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Students Yearn for Relevance

June 1, 2011 - Jimmy Chancey, director of Career and Technical Education for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, offers a vision for high school transformation that integrates the best of what in the past have been two worlds -- that of academic focus for the college bound and career-oriented courses for students who would have entered the job market directly from high school. Times have changed, he says, and so must schools.

Our high school students are telling us something important about what they want and feel they need by the time they graduate. Interestingly, it's not so different from what employers say they want from graduates.

Students want concrete applications for what they're learning. They want to know how to solve problems. They're naturally drawn to activities in which they work and learn together on projects. Employers want to hire young people who can think critically, communicate clearly, take initiative and work effectively with others.

Now it's up to us, as educators, to do the hard work involved with creating the kind of schools and instruction that truly will produce graduates with those types of 21st Century skills that students want and need and employers and post-secondary institutions demand. And as we transform teaching and learning within traditional academic disciplines, we must also realign Career and Technical Education (CTE) so that classes from carpentry to automotive technologies become part of a seamless whole unified around a common goal of college and career readiness.

By now, it's old news that students need more than a high school diploma to earn a decent living. The seismic shifts that have transformed the economy here in North Carolina and elsewhere have made post-secondary education - whether in a four-year or two-year college or through career-specific training - a necessary next step for every high school graduate today.  In recognizing that all students will one day enter the future workforce and that some level of post secondary education is essential for success, the new reality is that future high school graduates need a universal set of academic and career proficiencies.

Being career-ready upon high school graduation traditionally translates into learning a skill or earning a certification in order to get a job. CTE must recognize that industry certifications earned in high school still elicit the traditional thought of "vocational education" with differing academic preparation among graduates.   However, business and industry leaders continue to say they would rather have an employee who possesses a strong work ethic, can problem solve, work in teams, and "let us do the job specific training."

Rather than concentrate on job-specific certifications, which expire or become obsolete before graduation or shortly thereafter, CTE should concentrate on its core strength of providing relevance for and developing the 21st Century career proficiencies in our high school students.  As a partner in high school transformation, CTE must instead ensure that all students graduate with the kind of career foundation that will allow them to succeed throughout their lives regardless of when they choose to enter the workforce.

The elective courses that students now choose in high school offer important clues about how they view that changing landscape and how they can best adapt to it.  In nearly a third of North Carolina school districts, the 2010 graduates completing four units of CTE courses represented a larger proportion of students who completed only the college-prep course of study.  The majority of all graduates, regardless of their official course of study, now complete four units in CTE as part of their elective credits.  In completing four units of credit in CTE, students qualify to be identified as a "CTE completer".

While the state's college-prep course of study still attracts the highest percentage of graduates (45 percent in 2010), a significant proportion of these graduates are also completing the requirements to be considered a "CTE-completer".  In fact, nearly a third of all college-prep graduates in 2010 completed four units of CTE courses as part of their elective credits.  These students represent the best of both: College/University Prep and College Tech Prep courses of study.   To varying degrees, to be sure, these "dual, combo, or hybrid requirement" students are finding a way to equip themselves with a broader range of skills than if they had limited themselves only to either a "college-prep" or "college-tech prep" course of study.

But what if, by graduation, an even larger proportion of students had been exposed to the same kinds of relevant experiences found in the very best classrooms - whether Algebra II or a CTE class in information technology?  What if our schools found a way to integrate the strengths of traditional "academic" classes with the concrete applications typical of CTE classes?

Similar to the arts, CTE is where cognitive learning and performance come together.  Even as students are finding opportunities for hands-on learning, we shouldn't confuse strong CTE programs in high school with job training.  It's not that we don't need tradesmen. But they need a different kind of high school education: one that develops problem solving, critical thinking, entrepreneurship, technical literacy and academic proficiency rather than "training" for a specific single job. Schools must continue to transform their CTE programs to meet the needs of future graduates by the introduction of rigorous and relevant curricula with real-world problems to solve.

 Listen to the voices of our students.  Career and Technical Education courses give students the relevance they crave in their high school education.  High schools should be in the business of ensuring that all students graduate well prepared to advance to the next level with both the academic and flexible 21st Century proficiencies needed to innovate and harness opportunity in a changing future job market.

- Jimmy Chancey, director of Career and Technical Education, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

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