New generation of career-focused high schools tests the waters

Strange as it may seem, one of the lesser-known jobs crisis in America today involves an actual shortage of workers in manufacturing and skilled trades. Over the past few weeks, President Obama, the German manufacturing giant Siemens, and 52 percent of employers in one survey have said that American workers lack the skills that employers are looking for.

Meanwhile, nearly 14 million Americans are unemployed, but hundreds of thousands of jobs in manufacturing and other skilled trades remain open. The percentage of trade employers who say they can't find critical employees is up from 14 percent to 52 percent this year, according to a survey by the temp agency Manpower.

Some employers have started to try to close this skilled-labor gap by sponsoring a new approach to vocational education. In 2005, a group of manufacturers and politicians called the Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance Council tried to address this problem by setting up a school they hoped would foster the next generation of high-tech manufacturers in Chicago's poverty-ridden West side. The goal of the Austin Polytechnical Academy is to prepare kids for careers and college at the same time, with students receiving a manufacturing certificate upon graduation that qualifies them for jobs with starting pay of up to $65,000 right out of high school.

The school seems a model of career integration--there's buy-in from the local business community, state-of-the-art technological equipment for students to train on, and a reform-minded city leadership that is willing to give the school latitude to experiment. Even better, the city didn't bear the entire cost of setting up the school: Some of Austin's 65 business partners donated $200,000 for high-tech training equipment and offered internships to students over the summer breaks.

So why has the school been widely written off as a failure in Chicago? And what does it take to build a high school program that gives young people the skills to land a high-paying job without shortchanging them of a more wide-ranging educational experience?

Austin's ambitious mission was not enough to lift its impoverished student body's standardized test scores: They're in the bottom quarter of Chicago schools, and attendance has also been poor, according to a series on the school by the Chicago News Co-op. Dozens of students were suspended for holding a sit-in to protest the firing of 30 teachers this spring and other proposed changes. (Their suspensions were later revoked.) And about half of students who started at the school as freshmen four years ago showed no improvement on English and science tests.

A spokeswoman for the school, Ingrid Gonçalves, told The Lookout that the school's ACT scores in math did improve over the same four-year span, and rank among the top 20 high schools in the city in improvement. And the school—along with the 90 plus other new schools opened in the city since 2004 as part of the Renaissance reform push—is still new. More than 80 Austin students have gained certification from the National Institute for Metalworking Skills, and eight of the school's 92 graduates so far are working with manufacturing companies this summer in paid internships and plan on going to two-year or four-year college in the fall. In total, 59 graduates said they have some post-secondary education plan.

Austin shows that career-focused education is not a magic bullet, even when it's done by the book. So what does work? And how much does it have to cost?

Robert Schwartz--a Harvard Education School professor who wrote the influential "Pathways to Prosperity" report urging K-12 career education that we covered in our first post in this series--praised several high performing career-focused academies, including the Linked Learning Initiative in California, which is run by ConnectEd. Linked Learning has expanded to 500 career academies in nine school districts in California, even as the state has drastically cut back on public education spending.

Gary Hoachlander, ConnectEd's president, told The Lookout that he is able to change the culture of schools to make them career-focused without spending more money than a regular public school would. He says he first became interested in vocational schools when he studied Aviation High School in Queens, New York in the 1970s. The school still graduates students who are qualified to enter well-paying jobs as airport mechanics after a completing a highly competitive five-year high school program.

"We see higher rates of attendance, we see higher grade to grade transition, higher grad completion," Hoachlander says of students who participate in Linked Learning. "The work is not about college or career--it's about both. It's about helping students better understand, 'Why do I need to know this stuff?'"

Transforming a school to help students focus on developing career skills without spending much extra money often means teachers have to work harder and spend more time on curriculum planning. Big cuts in high school counseling in the state mean that teachers also have to pick up the slack and take on advising roles. However, Hoachlander said that teachers are often as excited about a change in pace as students.

"In many respects this is as re-energizing for teachers as it is for students. There are a lot of teachers out there who are just as bored as the kids are with how we deliver high school education," he said.

Still, Hoachlander conceded that finding those teachers can be tough. "I think it's getting harder and harder to find career and technical teachers who really have an in-depth knowledge of the industry and the occupations if for no other reason than they are able to make more money in the industry than they are in teaching. That's a challenge," he said.

Schwartz said programs such as Linked Learning are helping to dispel persistent stereotypes that still dog career-focused education: that vocational classrooms become the "slow track" for minority, poor, and special education students who teachers don't want in their classrooms. (Indeed, after we wrote our first article on the prejudices facing vocational education, a spokeswoman for the Association for Career and Technical Education Sabrina Kidwai wrote to remind us that the organization prefers the phrase "career and technical education" over vocational education, because "of the stigma attached to it.")

While the best new career programs don't push the idea that a four-year college degree is the only path to success, they do encourage their students to do some post-secondary work--enrolling in an associate's degree or a certificate program, for example--in order to get the skills they need to land a higher-paying job, Schwartz said. (Research shows that more than a quarter of people with a certificate short of an associate's degree make more than the average worker with a bachelor's degree.)

"Over the last decade or so, there are now some programs that are large enough in scale to have really captured attention and have broken out of these old stereotypes," Schwartz said. "One of the common denominators in programs like these is that a lot of their graduates go on to some form of post secondary education."

But just as employers and educators are reviving interest in developing and funding strong vocational programs, federal funding has been cut for them by more than $130 million in the 2011 budget. State and local funding makes up the lion's share of education money, but near-universal state budget crunches make it likely that career programs have also felt the pain on the local level.

"We need employers to step up in part because of the likely funding cuts," Schwartz says, adding that in Germany, employers fund training and internship programs in high schools in order to ensure they have the skilled workers they need.

Schwartz also says the federal government could award funds to states that develop high-performing and cost-effective career-focused high schools, much like the "Race to the Top" program that doles out federal money to states that adopt Obama-approved education reforms.

In our next post in this series, we will shadow a group of students who attend a career-focused National Academy Foundation high school in New York City as they embark on a summer internship in the finance industry. Stay tuned!

(Protective helmets in a German Siemens factory: AP/Matthias Rietschel)