In the 10 years since the Southern Regional Education Board vowed to raise the academic bar for vocational students, the test scores of students in its "High Schools That Work" have risen steadily. But even network schools seem reluctant or unable, to fully embrace the program.
The High Schools That Work program is based on a simple premise: Teach career-bound students at the same high intellectual level as their college-bound peers, and they will respond with increased achievement, in school and after graduation.
Simple as the idea is, it cuts against decades of conventional wisdom that vocational students are in that track because they cant handle a high-level curriculum. But after 10 years of helping schools upgrade their programs for career-bound students, the Southern Regional Education Board initiative has amassed a persuasive pile of research that supports the High Schools That Work approach.
"I think it's the pathbreaking effort in this country to get schools involved in making these very necessary changes," says David Stem, director of the National Center for Research in Vocational Education.
The "key practices" of the HSTW program include providing work-based learning experiences for career-bound students; beefing up the content of vocational courses by integrating academic skills into the courses; providing guidance and extra help to ensure that each student completes a "coherent" program of study with an academic or vocational major; enabling academic and vocational teachers to work together on an integrated curriculum; and using assessment and evaluation data to guide school policies.
The 650 schools in the network usually make major changes in their vocational programs by modernizing their offerings, incorporating more intellectual content and arranging partnerships with local employers to give students work-based learning opportunities such as internships.
But the cornerstone of the HSTW program is the idea that schools should do away with "general track" academic courses entirely and expose all students to the same challenging content that has traditionally been taught only to those labeled college-bound.
"What makes us different from other school-to-work programs is that we're not focused entirely on the work experience," says Gene Bottoms, founder and director of High Schools That Work. "We are worried about the kids who are getting the experiences without changing the school-based junk food. Just getting them into quality work side is not going to do much."
That does not mean Bottoms and his allies believe all students should be taught in an identical way. Most HSTW schools have designed "applied" courses for career-bound students that present college-prep-level material in a way that relates it to real-world situations. These courses use "hands-on" teaching methods like group projects, laboratory experiments and fleshing out abstract concepts with concrete examples.
Geometry students in one HSTW school study the way a house is put together. A rural teacher uses the operation of a combine to teach principles of physics. Students in English classes write resumes for fictional characters or produce their own books. Science students calculate the volume and speed of water flowing through a brook and measure pollution levels.
"What seems to be important," Bottoms says, "is that you hold students to high standards and teach in ways students understand it and relate to it. You do not compromise the standards, you do what you have to do to get students to meet the standards."
SREB does not set standards as such for student achievement but does set a "goal" for average scores on its assessments. It aims to dose by one-third the gap between vocational students at HSTW sites and the national average for college-prep students.
SREB recommends that high school students take at least four years of high-level English; three years each of math and science, with at least two years in each area equivalent in content to college-prep courses; four credits in a vocational specialty and two credits in other vocational areas. …