Students at the Biddeford Regional Center of Technology in Biddeford, Maine are excited about learning — and they’re eager to tell you why. They can also show you some pretty impressive proof that they’ve mastered the concepts they’ve studied.
Take, for example, the house they built as the capstone of one project.
“It’s not just about wiring a house, it’s about the theory and science [of] what is actually happening in the wires. In my other classes, you don’t really get hands-on, you just do what’s in the book,” a senior at the Center recently explained to visitors from the U.S. Department of Education.
Part of my role as a Teaching Ambassador Fellow (TAF) is to help teachers and other educators around the country learn about the Department’s efforts to support world-class teaching and learning. But, it’s just as important for us to bring teacher, principal, and student perspectives back to policymakers in Washington. For both those reasons, I traveled to Biddeford.
Right now, there’s an important shift taking place in schools and districts across the United States: a shift away from vocational education, and toward career and technical education, or CTE. The narrow vocational training of our parents’ and grandparents’ day was often separated from the college preparatory curriculum, and geared to the needs of the industrial age. Today’s CTE programs are designed to meet the needs and opportunities of the global economy and the digital age, and prepare students for equal success in college and careers.
When change is this ambitious, it can take a while for old perceptions to catch up to new realities. CTE teachers and students in CTE courses often find themselves having to correct the belief that CTE courses are less rigorous than traditional “college prep” classes. The experiences of the students and teachers at Biddeford certainly debunked this myth.
Biddeford offers professionally certified programs in career fields like legal studies, architecture, early childhood education, and health sciences. The students told us they feel good about learning a combination of academic, technical and employability skills that will equip them for success in college and in the 21st century’s technology-rich, team-based, results-oriented professions.
The teachers we spoke with called the Center “a direct link to college.” They explained that participating in the Biddeford program helps students set their sights on postsecondary education, giving them confidence in their abilities and real-world opportunities to apply ideas. A health sciences teacher, for example, spoke proudly of Biddeford graduates who are now in medical school or have launched careers as pharmacists, physical therapists, and registered nurses.
The CTE students at this regional center attend their home school for half of the day. Then, they travel by bus to Biddeford, to spend the second half-day in courses directly related to a career pathway, including work-based learning and other activities that require them to think critically, put theory into practice, and serve as constructive team members. They graduate with a high school diploma and certification in their field. This allows them to go directly to work in high-demand jobs, or continue their education at a community or four-year college.
A senior electrical engineering student explained the extra value he’ll be able to provide to his employer, beyond a strong grasp of the scientific skills his field requires. That added value is leadership: something he’s been able to practice in his classes, and as a member of a student council that offers peer-to-peer outreach.
Secretary Duncan has said that “a career-ready student must have the knowledge and skills that employers need from day one. That means having critical thinking and problem-solving skills, an ability to synthesize information, solid communication skills, and the ability to work well on a team.”
As these learners discussed the house they’d built, it was clear that they’re engaged in something worlds away from the “voc ed” of a generation ago. They didn’t just pound nails into 2 x 4 planks. Instead, they applied a wide range of academic and technical skills – from architectural design principles, to safety rules, to the physics of wiring. They also exercised the key critical thinking and communication skills they’ll need to get ahead, no matter what professions they ultimately pursue.
As one student put it, “If communication isn’t happening, that’s a safety issue – and the project doesn’t get completed.” You can’t get much more real-world than that.
The students at Biddeford showed us what today’s career and technical education can look like: CTE that prepares 21st century learners for the demands of 21st century college and careers.
Kareen Borders is a 2012-2013 Full-Time Teaching Ambassador Fellows at the U.S. Department of Education.