The James Irvine Foundation recently funded a new center designed to promote educational pathways that engage more high school students by blending academic and technical learning.
ConnectEd: The California Center for College and Career) one of the nation's leading education consulting firms. He recently sat down with Irvine Quarterly to discuss the goals of ConnectEd, as well as some of the challenges it faces.
_Irvine Quarterly: _ What is the problem that ConnectEd is trying to address?
Gary Hoachlander: It's well known now that we have very large numbers of students dropping out of high school in California. We also have a significant number who complete high school without the knowledge and skill that they need to succeed in further postsecondary education, as well as in the world of work.
ConnectEd is developing and helping schools implement some new strategies for helping students master the kind of knowledge and skill they will need to succeed in both postsecondary education and career.
_Irvine Quarterly: _ How will you do that?
Hoachlander: An underlying principle is that many students will benefit from having a focus or theme that helps them organize a program of study. You can think of it like a major in college. This is not an idea thats new with us. It goes back to the turn of the last century, with (educator and philosopher) John Dewey.
For many students, (the traditional high school curriculum) is taught in a way that's disconnected and sometimes abstract. Students can't understand, Why do I need to know this? What we're trying to do is develop strategies that make it more relevant, to engage and motivate students better.
For many students, the world of work is very motivating because it connects what they are leaning in school to their long-term goals and aspirations. If that can be broadly enough defined, so that now students have a context in which to better understand algebra, literature, biology, chemistry, physics, then that provides a hook for digging into that material and beginning to master it at a higher level.
_Irvine Quarterly: _ How is this different from traditional vocational education?
Hoachlander: The stereotype is that vocational education has always been geared for students who are not going to college. As more and more students and parents aspire to college, the fear has been that participation in vocational education, or career and technical education, is essentially tracking students to a non-college outcome.
It's true that a lot of traditional vocational education has focused on narrow, occupationally specific training. The models ConnectEd is developing and supporting are organized around much broader career themes. We're not talking about plumbing, for example. That's not to say that plumbing can't be part of a larger program about building and environmental design, but plumbing in and of itself is not a sufficiently broad theme around which to organize a comprehensive program of study.
By blending the best of technical education with rigorous academic work, we can make the curricula engaging and relevant to students, while meeting all the requirements for postsecondary success. We can prepare young people for college and career, it's not an either/or choice.
_Irvine Quarterly: _ What would a comprehensive program look like?
Hoachlander: First, a truly comprehensive pathway would consist of an academic core, which by design is college preparatory. In California that means it has to satisfy the "a to g" requirements for admission into the UC and CSU systems.) showed that more than 90 percent of 9th and 10th graders believe tying classes to real-world careers would inspire them to work hard and do well in school.
_Irvine Quarterly: _ What about parents?
Hoachlander: I'm not so sure that the students' understanding is shared by adults, for all sorts of reasons. Traditionally in high schools there's always been a pretty marked separation between academic and career and technical education.
Many of us as parents look back at our own high school experience. We remember it as the shop, off in one part of the high school isolated from everything else. We carry around this rather outdated and stereotypical image of career and technical education that makes us uneasy when our children come home and say, Hey I'd like to take this class in information technology or carpentry or nursing.
Just as is true of mathematics, science, social studies and other traditional academic subjects, there is much variability in the quality of what is offered students in career and technical education. And so a lot of the uneasiness that parents have of what is offered students is justified.
_Irvine Quarterly: _ So how is ConnectEd trying to address some of these concerns?
Hoachlander: I wouldn't claim for a minute that we have it all figured out. But we do have standards and procedures in place to provide some assurance that these programs are high quality, that they're academically rigorous, that they're technically challenging and perhaps most importantly, that they prepare students in very clear ways for the full range of postsecondary options.
These programs, by design, are appropriate for a student, for example, who wants to go to a four-year college and major in engineering or business. They're appropriate for a student who wants to go to a two-year college and get an AA or AS degree to become a civil engineer or radiology technician.
_Irvine Quarterly: _ What are the important next steps for ConnectEd?
Hoachlander: We're trying to move forward on four fronts:
Most important is to help define, very concretely and specifically, what we mean by a comprehensive program of study and to illustrate for schools what a program of study might look like in, for example, biomedical and health sciences, in engineering, in arts and media. What are the core academic courses that are part of that? What is the technical core? How do those inter-connect? How do you blend the academic and technical curriculum in those core academic courses?
Second is undertaking the policy analysis and development that will help people at both the state and local level better understand how existing policy facilitates or impedes the implementation and expansion of these kinds of programs. And I use policy very broadly: It's legislation, the education code, but it's also the kinds of policies adopted by UC and CSU around admissions, for example, or the policies that local school boards adopt on collective bargaining.
Third is professional development. Building capacity among academic teachers to help them better understand how to make the connections between their particular discipline — math, science, English, social studies — and whatever the industry theme is of the program of study.
And helping technical teachers better understand how to enhance, supplement, and complement the academic content that is part of that program. So that if you are a teacher in biomedical and health science and your expertise lies in understanding the career requirements of the health industry, how do you enhance the biology and chemistry that is part of that.
And fourth is developing a resource center, primarily online, where people can come to find research, data, curriculum tools, program frameworks, evaluation and accountability, methodology that will help facilitate the implementation and improvement of multiple pathways.
_Irvine Quarterly: _ Are you already working with specific schools and institutions?
Hoachlander: As part of this work, we've already identified about a half dozen schools and school districts,) has also strongly supported integrating challenging academics with demanding technical courses. And in the legislature, there's strong bipartisan interest.
Having said that, there's not yet a very coherent, comprehensive vision for how to move this forward, in Sacramento or elsewhere in the state. People are working on pieces of this. They're intrigued by the possibility of using some form of career and technical education as a way of re-engaging and motivating students. (But) I think everybody's still thinking in rather traditional ways: Should we put more money into partnership academies or regional occupational programs? These are important first steps, but they do not yet lead to more comprehensive models of blended instruction.
State and local policy could benefit from a more systemic and unifying vision of how all this might work better. I'd like to think that ConnectEd can help that. We're not claiming that we've got it all figured out. But I think ConnectEd can play a role in helping to convene people who have an interest in this and help figure it out.