By Randi Scott and Peter Birdsall
Recent books, such as Matthew B. Crawford’s, “Shop Class to Soulcraft” drive home a simple fact that “thinking and doing” are two sides of the same coin. Students learn best and for the long term when they can see firsthand how the content we tell them they need to know can be beneficially applied once their Scantron forms and No. 2 pencils have been collected and erased from memory.
This article focuses on how career technical education courses offered by California’s Regional Occupational Centers and Programs connect “thinking and doing” for all students, regardless of their academic path. In the process, we: 1. demonstrate how CTE rekindles student enthusiasm for learning by making course content relevant and immediate; 2. discuss how CTE is not only essential for all students, but also can motivate them to stay in school and set higher goals for themselves; 3. describe how innovative ROCP courses are adapting to meet the career needs of the 21st century workforce; and 4. discuss the crucial mission of ROCP and CTE, including the need to fund them in tough economic times.
Relevance to the real world
More than a few high school teachers have sat through a mandatory in-service and found themselves muttering exactly what far too many high school students say to themselves about the courses they are required to take: “What does any of this have to with me?" ROCP programs are predicated on the concept of providing students with experiences that increase their chances of seeing how they can apply classroom learning in a real-world setting.
Instead of memorizing factoids just long enough to pass the next test, ROCP students are given the opportunity to “test” for themselves the practicality and value of the content and skills they have been taught in a truly professional arena. Positive educational outcomes are more likely when students:
• Learn what it feels like to “think and do” by applying math, science, or language arts knowledge and skills in a career sector.
• Experience what it's like to work in an actual business alongside training site supervisors and mentors who allow them to perform actual tasks (following an individualized training plan) and personally counsel them about the necessary educational steps to achieve their professional goals.
• Take courses in which the teacher has either come directly from business and industry or has the working knowledge to relate every lesson in such a way that students know that what they are learning, thinking about and doing in class actually happens in the real world.
Reports from students
The following comments from students are more common than surprising. They simply reflect the positive effect of a relevant curriculum:
“I hope to get hired on with Cal Fire this season. I love this program and this fire science class. My grades went up. This is the best class I‘ve ever taken. I would highly recommend this class to everyone.” – ROP student, fire science careers
“I plan to go to college and work part time at the Grass Valley Surgery Center. This is a great program. Without it I wouldn’t have had the opportunities that I have now.” – ROP student, health careers
But it’s not just anecdotal reports from students that illustrate the role of relevance in fostering positive student attitudes about their education and future. The published research also shows that when we enable students with opportunities to connect “thinking and doing,” we increase the probability that they will stay in school.
While it’s well documented that students who plan on college are less likely to drop out of school, it is especially true for students who complement their academic program with CTE coursework (Stone, 2007).
UC Riverside Professor Doug Mitchell has conducted longitudinal studies of ROCPs which reveal that in addition to mediating the potential for dropping out of school, they also improve student attendance, facilitate students setting higher educational goals for themselves, and encourage students to enroll in more academic courses in a concentrated subject (Mitchell, 2002, 2004, 2006).
Innovation and change
ROCP programs and CTE coursework will remain relevant to students, moreover, because they are flexible and adaptive to innovation and change in the work place. California is among the top states transitioning to the new global, entrepreneurial economy that rewards knowledge, technology and innovation.
Even as this is being written, ROCP and CTE instructors are integrating into existing and new courses the academic and career-based skills the evolving economy demands. Along with California Partnership Academies, charter schools, small learning communities and career-oriented high schools, for example, ROCPs are leading the way in developing courses with industry partnerships that reflect California’s commitment to a greener future.
They include such fields as robotics, biodiesel mechanics, medical technology, solar installer, alternative/renewable energy, energy and environmental engineering, renewable energy systems design, smog/clean air certification/licensing, auto technician (electric vehicles) and more. These courses currently articulate with local community colleges offering programs in these same industry sectors.
