they graduate high school. Many Newark high schools advertise programs in fields ranging from carpentry and engineering to cosmetology and the performing arts, but some disappeared after teachers left and many are not recognized by the state.

Gregory said he wants to “revamp” the district’s vocational offerings so that there’s a “seamless pipeline” from schools to jobs — whether students choose to enter the workforce right after high school, attend college, or get specialized job training. To oversee the effort, the district recently brought on Chamiris Mantrana, a former teacher and vice principal at Technology High School who began her career as a chemical engineer. She said that, just a few years ago, vocational education got scant attention from the district.

“Then all of a sudden,” Mantrana said, “we’re back again.”

It won’t be easy to shore up the district’s vocational programs. Many schools struggle to find qualified teachers with up-to-date industry skills, and to offer programs matched to the demands of local employers. Meanwhile, the county-run vocational and technical, or “vo-tech,” schools offer selective programs that lure away many of the district’s top students.

To help navigate those challenges, the district has joined a new coalition of Newark industry and education leaders called the Newark CTE Network. The group, which hopes to steer more students into high-quality vocational programs, held its first meeting Monday.

It was founded after regional employers complained that they couldn’t find workers for “middle-skill” jobs — electricians, dental hygienists, or crane operators, for instance — that require specialized skills but not four-year college degrees, said Monique Baptiste-Good, vice president of programs for Newark Alliance, who co-founded the network with the nonprofit, Schools That Can Newark. At the same time, many schools are unsure what types of vocational programs to offer, Baptiste-Good added.

“Right now, a lot of institutions are just researching online,” she said. “There’s no reason for that when you’ve got industry leaders right here.”

The network’s inaugural meeting was held in the downtown offices of the Newark Alliance, a nonprofit that promotes the city’s economic revitalization. About a dozen people gathered in a sixth-floor conference room including Mantrana, her counterparts at the county and the state education department, and representatives of local education-focused nonprofits and employers.

Most agreed that a top challenge is attracting qualified teachers, who must have a special CTE certificate issued by the state. Individuals who have studied or worked in certain industries can get provisional teaching certificates, but they must then undergo two years of classroom supervision and coursework to become fully certified.

Convincing skilled workers to switch to a lower-paid profession with a demanding certification process all to teach teenagers is not easy, several people said. Dicxiana Carbonell, assistant superintendent of the Essex County vo-tech district, which serves about 2,200 students across four high schools and adult-education programs, said she recently interviewed a prospective automotive-technology teacher. An automotive technician for BMW, the interviewee’s current salary topped $150,000.

“How do we compete with that?” she said.

The difficulty of finding qualified teachers can lead schools to offer vocational courses based on their teachers’ certifications, rather than employer demands. Gregory, the interim superintendent, said the district has “a lot of archaic CTE programs that are not mapped to current industries.”

And while several of the system’s roughly 15 high schools offer CTE classes in areas including dentistry, the performing arts, and telecommunications, only a handful have programs that meet the state’s stringent requirements, said Mantrana, who became the district’s special assistant for CTE earlier this year. (The requirements include at least three sequential courses, a combination of classroom and hands-on learning experiences, and a culminating skills assessment.)

The district is looking to create more state-approved programs, which would make them eligible to receive federal funding that could be used to buy updated equipment and curriculum materials. Officials want those programs to tap into local job markets. For instance, Gregory said, the district is launching a transportation and logistics program that could help prepare students to work at the nearby ports, which have been criticized for hiring few local workers.

To design the new programs, the district has turned to local universities such as Rutgers and New Jersey Institute of Technology. It has also partnered with the group Schools That Can Newark, a nonprofit focused on real-world learning.

A couple years ago, the group helped West Side High School build an advanced manufacturing program from scratch — a labor-intensive process that involved finding a curriculum, setting up mentoring and internship opportunities, and establishing an advisory committee with industry representatives.

Now the group is partnering with other high schools, advising the district on its CTE strategy, and helping lead the Newark CTE Network. Its goal is for every Newark high-school student to have the chance to take high-quality vocational classes that lead to well-paying jobs, said Erin Sweeney, the group’s executive director.

“You should have employers that are lined up,” she said, “ready to grab those kids when they graduate.”