hitting the wall

Career and technical education programs are in vogue. So why is it so hard to start one?

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Students at Urban Assembly Maker Academy tried to design a straw basket that could catch a falling golf ball on the first day of school in 2015.

At Urban Assembly Maker Academy, Principal Luke Bauer wanted to start a program in “interaction design” — a field that focuses on how users interact with products like computers or phones.

But last year, when he looked into turning his vision into an official, certified career and technical education (CTE) program, he discovered that the idea didn’t fit into any of the typical categories approved by New York state.

“There are plenty of people right here in Lower Manhattan who are getting paid six figures to do that work,” Bauer said. Yet, his program was so foreign to the process, it felt like having “six heads,” he said.

In the end, he decided not to pursue an interaction design program — a disappointment to him and to his industry partners, who hoped it would create a “pipeline of talent” that could potentially lead some of his students to full-time jobs, Bauer said.

Bauer’s experience is emblematic of an ongoing tension. As career and technical education programs expand and morph into a dizzying array of new career fields, many are slowed down by the state’s long and stringent approval process.

That process — a comprehensive review that empowers schools to run a multi-year, career-focused curriculum — has “raised the quality and rigor of courses to better prepare students for college and career,” said Emily DeSantis, a state education department spokesperson.

Yet, others argue it discourages the creation of certified CTE programs and leaves little flexibility for schools trying to prepare students for new, and potentially lucrative, careers. The approval process can take years and often frustrates businesses partnering with schools, critics contend.

Employers involved in CTE programs surveyed in 2015 — including businesses, government agencies and nonprofits — said bureaucracy and slow response time are the biggest challenges in CTE work.

The “sense of urgency at [the State Education Department] doesn’t match the practical demands on the schools of a rapidly changing economy,” said Kathryn Wylde, CEO of the Partnership for New York City, a coalition of business leaders, which conducted the survey.

Wylde said she has been in contact with state officials and she is confident they are working to solve the problem. But for those trying to launch programs, those changes can’t come soon enough.

THE NEW VOCATIONAL EDUCATION

Over the past two decades, skill-based education has transformed from the traditional “vocational” tracks into “career and technical” education — and it’s more than just a name change.

Vocational ed was designed to help students enter the workforce right after high school with training in fields like auto repair or manufacturing. Today’s career and technical education still includes those fields, but also makes room for newer areas like computer science that often require education after high school. At the school level, that means seeking out partners in emerging industries, who will hopefully help match students with internships or even jobs after high school.

State and local officials have gotten behind CTE as a way to engage students in high school — and prepare them for what comes next.

“A career and technical education is where the strands all meet,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said last year. “And I’m very, very proud that New York City is being used as a model here for this effort.”

The number of city schools dedicated to CTE has more than tripled over the past decade, growing from 15 in 2004 to almost 50 in 2013, according to a recent Manhattan Institute study. Roughly 75 other schools offer CTE programs, with career-oriented courses provided as electives. About 40 percent of high school students take at least one CTE course, and nearly 10 percent attend a dedicated CTE school, according to Department of Education data cited in the report.

In 2009, New York state established a workgroup to rethink CTE and its goals. In part, that meant ensuring that CTE prepares students to go on to college. To help provide new graduation options and expand CTE programs, state officials also created a new regulation in 2014 that allows a technical exam to be substituted for one required high school exit exam, a policy known as “4+1.”

But as CTE programs keep growing — and with these new rules — there are lingering questions over whether a more dramatic shakeup is necessary.

RED TAPE

The problem, critics say, is that high-tech careers are changing all the time — by their very definition they are “emerging” and not conducive to a system that takes multiple years to approve.

State officials said they recommend that schools start putting an application together at least a year before they submit it. Yet, at a minimum, it takes about about four years to build a program the state will sign off on, said Eric Watts, former director of career and technical education at Urban Assembly, an organization that runs more than 20 career-themed schools. It’s not uncommon for it to take close to six years, he said.

In the meantime, schools are typically running the programs anyway.

“You’re getting approved to do something six years after you do it,” Watts said. “That doesn’t really make too much sense.”

If schools choose to forgo the certification process, they may have a tougher time securing federal funding and cannot provide their students with a CTE-endorsed diploma. But the biggest issue, he said, is that without a formal process, it’s harder to tell which programs are most worthwhile.

“That’s the scary part, teachers can do what they want, schools can do what they want,” Watts said.

FINDING TEACHERS

Leigh Ann DeLyser, director of education and research at CSNYC, who helped two city schools focused on software engineering through the approval process, said that overall, the state’s high standards are good for schools.