Supporting ROCP and CTE
All too often, CTE has been subverted by an artificial and harmful dichotomy. It’s not just the suggestion that “thinking and doing” are independent rather than interdependent, but the implication that thinking is more important than doing. Aside from the fact that this dichotomy is at complete odds with the science of learning, it creates the illusion of a zero-sum game where academics can only win if ROCP and CTE lose. In tough economic times such as these, the illusion is even more pronounced.
Work-based learning, career pathways, career guidance, and course articulation agreements that connect students to multiple post-secondary career paths have been shown to positively influence all students, not just those considered at greatest risk for dropping out. Simply put, they:
• enhance student motivation and academic achievement by “thinking and then doing.”
• increase personal and social competence related to work in general because they put students in the arena of real work.
• help students gain a broad and first-hand understanding of an occupation or industry to which they otherwise might not be exposed.
• integrate career exploration with academic planning.
• facilitate the acquisition of knowledge and/or skills related to employment in particular occupations or more generic work competencies (Schargel and Smink, 2001).
Maintaining ROCPs in the face of budget cuts
Ideally, whether moving on to postsecondary training or the workforce, every student should move through the curriculum awareness, exploration, planning and preparation that leads to a realistic individualized career plan that is compatible with the student’s abilities, aptitudes and interests. ROCP courses better prepare ALL students for the multiple secondary options they increasingly need to consider. Now is not the time to roll back our commitment to students.
Most school districts are working hard to maintain their ROCP classes despite the current budget crisis. Like most other programs, ROCPs are being asked to cut their programs by 20 percent – the amount by which state funding for ROCPs was reduced. Fortunately, however, it does not appear that ROCP funding is being redirected to other purposes. We believe the reasons for this are fairly straightforward:
• Quality career technical education programs are good for students and help keep them in school. Students find ROCP courses meaningful because they are genuinely useful.
• ROCP classes fill a part of the high school day for many students. Eliminating those classes would simply put pressure on the rest of the high school to provide alternate offerings and increased class size for other courses that are already over-enrolled.
• By providing relevance and excitement, ROCPs actually help keep students in school, which is good for the students and for the district’s ADA-generated revenues.
• The categorical programs are scheduled to be restored in 2013. ROCP programs are arguably the most difficult programs to rebuild if they were to be dismantled. The specialized teachers, expensive equipment and relationships with businesses and labor are all difficult and time-consuming to restore.
Career technical education remains at the forefront of high school reform efforts, despite the current fiscal crisis. More than ever, school district, county office and ROCP administrators need to reach out to each other so that funding and programs don’t operate in isolation, but are coordinated to make the best use of the available money and to provide students with courses that are rigorous, relevant and lead them to a future of greater opportunities.
Bauer, R. & Michael, R. (1993). They’re still in school: Results of an intervention program for at-risk high school students. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Atlanta.
Clark, D. (April/May 1999). “What we have learned.” National Association for Industry-Education Cooperation Newsletter, 35, 1-2.
Dolin, E. (December 2001). Give yourself the gift of a degree. Employment Policy Foundation News Release.
Educational Options Office, California Department of Education. (November 2007). Zero Drop-Outs in California.
Kemple, J.J. & Snipes, J.C. (2000). Career academies: Impacts on students’ engagement and performance in high school. New York: Manpower Demonstration Research Corp.
Mitchell, Doug. California Regional Occupational Centers and Programs Longitudinal Study, U.C. Riverside, 2002, 2004, 2006.
Schargel, F.P. & Smink, J. (2001). Strategies to help solve our school dropout problem. Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education.
Stone, J.R. (2004). “Career and technical education: Increasing school engagement.” In J. Smink & F.P. Schargel (Eds.), Helping students graduate: A strategic approach to dropout prevention. Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education.
Stone, J.R. (Jan. 26, 2007). American Youth Policy Forum Brief: Results from a National Study of Mathematics in Career and Technical Education.
Peter Birdsall is executive director of advocacy & association services for School Innovations & Advocacy. Randi Scott is executive director of the California Association of Regional Occupational Centers and Programs, and former director of the Placer County ROCP.