A+ Advice for Parents

Q: My eighth-grade son wants to go into a new program his high school will offer that has a technical-career focus. My husband loves the idea. My son is a B-minus student at best, but I'd still like to see him graduate from college. (His older brother dropped out.) Doesn't vocational education narrow students' options?

A: The disappearing middle class and many of the jobs that sustained it have educators and policymakers looking at this very question. Districts and states are ditching your granddad's "voc-ed" to create a more successful approach that expands students' options.

Michael J. Petrilli, president of the nonprofit education think tank the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, points out that career-technical education (CTE) is not a path away from college, but another pathway into postsecondary education. With CTE, Petrilli writes on the institute's blog, districts can create "coherent pathways, beginning in high school, into authentic technical education options at the post-secondary level. ... These arrangements not only provide access to workplaces where students can apply their skills, they also offer seamless transitions into post-secondary education, apprenticeships and employer-provided learning opportunities."

Petrilli cites the findings from a recently released new study from the institute, "Career and Technical Education in High School: Does It Improve Student Outcomes?" The study collected data on Arkansas high school students and found that "students with greater exposure to CTE are more likely to graduate, enroll in a two-year college, be employed and have higher wages."

In other words, high-quality CTE provides a route to the middle class.

What defines high quality, and what should you look for in your son's CTE program? The Association for Career and Technical Education recently published a draft framework identifying some of the characteristics of high-quality programs (for more information, go to acteonline.org):

-- Courses should align with appropriate grade, district, state or national standards to ensure competency in reading, science and math. They should also align with industry-validated technical standards.

-- Students should be able to progress seamlessly without remediation or duplication and have access throughout to career guidance.

-- Students should have multiple opportunities to demonstrate their learning and get continuous feedback. There should be processes that assess program effectiveness over time.

-- To be effective, the staff must be prepared; the facilities should reflect today's workplace.

-- Teachers should use motivating techniques such as project-based learning, relevant equipment and technology, and real-world scenarios.

-- There should be a continuum that progresses from workplace tours to internships and onto apprenticeships.

-- Programs must be offered to all students and support services provided when needed. There should be no barriers to work-based learning or post-secondary credits.

-- Students should have opportunities to foster connections to professionals and activities that advance their goals.

The current way of thinking, "bachelor's degree or bust," often means "a young person drops out of college at age 20 with no post-secondary credential, no skills and no work experience, but a fair amount of debt," writes Petrilli in an article on the nonprofit Brookings Institute website. "That's a terrible way to begin adult life."

(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)

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