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L.A. Schools Marry Career and Academic Paths

New America Media, Commentary, Jeannie Oakes and Mnica Garca Posted: Nov 03, 2008

Editor's note: Los Angeles just adopted a new strategy for high schools called "Multiple Pathways" that joins rigorous academics with career training as a strategy to increase graduation rates and improve opportunities for all students. Oakes is the former co-director of UCLA's Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access, and Garca is Board President of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

LOS ANGELES -- Los Angeles Unified School District last Tuesday took a bold step to increase career and higher education options for high school students. The Board of Education unanimously passed a resolution that will add programs to the district's strategies to increase achievement, graduation rates, college preparation and career readiness. The approach is called multiple pathways, and together with small learning communities and small schools, multiple pathways can address the problem of tracking students away from their chances for post-secondary education and 21st century careers.

Multiple pathways has strong support from the Los Angeles Partnership for Multiple Pathways, a coalition of business, research, advocacy and community groups, as well as parents and educators. The idea was developed over the last few years by the James Irvine Foundation, ConnectEd: The California Center for College and Career and UCLA IDEA. It brings academic abstractions to life with problem-based learning in real-world contexts.

Students benefit from both academic and technical studies when the two combine in the same school program. Not only does the approach motivate students (and teachers and administrators), it gives them the knowledge and courses they need to enter post-secondary education, job training--or both--according to their choices when they receive their high school diploma.

California's education crisis is reflected in these recent dramatic statistics: One in four students drops out of school (the number of blacks and Hispanics who drop out are even higher). One of the roots of this crisis is the separation long ago of "mental" work from practical career skills.

Nineteenth century Americans recognized that they had to prepare the country for the economy of the 20th century. The nation needed skilled workers for its growing industrial economy, and the old systems of apprenticeships and learning on the job could not meet this supply. But there was controversy over how to create that skilled workforce. Some educators and policymakers wanted to combine academic content with the technical knowledge that would prepare workers. They argued that combining academic and technical education benefitted both manual and academic skills beyond what either could accomplish alone.

Others thought that kids from recent immigrant and ethnic populations could not master the high-level thinking needed for academic study and that they should have separate vocational courses to train them just for work. By and large, this second group of educators and policymakers won the argument.

As a consequence, counselors and administrators have labeled students "academic" bound or "non-academic" bound and dictated which students could take college preparatory courses. This "tracking" system led to the sorting and placement of students based on incorrect, often prejudiced perceptions of their ability. It led to denying millions of students the choice of pursuing the full-range of post-secondary options. For many underrepresented and low-income populations, non-academic vocational courses were the only education choice.

To the state's credit, it tries to prepare students for "real-world" careers. California has reinvented "career and technical education" (CTE)formerly called "vocational"courses, seeking to make them interesting and relevant. The state now has the highest CTE standards in the nation. However, these CTE reforms don't emphasize mastery over core subject matter such as math and English--two skills that business actively seeks. Even exemplary CTE programs rarely include such work- and career-relevant courses as foreign language, advanced math and science, economics, and so forth.

Moreover, even as CTE courses gain in academic standing and esteem, and even as enormously capable students seek out these courses, the programs continue to be seen as appropriate mostly for students who couldn't "make it" in academic classes. Worse, many schools still ask students to "choose" post-secondary education or work and to make life-determining decisions while still in their early- to mid teens when they are far too young and unprepared to make such irrevocable choices. Such practices reflect outmoded notions that not all students have academic potential, and for them, academic content must be stripped from their schooling.

We need to revisit the argument. Maybe we can finally get it right. As California prepares itself for the economy of the 21st century, we must correct bad decisions made 100 years ago.

Charter School Expansion Changes Face of South L.A. Education

School Matters: Putting 'College' into All Students' Vocabulary

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