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Edison meets Einstein: Redesigning schools for academic and technical learning

May 03, 2016

By Derk Jeffrey

What happens when two education tracks merge to create a dynamic new model for student success? Students who are college and career ready.

Earlier this year, the Washington Post featured an innovative program for high school students in Arlington, Virginia. The vision of district superintendent, Dr. Patrick Murphy, and his instructional team, “Arlington Tech” represents a significant shift away from the traditional secondary education experience and emphasizes “hands-on learning to give teens real-world skills.”

If you’re thinking, “Don’t these kinds of programs already exist?,” then you’d be right. Many schools now offer Career and Technical Education, or CTE, programs. But that is only the beginning of the story. CTE programs in general have become extremely popular in our schools today given the unique opportunities they afford students to supplement traditional academic content with career-oriented, technical instruction. Long gone are the days of vocational education and its singular focus on job training for non-college-bound students. Instead, CTE serves all students, and its broad appeal reflects the value of robust technical training as a proven strategy to help ready our students for post-secondary success.

This current shift in pedagogy follows a rather slow change in mindset about the importance of developing the technical skills of our graduates. And to some extent, we’re all complicit in perpetuating the myth of a compromised future for technical education students: Universities, parents, employers, teachers, counselors and students alike still harbor understandable biases against high school programs perceived to offer marginal college-prep benefit. But for many CTE programs today, this is far from the truth. In fact, many high school CTE programs not only lead to an industry-recognized credential, but many confer college credits as well. Not surprisingly, the relevance of applied learning that characterizes CTE programs has been shown to foster deeper student engagement and understanding of concepts.

What took us so long to recognize the value of learning by doing?

The integration of academic and technical content

According to the principal, Margaret Chung, Arlington Tech models “project-based learning, and the academics are anchored in career technical education.” Such commitment to the integration not only of academic and technical content, but across CTE courses as well, distinguishes Arlington Tech from typical CTE programs. Further, the Post article notes, where many districts offer CTE programs only as elective courses to juniors and seniors, Arlington Tech serves grades 9-12 and is “designed to give students a taste of various career and technical education programs during their first year in high school.” Indeed. Why postpone until the later years of high school the many benefits of an industry-informed, hands-on approach to learning?

Also in Virginia, construction has begun on the Stantec-designed Academies of Loudoun, a district-wide center for the integration of rigorous mathematics and science programs with technical education. Like Arlington Tech, the vision for this facility emphasizes innovation at the intersection of instructional content and learning experience. Programs and pathways at the Academies of Loudoun are designed for interdependence, meaning once-divergent approaches to serving advanced academic and technical education in Loudoun County have now converged under one roof and around a singular philosophy regarding the value of applied learning. And like Arlington Tech, the Academies of Loudoun serves high school students in grades 9-12. Very cool.

Students who are college and career ready

Here’s more good news: further affirmation that CTE programs contribute significantly to ensuring more “college and career ready” students is reflected by the fact that many states are re-writing their diploma requirements to include CTE credits for all students. In particular, Texas began requiring students who entered high school in 2014 to select from one or more of five “endorsements” (Business/Industry, Arts/Humanities, Pubic Service, STEM, and Multi-Disciplinary Studies) and career pathways that align with a student’s interests and career goals. Such recognition for the value of technical education courses as a means of earning academic credits now embeds CTE in the high school experience for all Texas graduates.   

Similarly in Virginia, the State Board of Education recently announced a substantial redesign of the high school experience that shifts emphasis away from seat time toward more internships and apprenticeships. Beginning with freshmen entering high school in 2018, more students will benefit from industry-informed curricula and work-based learning as part of a more flexible and varied approach to earning a diploma. Those same students may also earn college credit and/or industry certification along their pathway to graduation. Better late than never, this new state regulation acknowledges what many school districts have been doing all along and expands the role of CTE programs into a common expectation statewide.

Meeting the needs of the evolving workplace, economy, and communities

As school district leaders, elected officials, business owners, and parents wrestle with how best to define and develop the skills and knowledge our children need to succeed after high school, CTE programs continue to demonstrate enormous value and potential. And unlike the static, decontextualized and perhaps, obsolete, content of many academic programs that still typify most high schools, CTE programs continue to evolve according to the changing workforce needs of our community and economy at-large. Who wouldn’t want to learn what businesses say they need from their employees?

As the future continues to redefine landscapes of the past, we must acknowledge the difficult work our schools and communities are doing to prepare our students to venture into such frontiers – and our design of educational spaces must follow suit. And we must thank the countless educators and industry professionals who have revitalized Career and Technical Education and kept the door of opportunity open to all.

  • Derk Jeffrey

    Derk is a senior principal who has worked with public school clients for over 25 years.

    Contact Derk
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