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'Relevant' Courses Pique Interest of Students, Industry

By guest blogger Sarah D. Sparks

Research shows the value of a high school diploma to the job market faltering at the same time policymakers and educators are looking for ways to increase the number of students who graduate high school.

"Attainment of a diploma is a weak signal" of a student's ability to complete college or progress in a career said Henry I. Braun, an education and public policy professor at Boston College's Lynch School of Education, at a recent research symposium on student success after high school. "We have a substantial and differential leakage at each segment of the educational pipeline."

To beef up the value of their diplomas, some schools are coupling the standard curriculum with technical and industry-related certificates that change with the needs of the community's businesses.

"It's not just an effort to raise standards. It signals a shift from certification of prior learning to a prediction of future performance. ... moving from a philosophy of just-in-case learning to just-in-time learning. That will change how we measure end-of-course assessments" and other structures of the K-12 system, Braun said.

One such school is Dunbar High School in Fort Myers, Fla., which has an overall math and science focus and two curricular strands which integrate state academic content requirements with professional and technical certification programs. The Academy for Technology Excellence focuses on hardware and technology structure; students can earn up to 26 college credit hours and 18 different computer certifications, such as Microsoft's Information Technology professional certificate. The Academy for Digital Excellence provides more arts-oriented technology certification, incorporating programs like Photoshop, Dreamweaver and Flash. The school started as a magnet program six years ago and has grown more popular over time.

Denise Spence, the magnet lead technology teacher for the school, said administrators constantly discuss, among themselves and with students, how the curriculum relates to student's future careers. The school also uses an advisory panel of about 40 business leaders, from Microsoft to local computer repair shops, to determine the skills and curricula that will be needed for the changing job market.

"If you are offering a course you should be offering the credential," Ms. Spence told me. "You're doing your students a disservice if you're not. If they have the credentials, that actually gives them a head-up on their college applications or even college credit. Why not give them every advantage you can for the same hour and a half time block you are giving them?"

Making the curriculum directly relevant to students' future careers has made them more engaged, Ms. Spence said; the high school, where an average of eight out of 10 students live in poverty, has a 92 percent graduation rate, and a 100 percent graduation rate for the technology academy. The academy students also exceed Florida's average standardized test scores in reading and math.

"Students actually find more value in what they're learning when they know it's something that can help them in their future," Ms. Spence told me. "They see the courses can actually get them employment out of high school, and they don't see the math and English class doing that as much."

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