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When Vocational Education Spurs Students to Strive for College

By Scott Carlson June 09, 2016

Toppenish, Wash.

By the time he started ninth grade, Omar Palomino had made up his mind: He wasn’t going to college. He thought he might not even graduate from Toppenish High School, here on an Indian reservation in central Washington State. His father, an immigrant from Mexico, had a small but growing business fixing up junked cars. Helping his parents while making $400 a week didn’t seem like such a bad option.

“It’s what we do in our culture,” he says, sitting in a break room at the shop. “If we don’t go to school, it’s because we need to provide for our families.”

In the verdant Yakima Valley, such a decision is not unusual. Many students — the sons and daughters of migrant workers — say their parents have only about a sixth-grade education. They pick fruit, string trellises in the hop fields, build houses, or work at the slaughterhouse just up the street from the school. With little family experience in higher education and constant pressure to make money, academic subjects can seem pointlessly abstract, and college distant.

But around the time Mr. Palomino got to Toppenish High, six years ago, the school was just beginning a new push in career and technical education, or CTE. Intrigued by the prospect of working on projects rather than merely memorizing and regurgitating facts and figures, he took electronics as a sophomore, followed by computer-aided design and applied mathematics. “Once I stepped into these courses, it set off something for me,” he says. “I knew I had what it takes, and I could accomplish things.”

As a senior, he signed up for a capstone course in robotics, and he and his classmates won so many local competitions that they were sent to an international robotics competition in Anaheim, Calif. There, out of 700 teams comprising 15,000 students from 24 countries, Mr. Palomino finished in the top 50 in robot programming.

Colleges are seen broadly as engines of opportunity, as economic equalizers. Is that reputation deserved? Read more from a series exploring that question.

His story represents a new direction for career-oriented education, which is gaining traction in Washington State. Decades ago, vocational instruction was a track that marginalized — intentionally or not — low-income and minority students, an option for those deemed “not college material.” Today, rebranded as CTE and expanded to include career training in high-tech fields like health care and engineering, it can appeal to students who are bound for a trade, a technical or community college, or a four-year university. It doesn’t necessarily promote the “college for all” agenda, but rather than divert students from academics and postsecondary pathways, it can engage them, and maybe get them thinking about educational steps beyond high school.

How academic study leads to majors and careers can be opaque for many students, says Shaun M. Dougherty, an assistant professor of educational policy and leadership at the University of Connecticut. CTE lets them try things out, introduces them to options they may not have known existed, and allows them to discover talents or interests in a low-risk environment.

“It makes school more interesting and engaging outside of the academic setting,” Mr. Dougherty says. “And it creates these communities that might not exist otherwise.”

He wrote a report released in April by the right-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute that analyzes the educational and employment outcomes of 100,000 students in Arkansas. As they took more CTE courses, he found, they raised their chances of graduating from high school, being employed after graduating, and matriculating in college. The students who concentrated in a particular program of study showed even more benefits: They were 21 percent more likely to graduate than were students with similar test scores who had taken a similar number of CTE courses.

Mr. Palomino’s experience with robotics took him to places he never expected. He was invited to Washington, D.C., to talk about CTE and recruited to study engineering at the University of Washington. He ended up enrolling at Yakima Valley Community College, which was inexpensive and close to home, and this fall, he’ll go to Washington State University at Pullman, where he plans to major in mechanical engineering.

“If I hadn’t been exposed to those classes,” he says, “I might have had a different path.” He wants to work in the automobile industry designing cars, then return to his parents’ auto shop, he says. “I want to innovate here.”

 ‘What I Was Really Into’

Eight years ago, Toppenish High’s CTE programs were limited to welding, construction, and agriculture. But the superintendent had heard that the future of education was in project-based, STEM- and career-oriented education. So he sent a few teachers to training to develop a CTE course on engineering basics.

Shawn Myers, a teacher who is now director of career and technical education here, says he and his colleagues were energized in the initial training by an open-ended approach to lessons and how students would have to think creatively to pass courses. In many ways, he says, that runs counter to current trends in education and testing.

“We are still taking state and federal exams based on content,” says Mr. Myers. Meanwhile, smartphones let people access “more content than anyone could in the history of mankind,” he says. “How do I use that to solve problems? We are trying to make that shift.”

“Without this type of curriculum, I think our kids wouldn’t have as much of a vision.”

In the last several years at Toppenish, courses in technology, biology, English, and even physical education have taken on practical and career-oriented components. In a writing course, for example, students might learn grammar and syntax by drafting reports for a hypothetical employer. Students spread around a science lab here are making models of neurons and mapping out what happens in the brain and body when someone sees a cockroach. It’s “Human Body Systems,” a CTE course on biomedical science. Two students are already enrolled in nursing-assistant programs at the Yakima Valley Technical Skills Center. And through the course, they all are getting exposure to other potential careers, like forensic biology, genetic counseling, and nutrition. The teacher, Sara Frederiksen, who graduated from Toppenish, loves teaching, she says, but if she had gotten that kind of experience herself, might have done something different.

