Policy won’t lead change; teachers must

Seen from above, graduate's black mortarboards.

A piece by Mary Alice McCarthy in The Atlantic last week has gotten a lot of well-deserved attention. McCarthy’s thesis is in her title: “America Needs to Get Over its Reverence for the Bachelor’s Degree.”

She uses the experiences of her two nephews to show two equally unacceptable options for students who don’t want to move from the high school classroom to the college classroom.

One of her nephews went into a culinary arts training program at at technical college. Then he went to New York City restaurants where he did well and got great experience.

All his training and experience afforded him no credit toward the college degree he’d need to work in management, where he’d earn more and which could lead to operating his own restaurant.

The other nephew went, reluctantly, to college, eventually graduated, but without having developed any true college-level skills. He’s unemployed, unqualified for white collar jobs, and untrained for blue-collar ones.

McCarthy points out that, unlike America, many other developed countries have career pathways that start with impressive vocational training programs.  She writes:

The issue isn’t that a career that starts with technical training can’t lead to more advanced learning and skills. It is that our higher-education policies simply don’t allow for it—and that’s just a failure of imagination.

I agree with McCarthy that America’s love affair with the bachelor’s degree is absurd.

I entirely agree with her that the traditional BA program makes no sense for millions of students who need experience to ground their academic study. I’ve had hundreds of them in my freshman composition classes.

I also can see how the “upside down” bachelor’s degree, which has the career training component  before the general education courses, would work for some students who are not classroom oriented.

I just don’t see it working for sufficient numbers of students.

I think there are just too many students for whom traditional general education courses remain unconnected to their vocational interests. The bulk of students I’ve had wouldn’t see any more value in college composition after completing two years of vocational training than they would have seen their first semester of college.

I don’t disagree with McCarthy’s point that American education policy is out of whack; however, I don’t believe policy changes alone are the answer.

Policy changes don’t necessarily result in practice changes necessary for successful implementation of the policies. The whole Common Core debacle is testimony to that.

No matter where the academic  gen ed courses fall in students’ post-secondary training, if post-secondary teachers are not equipped to teach the masses of students who need a college degree solely for the financial reasons McCarthy describes, conditions are not going to improve any time soon.

Post-secondary teachers in America are split between “vocational types” and “academic types.”  Both types would need experiences to enable them—collaboratively, if not individually—to craft assignments that guide students to discover connections between general education and their careers.

When such assignments are given today, it’s mainly by accident.

Unless academic faculty are encouraged (encouraged is the politically correct term for required) to build assignments for the career and technical education students, those assignments won’t be created.

Unless vocational faculty collaborate with them, the academics will make a mess of the assignments.

And if all faculty don’t create assignments that encourage (that PC term!) students to figure out how the career courses and the gen ed courses complement each other, students won’t see any connection between the two.

Even without policy changes, an imaginative faculty could begin the process of collaborating on new assignments that give career oriented students a basis on which to learn more advanced skills and develop new interest areas in the future.

Such collaborative experience might even spark  significant changes for students, faculty, and their institutions.

Photo Credit, David Niblack, Imagebase.net.

Support for Rural Vo-Tech Kids

In my last two posts,  I wrote about the rural brain drain as described by researchers Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas in their book Hollowing Out the Middle.

Hollowing Out the Middle, dustjacketCarr and Kefalas link the decline of rural communities to the fact that rural areas across America are losing their college-educated young people while retaining those vocational students with bleak economic prospects.

They believe rural communities are committing suicide by pushing the brightest young people to leave while practically ignoring those who choose to stay or who return after finding life elsewhere was not for them.

At the same time I was reading Hollowing Out the Middle, I was taking a course in data-driven journalism sponsored by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.

In the course, I began roughing out an idea for a data journalism project. It would investigate costs and benefits to local taxpayers of subsidizing, through dual enrollment courses, students going on to four-year colleges and compare them with the costs and benefits of subsidizing students in vocational/technical training who remain in the local area.

In the process, I stumbled on on some local information that gives credence to the thesis of Hollowing Out the Middle.

My local school district in upstate New York provides vocational training through a regional educational services agency, the DCMO BOCES. Articulation agreements between the BOCES and specific higher education providers (usually community colleges) allow graduates of the Career and Technical Education (CTE) Programs to get college credit for courses taken at the high school level.

Articulation agreements with selected post-secondary schools are set on a program-specific basis. So if Josh is studying automotive technology, the post-secondary schools at which he could apply his college credits may be limited to two or three community colleges in the state.

I did not realize that the articulation agreements typically do not allow  students to apply for the college credits until they have completed a semester —12 hours — with a average of 80%.

Assuming the students’ high school background is good enough that they don’t need to take remedial courses (a big assumption) during that first semester,  students would be taking primarily general education courses, like English composition, math, and history.

For most vocationally-oriented students, those general education requirements are likely to be the most difficult courses of their post-secondary work.   Sending those students off to cope with general education courses on their own — sometimes without so much as one course in their chosen field to keep them engaged — is handicapping them from the start.

Side note: The state Board of Regents is sufficiently concerned about the academic readiness of CTE graduates that it is looking at options for helping CTE students with the academic component of their high school program.

By comparison, the typical dual-enrollment programs for students headed to four-year schools focus primarily on general education courses.  Often those college courses are taught to students in their home high school either via distance learning technology or by a high school teacher with adjunct status at the college.  In small, rural high schools, those alternatives mean the academically talented kids, unlike their peers in CTE programs,  get the benefit of high school support for those transition-to-college general education courses.

Because general education courses are pretty much the same anywhere they’re given, academically talented students  can apply their credits at most two- and -four-year colleges anywhere in the nation immediately on enrollment, without having to prove they are up to the rigors of college during that first traumatic college semester.

I’ve not had time to do more than take a quick look at the articulation agreements, but what I’ve seen so far suggests some interesting stories are buried in the data compiled by local educational agencies.