By Russ Moore
When Newsweek trumpeted “America’s Best High Schools” in May, it was disappointing to learn the magazine’s best of the best were selected based on a formula that appears limited to “college prep.”
Schools were ranked using a ratio of Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate tests taken, divided by the number of graduating seniors. Thus the best high school in America is small, has nearly no minority students, and has most of its seniors taking (but not necessarily passing) AP exams. There was no indication of how many students actually went on to college, much less to a job for which they were trained.
Research indicates that college prep does not necessarily prepare students for college, and it definitely doesn’t prepare students for the world of work. Nor can it serve all learners. In fact, for more than a generation, just 20 percent of the jobs in our national economy have required a four-year college degree or higher. Meanwhile, jobs requiring technical training beyond high school but short of a college degree have increased, from 15 percent to nearly 80 percent of our economy.
The good news is that students can be prepared equally well for college and the world of work through a seamless blend of academics and career and technical education (CTE), such as is offered through deal-seal diplomas and dual credit with technical colleges. The challenge is for stakeholders in education to spread this news to parents, students, businesses and (apparently) the media.
As the No Child Left Behind Act forces states and districts to deal with dropouts, the hope is that communities will focus on the causes (ineffective instructional programs) rather than the symptoms (low test scores). For CTE educators, the Bush administration’s recommendation in February to eliminate federal vocational education funding made waves like dropping Stone Mountain into Lake Lanier. Even though I testified before Congress for preserving this funding, I accept the reasoning behind such policies: Public education has not been consistently effective across demographic groups and geographic regions. The administration and other reformers are pushing new ways to produce consistent results anywhere and everywhere there are publicly funded schools.
So is Central Educational Center, the charter school in Newnan, Georgia, where I am CEO and the mission is “to ensure a viable 21st-century workforce.” The school, developed in 1997 by a community that realized the need for career preparation, functions as a not-for-profit corporation, a joint-venture partnership involving Coweta County business and industry, our regional technical college and the public school system. About 1,200 voluntarily enrolled high school “team members” are joined by more than 300 adult learners, all pursuing seamless education focused on workforce development.
Most career and technical education courses and many academic courses for the system’s three high schools have been centralized at Central Educational Center, which also offers college dual-enrollment on campus. The robust, work-based learning program operates with 185 business partners, a curriculum developed and regularly improved by businesses working with educators, adult education, continuing education, and customized corporate training.
Newsweek magazine did give passing mention to career preparation in a separate article featuring “other winning equations.” In typical fashion, however, the career option was presented primarily as a solution for “students at risk of dropping out.” In fact, blending academics and career and technical education is the best way to teach and reinforce academic content for learners of any age, mostly because of applied learning, the connection made between theory and practice.
Central Educational Center proves that this model is not just for students who can’t or won’t go to college. Almost one-fourth of team members are dual-enrolled with West Central Technical College. At least 98 percent of dual enrollees graduate from high school, and 100 percent of them find a job for which they are trained or further their college education. Nearly three-fourths of all the high school team members plan to attend college. They report they are 25 percent more satisfied with their high school experience, and they have a “first-time pass rate” on all five state graduation tests that is equal to or higher than the county average. Ninety-four percent of parents grade the school an A or a B. The county’s dropout rate declined 42 percent in the school’s first four years, while the average SAT score improved by 33 points.
One day, student achievement will be measured by placement rather than parchment. But before that, this nation’s educational culture will have to acknowledge the value of merging academics with career and technical education, high school with college, and education with business.
Russ Moore, CEO of Central Educational Center in Newnan, Georgia, is a Fellow in Arizona State University’s federally funded Leadership for Educational Entrepreneurs Program. The Georgia Public Policy Foundation is an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.
© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (June 17, 2005). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.
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