“Without this type of curriculum,” she says, “I think our kids wouldn’t have as much of a vision.”

Sophia Cavasos thought she wanted to be a veterinarian until she took physical-education courses that introduced her to careers in exercise science and physical therapy. “It made me realize what I was really into,” she says. A senior, she is headed to Eastern Washington University.

Rafael Ceja had kept his grades up with the hope of graduating early to work alongside his father in construction. “I have been working since I was 8,” he says. “I saw that there are jobs out there.”

But a course on civil engineering and architecture changed his focus. “I like the process of designing,” he says. And with a degree in engineering, he realized, he could earn more than in construction. His teachers laud him as one of the smartest students ever to pass through Toppenish, and this fall he’s going to Washington State University at Pullman on a full scholarship.

Vestiges of Tracking

In the past six years, enrollment at Toppenish High grew from 600 students to 900, as the CTE program raised the reputation of the school. Local parents who might have sought “better schools” in nearby Yakima now keep their kids in town, Mr. Myers says.

Students at Toppenish can choose from about 40 CTE courses, and they must take two before graduating. The school has seen CTE students perform better than non-CTE students on state assessments. But gauging success in terms of college-going rates is trickier. In the first year vocational courses were offered, 37 percent of graduates planned to go to a four-year institution, 39 percent to a two-year college. In 2015, those figures were 61 percent and 22 percent, respectively. But between those two years, the numbers go up and down: It’s not a neat rising line.

But Catherine Brown, an assistant principal at Cleveland High, says there’s a reluctance to give the courses a career orientation or define them as CTE. Those attitudes might come from a lingering discomfort with the history of discrimination and tracking in vocational education. “The tension is, particularly in the African-American community, the idea of creating employees for someone else,” she says.

“We can do better,” she describes parents saying, “in the aspirations for our students.”

On the whole, Washington has shown strong support for career and technical education. The state devotes about $400 million per year to CTE programs in middle and high schools — more than most other states on a per-capita basis. Experts in education and work-force issues say the state has also encouraged close relationships between business, labor, and higher education to create pipelines of workers for the technology, viticulture, clean-energy, and other state industries.

A longtime advocate for career and technical education says it has been an uphill battle at times. Schools in the Seattle area have “downplayed any mention of CTE” in their courses, says Eleni Papadakis, executive director of Washington’s Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board, who also serves as the state’s CTE director. Especially in wealthier areas, she says, “there are many people who still think of it as subpar education.”

‘A Clear Path’

When Ms. Papadakis first started at the work-force board 10 years ago, state studies showed that employers had the most trouble filling “middle skills” jobs — the kinds of positions that didn’t always require four-year degrees and might be served by CTE. Yet members of the state’s business round table continued to advocate for more college graduates. At her first meeting with the round table, she recalls, members attacked her, accusing her of trying to push students into low-wage jobs. She has fired back with comments about the state having the “best-educated baristas in the country,” noting that CTE is not about stemming education but providing alternate pathways.

Meanwhile, she says, state agencies and legislators noticed that schools weren’t raising graduation rates among low-income and minority students and started providing more money for CTE, with the hope that applied learning might help. The work-force board has advocated for merit scholarships for CTE students who want to go on to college.

In recent years, the board has also worked with the state’s public-education agency to train teachers in CTE and set up hands-on courses that would stand in for traditional ones. Many students, for example, have trouble passing Algebra II. But in a course on robotics or construction teaching similar concepts, some students begin to see the applicability and perform better. “Cross-crediting” allows the school to record the class as Algebra II on transcripts rather than as robotics or building trades.

At Toppenish High, teachers are starting to connect subjects through practical projects. An arts or engineering class might design a product for the school store, then pass it to a construction class for building, while business students find a way to market it. Mr. Myers also wants to break down the divisions between high school and higher education — to draft articulation agreements allowing students to transition from their CTE courses to matching degree programs at nearby Heritage University, Perry Technical Institute, and Yakima Valley Community College.

“We need a clear path, so that our kids who don’t understand the minutiae and politics of the education system have it well defined,” he says. He and others here don’t have hang-ups about preparing students for jobs, he says, particularly if they require considerable skill and some postsecondary training, because they’ll pay more than some of the low-skill jobs people here have traditionally taken out of high school.

Mechanization is eliminating those low-skill jobs anyway, Mr. Myers points out. The local packing plants used to hire scores of employees to sort apples and other fruit. Now digital cameras and computers analyze fruit for size and quality as it rolls by on conveyor belts, and robots bag and box it. One of the best-paying jobs around here is fixing and maintaining those machines, and students can get that training at the local technical college.

“That is sometimes where people excel,” Mr. Myers says. “We are not going to push our kids to a four-year university.”

Fine-Tuning the ‘Nudges’ That Help Students Get to and Through College

From the Chronicle of Higher Education

By Beckie Supiano June 22, 2016

Alissa Fishbane is a managing director at ideas42, a nonprofit organization that studies how people make decisions and take actions. In a conversation with The Chronicle, she discusses her group’s latest findings on behavioral interventions that colleges can use to help students stay on track.