“The state’s process is rigorous on purpose,” DeLyser said. “It does take a few years because CTE actually is more than just classrooms and tests.”

The problem, she said, is there are not many models for programs like the ones she helped guide. “Being the pioneers makes it really difficult because you can’t just take and borrow from existing programs,” she said.

DeLyser added that teacher certification is especially tricky. CTE teachers are required to complete specific coursework, which means that those who work at tech companies — even teachers, in some cases — often have to go back and take extra classes to earn their certification, she said.

It is difficult enough to find industry professionals in high-paying tech jobs willing to take on CTE teaching positions without these extra requirements, said Principal Bauer from the Urban Assembly Maker School. In some cases, that could mean a $30,000 pay cut and switching to an entry-level job, he said.

State figures show the state was short about 450 CTE teachers in 2014-15 out of about 4,900 total CTE teacher positions.

Even when teachers are willing to take the leap, it’s a struggle for some to get approved because of the state’s current certification categories, critics say. There is only one category for new fields labeled “other/unique & emerging occupations.” Practically, that means a teacher who wants to teach “interaction design,” as Principal Bauer envisioned, might have to become certified in a broader area such as computer science rather than the actual field he or she wants to teach.

“If you go and look at the eligible [certification] titles, the jobs that we want to prepare our students for that are going to put them in the middle class or higher in new technologies, they are not [included in] the eligible CTE titles for the state,” Bauer said.

The result is schools have to “reinvent the wheel” every time they want to create a program outside of the designated list, said Tamar Jacoby, who co-authored the Manhattan Institute report. That can leave schools negotiating with the state and waiting “a long, long time,” to start a program, she said.

Aware of the need for more CTE teachers, the state’s Board of Regents approved more ways that teachers can earn a transitional license, which will allow them to enter the classroom based on various combinations of work experience, industry credentials, and enrollment in teacher-prep programs, giving them extra time to earn additional credits.

GETTING TO GRADUATION

Another hurdle for some CTE programs involves the state’s new 4+1 graduation policy.

Allowing CTE exams to double as graduation requirements was hailed as a big success by CTE advocates. The new policy, approved in 2014, was intended to encourage the creation of more CTE programs and to give students across New York state more ways to graduate.

But so far the policy is not even trickling down to some existing CTE schools. The state has an approved list of technical exams, but those exams do not cover all careers and do not always match schools’ specific programs.

For instance, the Academy for Careers in Technology and Film in Long Island City, Queens offers a CTE exam that yields an additional credential, but it is not approved as part of the 4+1 program, so it doesn’t count toward graduation, said principal Edgar Rodriguez.

A spokesperson for the State Education Department said the department is currently developing an application process for CTE programs to submit assessments that will be reviewed and potentially added to the list of eligible 4+1 graduation exams.

SKIPPING IT ALTOGETHER

In the meantime, these bureaucratic hurdles have left some schools feeling like it’s easier to ignore the approval process instead.

Urban Assembly is starting a new CTE technology-focused charter school, but decided its connections at Google and IBM would be easier to manage without the state’s stringent CTE teacher certification rules, said Eric Rivers, director of institutional advancement at Urban Assembly.

Dealing with the state CTE requirements “definitely makes it more challenging and I think that’s the reason we have decided to take the charter school route in this situation,” Rivers said.

Another teacher, Lane Rosen, who runs a marine science program at John Dewey High School in Brooklyn, came to a similar conclusion. He would like to gain some new attention for his program and a few extra perks for his students, but the process of earning CTE approval is too daunting for him to undertake, he said.

“It would be nice to have,” he said, “but I heard there’s a lot of red tape.”

Urban Assembly principal Bauer hopes to overcome the red tape — eventually. Bauer shifted his program’s focus and expects to be eligible to apply for state certification a year from now. Until then, he hopes he will not have to alter his plan more than he already has.

“I don’t know what it will look like two years from now,” he said. “I hope it gets approved.”

a closer look

Fact-check: Weighing 7 claims from Betsy DeVos’s latest speech, from Common Core to PISA scores

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In a speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made the case for giving up on the type of school improvement efforts favored by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. In its place, she argued, the federal government should encourage tech-infused innovation and school choice.

Looking to weigh her claims? Here’s a closer look at a few.

1. DeVos: “The most recent Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report, with which you are all familiar, has the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math. And, you know this too: it’s not for a lack of funding. The fact is the United States spends more per pupil than most other developed countries, many of which perform better than us in the same surveys.”

