Bergen Record Opinion Page: CTE: A Relevant and Neglected Route to Career and College Success

April 25th, 2011

Relevant and neglected route to career and college success
Monday, April 25, 2011
BY MICHAEL MADDALUNA
The Record

Today’s best career and technical education programs do a better job of preparing many students for college and careers than traditional academics-only programs.

“PATHWAYS TO PROSPERITY,” HARVARD REPORT

HARVARD University and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have discovered one of New Jersey’s best-kept secrets: Quality career and technical education programs, such as those at our county vocational-technical high schools, provide today’s students with a relevant route to success in college and careers.
These programs are the choice of more than 31,000 New Jersey students who want more out of their high school experience.

A new Harvard report, “Pathways to Prosperity,” says that America’s current educational focus on college-readiness alone does not provide most young people with the abilities employers expect in the 21st-century workplace, or even with the tools they need to successfully complete the transition from adolescence to adulthood.

Recent studies predict 47 million new job openings in the United States by 2018, many of which will be replacements for workers who have retired. Although about two-thirds of these jobs will require some level of post-secondary education, 14 million projected openings will only require an associates’ degree or industry certification.

The Harvard report says the “‘college for all’ rhetoric that has been so much a part of the current education reform movement needs to be significantly broadened to become ‘a post-high school credential for all’ ” if we expect to adequately prepare young people to fill these jobs.

The report also looks at traditional secondary school education from the students’ perspective and finds it out of sync with the way young people learn best. From midadolescence onward, it says, students benefit from structured programs that combine work and learning, in which the link between what they are studying and its relevance to their lives and career goals is clearly explained.

High school dropout rates in the United States and in many of New Jersey’s urban high schools are shocking. Yet although many students leave because they struggle academically, many others say they quit because high school was “unrelentingly boring” and just didn’t seem relevant to their lives or provide a real pathway to their futures.

Career and technical education provides a different approach to secondary education that prepares all types of students for success in college and careers. Cutting-edge CTE “bears little relationship to the old vocational education programs that were often little more than dumping grounds for students who couldn’t cut it in college prep. Today’s best CTE programs do a better job of preparing many students for college and careers than traditional academics-only programs,” the Harvard report says.

In welcoming the study, Duncan called career and technical education “the neglected stepchild of education reform. It has an enormous, if often overlooked impact on students, school systems and our ability to prosper as a nation,” he said.

Both the secretary and the Harvard report note that there are already pockets of excellence in career and technical education in many American states and communities. Many of these are right here in New Jersey, in our 21 county vocational-technical schools districts.

Our full-time technical high schools, specialized career academies and career-training programs serve students of all ability levels, including those with special needs. In aggregate, our students score above the state average on the HSPA and the SAT, and most of them continue their education after high school.
The Bergen County Technical Schools serve almost 2,200 secondary students in full-time and shared-time programs. The seven career academies offer programs in business, engineering, technology, culinary arts and hospitality, telecommunications, medical sciences and visual and performing arts. Our two Bergen Tech high schools offer a wide range of career training in areas ranging from automotive technology to general contracting to graphic design.

Last year, 85 percent of our graduates went on to college or postsecondary training, and all of them have learned the career-specific and cross-disciplinary skills that will enhance their success in college and in the workplace.

The release of the Harvard report is timely: Word is coming from Washington that Congress and President Obama are considering significant cuts to career and technical education funding.

Reducing federal support for these successful programs as our nation struggles to lift itself from a deep recession is the wrong move. If our state and national leaders are serious about improving college readiness and equipping all students for career success, then we must increase our commitment to 21st-century career and technical education.

Michael Maddaluna is president of the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools and superintendent of Somerset County Vocational and Technical Schools.

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