School to Career: Reworking the Model: Vocational Education, Once the Noncollege Prep Track, Has Evolved with the Times and the Changing Work Force. Now Called Career and Technology Education, It's Playing a Major Role in Driving High School Reform toward Smaller Learning Communities and More Focused Futures for Students. Here, We Look at One District's Approach

Article excerpt

Once the high school track for kids who might lack the aptitude, interest, or economic means to pursue a higher education, vocational education solely focused on preparing students for industrial jobs. But with today's understanding that all individuals will have a career--a major shift in thinking from the past--the nature of what is now commonly termed career and technology education has changed. Part of this new way of thought is to view college not as an end, but as a beginning of learning, and it is the high school's mandate to both train and teach all students through programs that pair technical training with higher-order thinking skills.

Thirty years ago, students in auto mechanics classes learned how to fix a car. In today's auto technology classes, they blend practical skills with more complex thought, applying math concepts, for instance, to problems in an automobile's electrical system. By the same token, the straightforward drafting or architecture courses of the past have become a CAD (computer-aided design) training ground, where students apply geometry, physics, design constructs, and material science to make decisions about roof shapes and the best materials to resist weather.

Another significant evolution is the physical change schools have undergone in the past 30 years. American high schools today are bigger and more impersonal than ever before, with approximately 70 percent with more than 1,000 students enrolled and nearly 50 percent with more than 1,500 students. Isolation, apathy, and a feeling of alienation from peers, the school, and the community is often the fallout for students. Indeed, research confirms that smaller learning communities create environments for students that are more personal in nature and more focused on their futures.

But how do we go about instituting change in our schools, and what might the new model look like? Montgomery County Public Schools in Rockville, Md., is a pioneer of the academy model. What follows is their blueprint for a first phase of reform.

Relevance--Organizing by Career Clusters

The smaller learning communities model is a nationwide, research-based school restructuring design that supports the development of small, safe, and focused learning environments ha high schools. Career clusters are file foundation of the smaller learning communities and are grouped by common academic and technical skill sets needed for postsecondary education and employment in each category. The model supports a blending of the rigorous academic and applied learning tracks to ensure that all students have a sense of the opportunities in their future and are prepared to pursue those interests upon graduation from high school. These career clusters provide the basis for developing smaller learning communities around career-themed programs in high schools, and a continuum of themed activities in middle school For a sampling of duster topics, see Montgomery County Public Schools Career Clusters, page 29.

Rigor--The Themed Approach

It is no secret that students who see a reason and a purpose for learning are far more engaged than those just going through the motions of attending class to fulfill graduation requirements. A recent follow-up MCPS study of graduates six years after high school found that students that completed programs in career and technology education were better prepared for their future (www.mcps.k12.md.us/departments/ accountability/pdf/surveys/Career_Ed_report.pdf).

However, it is important to visualize the approach to developing student potential as a small, safe, and focused learning environment that utilizes the skills of a team. In the past, instruction was delivered in an isolated environment where students rarely made connections between what they did in their academic courses and their career and technical courses. The concept of the themed approach combines both types of courses so that each teacher has an equal role in the class duster. …