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Can K-12 Handle a Newfangled Career & Tech Ed.?

A couple of renowned scholars at Harvard's ed. school are getting hugs and slaps for suggesting that secondary schools shouldn't hold all their students to a college-prep track. Take a look at my story about it to get up to speed and to read the report itself. But here is their argument in a nutshell: With so few people earning even an associate's degree, and the economy demanding at least some post-high school training, there have to be rigorous, engaging, career-oriented options for students who aren't college-bound. The report is essentially a clarion call for top-notch career and technical education.

Now this has the CTE community cheering in the balconies. Because, as you can guess, that's where it's been stuck during these years that college-prep has become the default argument in the K-12 world. Having Haaaah-vaaad place a validating stamp on its vision, and having the U.S. secretary of education himself bless that vision in a lengthy speech given at the report's release event, has to have been a top-10 moment of the decade for CTE leaders.

It isn't hard to see why creating marvelous career and tech-ed. offerings could open promising paths for thousands of young people. But that said, let's get real. Once we get past the hugs and popping of champagne corks, this stuff gets dicey pretty quickly. As a high-art movie from 1970 might have asked: Where do I begin?

OK, how about this for starters: CTE hasn't exactly had a distinguished history of delivering its kids to glowing futures. Certainly there have been success stories. But far too many CTE programs have been—as Arne Duncan himself pointed out—dumping grounds for students nobody expected much of. And it doesn't take a bachelor's degree to guess who those kids were: Poor kids. Kids of color. Kids who didn't seem interested in anything, maybe because no adult in their lives had done his or her job in helping light their inner fire.

To its credit, the career and tech ed. field cops to this. Its leaders know they haven't served many students well and are pushing hard to evolve (witness the rebranding: yesterday's vocational ed. is today's career and tech ed.). And some impressive examples of success have emerged. Duncan mentioned a particularly endearing one in his speech. It's about a school in Washington state where girls in a shop class designed and built a diesel-powered car called the "Iron Maiden" (I kid you not; I can't make this stuff up) that got 470 miles per gallon. That kind of stuff makes you want to stand up and cheer, of course, unless you have a heart of steel. But before your mouth closes on that cheer, you have to start asking some questions.

Like this pair: How rich and challenging is a given CTE program, and how are students making the decision to enter it? If we are to avoid replicating past patterns, in which low expectations funnel students into low-quality studies, then we need a huge force field of information, encouragement, and guidance that will help disadvantaged kids get the same well-informed options, and have the same high expectations, as their peers with more social capital. The report itself notes that good career counseling is a pivotal piece of the vision, but how realistic is it to think this will take shape? And if it doesn't, on what incomplete information, and with that misplaced expectations, are students making decisions about what paths they pursue?

This is some of what has led folks in some quarters to argue for a default curriculum that prepares every single student for a four-year university. Anything less, they argue, inevitably leaves the less fortunate students less prepared and thus, with fewer options.

But the perception of a "four-year college prep for all" movement is exactly what prompted the Harvard report. Do those scholars have a point when they note the gaps in the college-completion rate and the jobs-market forecasts that are opening big holes for tons of students to fall through? Undoubtedly. Now the question is what to do about that.

President Barack Obama and his secretary of education have been arguing all along that the country must develop a vigorous band of options, from vocational training and occupational certificates on up through the highest levels of educational attainment. And they've emphasized that college-prep and good CTE should hold kids to the same high academic expectations.

The clarion call is reverberating especially loudly this week, with Harvard in the mix. Do K-12, community colleges, and private-sector employers have the capacity not only to offer top-notch, well-aligned CTE programs, but all the necessary supports and information crucial to letting all students start from the same starting block?

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