Behavioral interventions are a growing — and attention grabbing — piece of higher-education research. They locate and tackle the cognitive, emotional, and social factors behind why people don’t follow through on their intentions. On Wednesday, ideas42, a nonprofit organization focused on this kind of research, often called “nudging,” released a report detailing a bevy of experiments it has done to help students get to and through college. We spoke with Alissa Fishbane, a managing director at ideas42, about the state and potential of this work. The following conversation has been edited and condensed.

Q. What is it about higher ed that makes it ripe for behavioral interventions?

A. Behavioral science is about understanding how people make decisions and take actions. And if you think of the life of a student throughout college, it’s just a series of decisions and actions that they need to take throughout the entire time. So how can we take a look at all of those steps in the process, and construct things from that perspective of understanding human behavior?

Q. You point out many hurdles students face, from the application process all the way to post-college loan repayment. Is there one that stood out to you as especially problematic, or maybe under-examined?

A. When we think about why students are unable to stay in school, there are often a lot of reasons, some of them structural. But when we took a look at San Francisco State [University], for those students who had the academic standing to stay but were still not staying, we explored some of those more structural reasons, and we weren’t seeing a lot of evidence for those.

Instead, what we were seeing was that students began to develop negative perceptions of themselves and their abilities, because college can be a very daunting experience, and it can be very challenging to find your social home. It’s something you experience yourself and don’t realize that someone else is going through it at the same time. And so you start to think, Well, it’s me; I’m not college material.

We were very fortunate to build on the work of researchers who’ve done this work around social belonging before, and we created a short video where we reframed the experience for students. We had older students speaking about how they struggled when they came to school and what they did to overcome those challenges.

So a three-minute video, a couple follow-up questions after the video during an orientation session, and once-monthly texts were able to give at-risk students an enormous 10-percent bump in retention. These were students that had been identified as potentially at the highest risk of dropping out, all low-income, first-generation, and/or underrepresented students.

Q. One of the critiques that I sometimes hear of behavioral work like this is that it might make college too easy, that part of what having a degree signifies is that a person can navigate these bureaucratic hurdles. How do you respond to that?

A. We’re not making college classes easier. We’re simply saying there are these bottlenecks that I don’t think anyone intended to create for students. How do we focus the college experience on the parts that really support growth and learning, and how do we reduce the hassles and burdens and tough things that are going on that are just taking away from that experience?

Q. How do you decide which behavior to try to encourage? You have one example of a college that’s trying to reduce what students are borrowing, and another example of one that wants to encourage students to know that they can borrow and thinks that that will help them stay in school.

A. The key here is no one set out to increase or decrease borrowing per se, they set out to understand how students make decisions, with the goal of helping them make the best decisions for them. Because if we don’t understand how we frame information and provide information to students, we’re unintentionally impacting their decisions. By better understanding that, then we can start to better design how we structure loan offers, how we engage with students to help them in their loan decisions.

Q. How do you decide which form of communication to use with students? There’s been so much excitement around text-messaging interventions, but there are other examples with email, or the one you mentioned before with video. How can you tell which medium makes the most sense, or is it just whichever medium the college was already using?

A. A little bit of both. There are some schools that only send emails.

It’s not just the type of communication, but how can we best reach students. Sometimes in our projects we actually thought changing the system is a far better way to support students in some of their choices, whether it’s the registration systems or others, but that’s not done quite as easily, right?

We should think of these solutions — sometimes they may be solutions, but sometimes they’re a demonstration that there is a behavioral problem. To give us the evidence needed to say, OK, now let’s go back and actually change the systems or structures themselves, rather than kind of attacking it with a communication solution.

Q. Interesting. So part of what your work is doing is just helping to pinpoint where these pain points for students really are?

A. Ultimately some of them can be the solutions themselves. But let me give you an example not in our study. You know the H&R Block study [which tested various ways of helping families file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid]? You could take that study and say, OK, now we should provide that assistance for all families. Or you could take that study and say, OK, it’s clear that there are problems in filling out this form, what can we do to make it easier for families?

You could apply that here. Some things, we’ve already created a fix and it’s fine to just do that. If it’s something overly complicated, though, why not fix it from the beginning?

Q. As these kinds of interventions become more popular, do you worry that students will be getting so many behavioral nudges that they just start tuning them out, and is there anything you can do to mitigate that?

A. There’s two things. One is, How do we improve the communications that already exist? It’s not always creating new communications. We’ve shown that in a number of studies — we just changed what was in the emails themselves to address specifically the behavioral bottleneck that we identified.

The second is, Yes, you can imagine some scenarios where there is a lack of communication where there needs to be some. What’s really exciting is the potential to start looking at the system holistically. How do you create those communications so that departments are working with each other? You could imagine a much more streamlined, coordinated way to talk to students throughout their experience

How much can I earn with a college degree?