Should All Kids Go to College?
That’s the type of education teenagers are getting at Aviation High School, a public school in Long Island City, Queens, that Arne Duncan praised in an April 19 speech. When I visited the school in February, Noel Adames, a high school junior, taught me not only how to weld but how welding works.
“Here, put these goggles on,” he said, thrusting a pair into my hands as he led me through one of the school’s more than forty bustling laboratories. Noel explained that a welding torch uses two types of gas: oxygen and acetylene. Together they heat up to an astonishing 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. When the gases are in the correct proportion, we’d see two flame “zones,” Noel said, the outer and inner cone. That’s when we’d be ready to fuse together two iron plates clamped in a vise.
I was overwhelmed by all this information and scared of the bright orange flame, but Noel reassured me. “We’ll do it together!” he offered, demonstrating the technique.
A member of ROTC, Noel spends his mornings preparing to become an FAA-certified aircraft mechanic, learning the forty-three skills—from welding to air-conditioner maintenance to electrical wiring—required to service planes and helicopters. He spends his afternoons in traditional academic courses, including one college-level class, and will graduate from Aviation’s five-year program with a New York State Regents diploma. His ambition is to attend the Air Force Academy.
“If you understand how the inside of the plane works, it’s a whole other level of being a pilot,” he says. But if that doesn’t work out, Noel’s FAA certification will qualify him for a union job that pays about $55,000 per year with benefits, and could help him finance a college education.
At the policy level, the problem is that Obama and Duncan’s verbal support for career and technical education comes unmatched by any serious funding commitment to replicate schools like Aviation High. In the recent budget negotiations with House Republicans, the White House agreed to $137 million in cuts to the Perkins Grant programs, the primary federal funding stream for vocational education. But even before this belt-tightening, neither of the administration’s competitive education reform grant programs—Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation (i3)—encouraged applicants to build curriculums in which young adults are given the hands-on training they need to enter a specific career. And although some i3 grant winners will use the federal dollars to improve instruction in the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering and math—the administration has put very few resources behind programs that develop students’ capacity to use STEM skills on the job through apprenticeships and internships, as opposed to just in the classroom.
Workforce development advocates say it is hard for politicians to champion vocational programs because of the field’s troubled history. “Talking about ‘science’ is much more appealing than saying ‘career education for struggling kids,’” says Nancy Hoffman, vice president of the advocacy group Jobs for the Future. “It would be great if we could get rid of the stigma of CTE.”
One school attempting to do just that is Tech Valley High School, on the East Campus of the State University of New York, Albany. The public school was created in 2005 by a special act of the state legislature, part of a larger, long-running effort to revive the economy of the troubled upstate region. Tech Valley admits, via lottery, just forty ninth graders per year into one of the most innovative CTE programs in the country: every student pursues an internship during January. This year, one teen shadowed an Amtrak engineer riding the Northeast Corridor; another interned at a local graphic design firm.
The flexibility of Tech Valley’s career curriculum—students can choose an internship that matches their interests, from baking to computer coding to marine biology—goes a long way toward scrubbing away the stigma of CTE as the “slow track” for working-class kids with few options. Every academic subject at Tech Valley is organized around projects intended to introduce teenagers to potential occupations. A history class worked alongside local attorneys to put Christopher Columbus and other European explorers on mock trial for decimating Native American populations. For a unit on pH levels, biology students worked with employees of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to collect Hudson River water samples and test whether the river was safe for swimmers.
Of course, there are downsides to CTE programs like those at Tech Valley and Aviation high schools. Most obviously, they are expensive. Both schools rely on private funding to provide an extended learning day: Tech Valley benefits from foundation dollars, while Aviation partners with local colleges to pay teachers overtime for offering instruction outside the workday mandated by their union contract. The longer day is difficult for kids too, and Tech Valley and Aviation have fought student attrition. Only twenty-eight of Tech Valley’s first incoming class will graduate this spring, though administrators say 90 percent of subsequent classes are on track to graduate. The typical Aviation freshman class of 500 to 525 dwindles to 400 graduates four years later.
With Washington pulling back on CTE funding, there is little hope for large-scale efforts to improve and replicate ambitious programs like these. The saddest part is, they are needed now more than ever. “The recession has helped us in terms of people understanding why this type of education is important,” says Stacia Snow, a Tech Valley social studies teacher. “Workers have to be flexible, and they have to be creative.”