Vocational education is essential for world-class high schools
Wouldn't it be great to have world-class high schools across the Central Valley with low dropout rates, churning out college-bound and career-ready graduates? And wouldn't it be great to see gang activity diminished by lower dropout rates?
Yes, yes, yes … I'm standing on my desk, waving my arms … yes, please, NOW! (I'm shouting)
How do I define world class? World-class high schools match curriculum with student needs, making it relevant to their interests and future. The greater the match, the more engaged students become in their education.
The college-prep curriculum permeating most high schools makes sense for 30% of students who, historically, will earn a bachelor's degree. However, it does not make sense for the other 70% of high school students, and it does not make sense for employers seeking work-ready graduates.
In fact, the strategy of subjecting all high school students to college-prep curriculum can have the opposite effect of what is intended. When students earning C's, D's and F's in college-prep courses are given more of the same, they are likely to earn more C's, D's and F's. The result is an erosion of confidence in their ability to learn and an increased risk of dropping out of school.
Put those same students in hands-on, project-oriented, career and technical education (CTE), and they are more likely to excel and gain confidence in learning. According to Careertech.org, students involved with CTE have a 90% graduation rate compared to the national average of 74%. And high-risk students involved with CTE are eight to 10 times less likely to drop out.
Unfortunately, only 8% of high school teachers are CTE teachers, and that needs to be quadrupled to enable enrollment of 70% of high school students in career-ed classes. The question is whether the educational establishment possesses the leadership and courage needed to make that change.
I remember running for the Fresno School Board in 2000 and urging the restoration of vocational education. In preparation, I spent time substitute teaching to gather an "inside" view of Fresno Unified and was shocked by the number of disengaged students at every high school except one – Duncan Polytechnical High School, which was the only high school offering a balanced combination of college-prep and career-ed curriculum.
I was struck by the differences between Duncan and McLane High Schools, which are located less than a mile from each other. It was like the difference between world class and a war zone in terms of student engagement, attitude and achievement.
Most Regional Occupation Programs (ROP) are coordinated from county offices of education, and they oversee state funds distributed to school districts for CTE. It's not a lot of funding to pay for teachers, equipment and supplies, which is why only 8% of high school teachers are CTE teachers.
Some school districts funnel their ROP funding allotments to a single high school, like Fresno Unified has done with Duncan. Other school districts divvy up their funding allotment and give a small portion to each of their high schools.
Fresno Unified has an overall dropout rate of 25%, and community activists estimate even higher dropout rates of 50%-65% for Hispanic, black and Hmong boys. Fresno needs to begin thinking world class and find a way to expand CTE beyond Duncan High School to all of its high schools. Duncan's dropout rate is only 5%.
Gather the experts and develop a plan. Use the new local control funds for CTE facilities and equipment, and then start hiring CTE teachers through attrition or replacement, from your regular ADA-funded budget, until they represent 35% of the district's high school teachers capable of serving 70% of the district's high school students.
Think big. Think transformational. Think world class and set a national example for how large urban school districts can make high school productive for all students.
Chris Rosander is a former vocational student and was raised in a family of educators including teachers, principals, special-ed administrators and superintendents. He can be reached at email@example.com.