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ThinkEd: Directions begging to be considered

Stuart Middleton


28 June 2010

Back from America and pleased to be home. Well pleased to be back among familiar arguments – national standards among them.

 While in the US I have been working with people who are questioning the current organisation and provision of education especially at the senior high school and early college years. What is most clear is that vocational education is making a comeback.

Well first we have to get our language up-to-date. In 2006 the US Congress changed the traditional title of vocational education to “Career and Technical Education” (in the reauthorisation of the Perkins Act) to encourage “the expansion of tech-prep / voctec  

programmes which link and align CTE offerings between high schools and two-and-four year post secondary programs. This is important. There has been a clear swing away from the opre-occupation with graduation from high school to a concern that the K-12 schooling system should result is an adequate and robust preparation for a career and employment.

This was supported by the President:

“I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training. This can be community college, a four-year school, vocational training, or an apprenticeship. But whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma

President Barack Obama, February 2009

So change is called for and radical change at that. A recent book calls this “disruptive innovations” (Christensen there is no longer any pretence that we can carry on doing what we have always done and at most make a few tweaks. These “disruptive innovations” are expected to provide both “high expectations and support, and both rigorous college-preparatory content and relevant, future-ready skill development, so that all students graduate ready for both college and careers.”[1]

In the past there has generally been a dichotomy between the provision of an academic education or the provision of a career and technical education programme (remember that is vocational education) when options are discussed. A “third way” has been proposed by a very impressive group working in North Carolina, the NC New Schools Project.

This third way that is being proposed is the provision of a K-12 education that prepares students for both college and a career or put into NZ terms, prepared students for further and higher education and a job. This will require not just a statement that this will be the purpose of schooling but a very real re-think of the school curriculum. It is simply, in the words of one of the people I met, “unthinkable that two underperforming education sectors, the elementary schools and the high school schools, can simply be left to continue as they are.”

By this he felt that the accumulated failure of some (many?) students has at some point to be addressed. If this is not possible within the existing framework of schools within the compulsory school sector then it might have to be achieved outside of it. This leads to a new rubric that is gaining grounds – multiple pathways. The “multiple pathways” is a movement that seeks to move beyond what they see as a tired debate between academic and vocational education and the traditional practice of tracking students into different high school courses.”[2]

This resonates with us in New Zealand in most respects – in large parts it reflect s our history except for the past twenty or so years. Where the challenge is for us is in the narrowing of focus – a demand that high school education should lead to involvement in further and higher education and a career and a job. To achieve this there needs to be a shift in emphasis in the elementary / primary school towards guaranteed secure basic skills in language, numeracy and digital skills. Some might argue that this is already the focus. The results don’t support that for too large a group.

The shift in the secondary school will be towards greater options in pathways that lead to a successful transition into postsecondary education and a subsequent career. We do that now I hear you say. The results don’t support that for too large a group.

And there is a challenge here for tertiary educators – 50% of students fail to get the qualification that start. So, the results don’t……  

The high schools are singled out for attention often but a response will require all sectors to respond.

[1] Christensen, Clayton M., Horn, Michael B. and Johnson, Curtis W. Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. NY: McGraw-Hill, 2008.

[2] Oakes J and Saunders M (2008) Beyond Tracking: Multiple pathways to college, career and civic participation, Cambridge MA, Harvard Education Press

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