This stats are accurate, but may not be fair. The U.S. does spend more per pupil, in raw dollars, than most other countries. But international comparisons of these sorts are complicated, and American spending is similar to countries with similarly sized economies.

As we’ve written previously, it’s also misleading to say that more money wouldn’t help American schools. A number of studies have found precisely the opposite, including a recent one showing how cuts to schools during the Great Recession lowered student test scores and graduation rates.

2. DeVos appeared to refer to Common Core as “federal standards,” saying, “Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem.”

That’s off the mark. As advocates for the Common Core never tire of pointing out, the creation of the standards was driven by state leaders through the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, with the support of several private organizations, most prominently the Gates Foundation. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) As DeVos notes earlier in the speech, he Obama administration did incentivize states to adopt the standards, though, and Secretary Arne Duncan was a vocal champion.

3. DeVos: “At the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

This is true, in a sense — the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed before DeVos became secretary, prohibits the federal government from pushing states to adopt specific standards. But DeVos doesn’t control what academic standards states adopt, and most states are still using use some version of the Common Core.

4. DeVos: “Throughout both initiatives, the result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing. This sadly has taken root, with the American Federation of Teachers recently finding that 60 percent of its teachers reported having moderate to no influence over the content and skills taught in their own classrooms. Let that sink in. Most teachers feel they have little – if any — say in their own classrooms.”

The statistic DeVos pulled from this poll is accurate, though her framing may be more negative than the results suggest. It asked teachers to rate how much control they had over “setting content, topics, and skills to be taught.” The most common answer was “a great deal” (at about 40 percent of teachers), and another 30 percent or so chose moderate control. Twenty percent said minor, and only 10 percent said they had no control.

5. DeVos: “To a casual observer, a classroom today looks scarcely different than what one looked like when I entered the public policy debate thirty years ago. Worse, most classrooms today look remarkably similar to those of 1938 when AEI was founded.”

This statement is misleading but has a grain of truth. We examined a similar claim when the TV program produced by the XQ prize argued that schools haven’t changed in 100 years. In short, DeVos is right that many basic trappings of school — a building, a teacher at the front of the class, a focus on math, reading, science, and social studies — have remained consistent. But this glosses over some substantial changes since 1938: the end of legally mandated race-based segregation, the rise of standards for special education students, and the expanded use of testing, among others.

6. DeVos: “While we’ve changed some aspects of education, the results we all work for and desire haven’t been achieved. The bottom line is simple: federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped.”

This is a big assertion, and it’s always tricky to judge whether something in education “worked.” As DeVos pointed out, a federal study showed the federal school turnaround program didn’t help students. She also highlighted relatively flat international test scores, and others have pointed to flat national scores in recent years.

That said, there were substantial gains in math in fourth and eighth grade, particularly in the early 2000s.

But raw trend data like this can’t isolate the effects of specific policies, particularly when other unrelated changes — like the Great Recession — can also make a big difference. Studies on No Child Left Behind have shown positive results in math, but little or no effect in reading. An analysis of Race to the Top was inconclusive.

One bright spot: a program that paid performance bonuses through the federal Teacher Incentive Fund led to small test score bumps, according to a recent study by DeVos’s Department of Education.

7. In response to a question about school performance in Detroit, DeVos said she shouldn’t be credited — or blamed — for the results in the city. “You’re giving me a whole lot of credit to suggest that whatever happened in Detroit was as a result of what I did,” she said. “We have been long-term supporters of continued reform and choice in Michigan.”

This one is up for debate, though it’s clear DeVos has long been a major player in Detroit’s education scene. She has supported charter schools, which educate about half the public school students in that city, and been a major donor to Republican politicians and causes in the state. She started an influential advocacy group in the state called Great Lakes Education Project.

She was also a key opponent of a commission that would more tightly oversee Detroit charter schools, which ultimately failed amid GOP opposition. It’s clear she has had an impact in the city, but that doesn’t mean she’s gotten everything she’s wanted: in 2000, Michigan voters rejected a DeVos-funded effort to fund vouchers for private schools. She also hasn’t gotten her wish that Detroit have a traditional school district eliminated entirely.

DeVos on offense

DeVos criticizes Bush-Obama policies, saying it’s time to overhaul conventional schooling

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaking to the Council of Great City Schools.

One era of federal involvement in education is over, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said Tuesday, in some of her most expansive public remarks since taking over the department last year.

DeVos used a speech at the American Enterprise Institute to hit on familiar themes: America’s schools haven’t changed in many years, failing to embrace technology while still spending more and more money. But she also offered a pointed skewering of the approach of her recent successors.

“Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem,” said DeVos. “Too many of America’s students are still unprepared.”

She also gave a harsh assessment of one of the most controversial policies of the period. “Common Core is a disaster,” DeVos said, echoing her boss, President Trump. “And at the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

In place of those efforts, DeVos offered a different framework for improving education: overturning a host of conventional approaches to schooling.

“Why do we group students by age?” she asked. “Why do schools close for the summer? Why must the school day start with the rise of the sun? Why are schools assigned by your address? Why do students have to go to a school building in the first place? Why is choice only available to those who can buy their way out? Or buy their way in? Why can’t a student learn at his or her own pace? Why isn’t technology more widely embraced in schools?”

Some of these questions dovetail with DeVos’s embrace of private school choice programs and tech-infused approaches to schools, including fully virtual options. The emphasis on technology is aligned with a number of wealthy philanthropies that have embraced computer-based “personalized learning.”

They also mark a departure from the paradigm of previous administrations. No Child Left Behind, the law signed by President George W. Bush, and the Obama-era Race to the Top program both focused on improving academic standards, instituting tests, holding schools and teachers accountable for results, and expanding charter schools, though generally not private school voucher initiatives.

DeVos’s vision is more aligned with a strain of conservative thought that has grown increasingly skeptical of test scores. “I talk about accountability more in terms of transparency and information that parents can access to find out how the schools are doing for their child,” DeVos said in a follow-up session with Rick Hess of AEI, the conservative think tank whose board DeVos previously sat on.

This rift is not entirely surprising. Former secretary Arne Duncan has sharply criticized DeVos and Trump, and left-of-center charter advocates have attempted to separate themselves from an unpopular and polarizing president and secretary of education.

In a rare agreement with the American Federation of Teachers, DeVos argued that federal involvement had put too much focus on test scores, citing a poll commissioned by the union. “The result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing,” she said.

The AFT responded icily on Twitter: “More American educators feel disrespected by DeVos than anyone else in the entire world. You can’t blame Bush & Obama for that.”  

Debates about evidence continue

Earlier at the event, “Bush-Obama school reform: Lessons learned,” researchers and policymakers conducted a post-mortem of the last couple of decades of federal school reform.

The results weren’t always pretty. Virtually all participants agreed that well-meaning efforts had proven difficult to implement and sustain: No Child Left Behind had become widely reviled for increasing testing; teacher evaluations pushed by the Obama administration continued to rate most teachers as effective and faced stiff opposition from teachers’ unions; Common Core became the target of conservative ire and the associated tests were scrapped in most states; and a comprehensive study of the federal school turnaround program found that it made little impact on test scores or graduation rates.

Evaluating large policies, like Race to the Top or Common Core, is inherently challenging.  Nationwide test scores have been fairly stagnant in recent years, though that may be due to the effects of the Great Recession.

At one session, participants suggested that not enough had been done to incorporate teachers’ perspective into federal policy. (Notably, no current teachers or union representatives participated in panels at the AEI event.)

Still, research suggests that No Child Left Behind substantially improved math achievement. Studies in some districts have found benefits of their revamped teacher evaluation systems, too.

Joanne Weiss, chief of staff at the Department of Education under Duncan, cautioned against judging policies too quickly. “At some point you gotta say, the results should be in today,” she said. “[But] we have a history in education of calling it too early and moving on to something else, and then 10 years later the research comes in.”

Nevertheless, DeVos seized on the mixed results of past efforts to make the case for her favored changes: more school choice and more innovation at the school level, not driven by the federal government.

She didn’t mention the research on those approaches, which is decidedly mixed and even negative in some cases.

A number of recent studies on school voucher programs have found showed they hurt student test scores, though they bounce back for some students who stay in private schools for several years. In DeVos’s account of disappointing federal programs, she did not mention a recent study of Washington D.C.’s voucher program, which showed drops in math achievement. (A few studies have found positive impacts on high school graduation rates and college attendance.)

Fully virtual charter schools, which DeVos has long backed, have posted even worse results. And some math programs that blend technology with more traditional classroom culture have posted positive results, but as a whole, the evidence base for those approaches remains thin.

DeVos’s skepticism of federal involvement also highlights the central paradox of her job: As the leader of the very agency she is critiquing, how will she advance her agenda without expanding the federal footprint?

So far, DeVos has rolled back a number of Obama-era regulations and supported a new federal tax break for private school tuition, while acknowledging its impact would be modest.

We also fact-checked seven claims — from Common Core to PISA test scores — DeVos made during her speech. Read more here.