President Obama and Education Secretary Duncan Visit P-Tech HS (Getty)
The recent Community Service Society announcement of high graduation rates in career and technical education (CTE) high schools provides further evidence that students in vocational tracks can meet high standards and succeed.
For too long occupational training has been undervalued. The experience of funneling disadvantaged students into training that only prepared them for low–paying, dead-end jobs has long past. President Obama signaled this change when he celebrated the success of Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-Tech HS). The president praised the school both in his 2013 State of the Union speech and from its campus in October for its six-year program in which grads earn associate's degrees and shots at jobs with the school's partner company, IBM.
Recently, 60 Minutes featured Jamie Dimon, CEO at JPMorgan Chase, praising Year Up, a nonprofit organization that transitions disadvantaged youth into technical positions at finance-sector firms.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has also boarded the occupational-training bandwagon. As one component of his agenda to enhance the earnings potential of disadvantaged youth, de Blasio has proposed a dramatic expansion of occupational programs at community colleges. Like other policy advocates, Mayor de Blasio understands that the promotion of four-year college degrees for all is a faulty strategy, not only because too many fail to succeed but because the majority of disadvantaged youth desire occupational programs, as do many employers like JPMorgan. Rather than continuing to force students who want occupational training into for-profit colleges like Monroe and Metropolitan, he seeks to offer these programs in the public sector.
While commendable, this strategy will be more successful if there is greater linkage with high schools that prepare students to enter occupational programs in the community college system. CTE programs should allow students to take college-level courses that are part of such community college programs: a College Now for occupational rather than purely academic advancement.
These programs are highly effective in furthering educational attainment. A study conducted by Columbia University's Community College Research Center found that high school students who had enrolled in CTE programs were 4.2 percent more likely to enroll in college, 5.2 percent more likely to be enrolled for at least two years, and had completed 15 more college credits after three years than comparable students who had not enrolled in CTE programs. Based on these results, the New York City Council funded Carpe Diem, a program that linked four NYC Tech occupational programs with Brooklyn CTE students.
Many students in the vocational high schools come from immigrant families where they face substantial pressure from their parents to enter full-time employment after finishing high school. Program administrators were hopeful that given its occupational orientation, Carpe Diem would make it more likely that these students would go on to community college to complete their studies. Unfortunately, because of spending constraints during the recession, its funding was not renewed. Reestablishing Carpe Diem and creating other CTE programs should be part of Mayor de Blasio's strategy.
Additionally, in order to increase access to community colleges, new avenues to high school graduation need encouragement. The Coalition for Multiple Pathways to a Diploma has suggested a number of ways to increase the graduation rate while maintaining standards of college and career readiness. The Coalition recommends that the number of exit exams required to graduate be reduced from 5 to 3; allowing students to demonstrate knowledge and skills through State-developed and/or approved performance-based assessments; building more flexibility and support into the current system to make it more accessible, especially to students who are over-age and under-credited; and ensuring transparency in communications and monitoring of the multiple pathways system.
Just as important, the majority of students entering the community college system have deficient academic skills that require remediation. For too many students under the present system of remedial courses, this hurdle is insurmountable, and dropout rates are high. Until recently, students entering community colleges have taken these remedial courses with traditional classroom instruction, taught by academically trained, research-oriented tenure-track faculty.
CUNY has now developed a new approach: CUNY Start. This twelve-week program provides more intensive remediation by trained specialists. As a result (pdf), 57 percent of CUNY Start students passed their remedial courses, versus only 23 percent of comparable students taking the standard remedial courses. The de Blasio administration should find ways to increase the share of students enrolled in CUNY Start even if it means changing admissions policies by making it a requirement for some.
Through launching new initiatives and scaling successful programs already in place, the city can give its currently disconnected youth a fighting chance of gainful, sustained employment.
Robert Cherry and David C. Bloomfield are, respectively, professors of economics and education at The CUNY Graduate Center and Brooklyn College