Kentucky embraces idea that not everyone needs college

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Southern High School teacher Matthew Haynes helps a student craft a case for his smartphone. Photo by Emmanuel Felton/Hechinger Report

Dasani Johnson, a sophomore at Southern High School in Louisville, Kentucky, is using a machine to create a baseball bat out of a piece of foam. Standing over her, as she prepares to start the machine, are her teacher and two classmates.

“Some of these boys don’t expect a girl to be able to do this, but I feel like I’m getting better,” she said after starting the machine. “I don’t know if I want to do this after I graduate, but I’m starting to like it.”

If Johnson stays in Southern’s machine tool program for the next two years, she could leave high school with an industry-recognized machinist operator credential, and a clear path to a job that starts at $15 an hour. While Southern has a long tradition of sending students straight into the workforce, many Kentucky schools have only recently entered the business of preparing students for “middle-skilled” jobs — positions that require more than a high school diploma, but less than a bachelor’s degree.

Vocational tracks may be as old as public schools themselves, but what’s new in Kentucky is an accountability system that puts college and career on the same footing. Schools get a point for getting a student ready for college or a point for getting them career-ready. There’s an extra half bonus point for getting kids ready for both college and career.

“College- and career-ready” is now one of those say-it-10-times-fast terms in education that lots of people throw around, but few pick apart. When the Obama administration made some federal funding contingent on the adoption of college- and career-ready standards, most states decided college and career readiness were one and the same. In Kentucky, however, education officials have decided they are in fact quite different and that being ready to start a career — as a machinist, for example — doesn’t necessarily require students to follow a path that takes them through college. Schools offering this direct-to-career path aren’t allowed to lower their standards: They must aim for the same sort of rigorous benchmarks created for the college track, even if the expectations are more focused on technical skills and the ability to find and parse informational texts and apply math in occupational situations.

Kentucky is among a handful of states that have created a designation for career-ready that is separate and distinct from college-ready. And it was the first state to put college and career on equal footing. Louisiana comes close — it now gives schools credit when students get industry credentials — but students must still pass a college-ready test. 

“There are all of these employability and occupational skills that students don’t learn and aren’t tested.” — Robert Lerman, Urban Institute

“When most states say college- and career-ready, they just mean college-ready,” said Robert Lerman, an institute fellow at the Urban Institute’s Center on Labor, Human Services and Population. “If you look at what amount of jobs require Algebra II, for example, it’s maybe 8 to 10 percent, and on the flip side there are all of these employability and occupational skills that students don’t learn and aren’t tested.”

To be deemed college-ready in Kentucky, students must pass one of three college admission or placement tests. Career readiness, on the other hand, is divided into two parts. Students must show they’re ready academically and are also able to tackle the specific technical demands of their prospective careers. Students can show they’re ready academically by passing either the military Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test or another ACT exam called WorkKeys — tests that emphasize deploying math and literacy skills to solve real world problems. Students must also either attain an industry-recognized credential or pass one of the state’s Kentucky Occupational Skill Standards Assessment exams — tests that were developed from standards drawn up by the state’s industry groups.

Related: Opinion: Are high schools preparing students to be college- and career-ready?

Across Southern High School’s sprawling 300,000 square foot building in a working class section of Louisville, students are preparing for an array of different jobs. In addition to the machine tool program, the school has a student-staffed credit union and a full auto garage complete with 11 lifts and two paint booths. Principal Bryce Hibbard is looking to link the two programs through an arrangement in which auto shop students will fix donated cars which will then be sold to Southern’s seniors on a $1,000, 1 percent interest loan by students at the credit union.

Hibbard is banking on Southern’s career programs to get the school — long labeled one of Kentucky’s worst — off the list of the state’s 27 lowest performing schools this year.

The numbers are moving in the right direction: The proportion of Southern students the state says are ready for life after high school has risen from 13 percent to 57 percent in the five years since Kentucky has moved to a system that considers college as well as career readiness. Of the 270 students who graduated last spring, 117 were college-ready, 45 were ready for careers and 68 left ready for both.

Hibbard, a former state champion basketball coach, uses a large whiteboard hanging in his office to keep track of the progress of his seniors. By early February 2016, 75 seniors had passed either their college-ready or career-ready tests. He predicted the number of students who are career-ready would eclipse the number who are college-ready this year. But it’s more than just a numbers game to Hibbard.

“For too long, we have focused just on the college part,” said Hibbard. “This school has been number one with career readiness. We are all about just trying to create opportunities to make school matter to all kids.”

Struggling schools aren’t the only ones thrilled by the state’s elevation of career readiness. Educators in rural Breckenridge County, about an hour and a half southwest of Louisville, have long embraced getting students ready for middle skilled jobs right out of high school. Breckenridge’s Area Technology Center — one of 53 centers across the state where students from nearby high schools are sent for career training — has been training students for machine tool jobs since the 1970s, and in the process has transformed the county from a sleepy farming community to a manufacturing hub.

“When this school opened in 1970 with just one machine tool instructor, this was an agricultural community,” said Tom Thompson, who oversees 19 regional Area Technology Centers in western Kentucky. Thompson was a student in Breckenridge Center’s machine tool program and later returned to teach and eventually become the principal. “Today, there are 10 machine shops, employing anywhere from one or two people to almost 200 people.”

Kenny Whitworth is the owner of the shop employing nearly 200 people. In his 43,400-square- foot, family-run factory, a photo of his son Tim Whitworth, the plant manager, with his University of Kentucky basketball team, greets visitors at the door. From Hardinsburg, population 2,300, Whitworth Tool. 

“The only way we are going to compete with companies in places like India, China and Mexico, with much lower labor costs, is through knowledge.” — Kenny Whitworth, owner of Whitworth Tool

“Anyone can get machine tools,” Whitworth said. “The only way we are going to compete with companies in places like India, China and Mexico, with much lower labor costs, is through knowledge.”

Whitworth said his firm is able to beat those companies by providing consistently high quality products to clients with niche needs.

Related: Can we really prepare kids for both college and career?

Whitworth, who was the Breckenridge center’s second machine tool instructor, has been investing in the school to build that knowledge base by donating equipment and hiring many Breckenridge seniors through a pre-apprenticeship program. One of those students is Bryan Flood.

“I’m pretty well set on doing this for life,” the high school senior says confidently. “I never did like school. I mean I like math, but I don’t like that other crap like history.”

Luke Williams, a senior who commutes from Breckinridge County to Louisville to work at Atlas Machine & Supply, says that while the equipment is newer at his job, the school did a good job teaching him the basic principles.

Proud of the center’s graduates, Whitworth is quick to point out that “other counties and industries are advertising for machinists in the Breckenridge Herald.”

Dean Monarch, who has been teaching at the center since 2000, said that Breckenridge serves students like Flood and Williams particularly well because the community has long valued career education as much as a college degree, though he says that hasn’t always been the case.

“These are good jobs and any student who wants a job can get one,” Monarch said. “It’s about creating opportunities. My dad wanted me to go to college, so I went off to the University of Louisville and just wasted a lot of time and money. At that age, I just didn’t know what I wanted to do.”

Laura Arnold, a former school principal who is now  head of Kentucky’s career and technical education program, said that differentiating career readiness — and emphasizing that it’s just as important as college readiness — will help the state reach students who might otherwise fall through the cracks.

“Back when I was a principal, every year in May, I’d ask students where they were headed and some would just make up a college and I’d see them a few months later and they’d say, ‘Oh it didn’t work out,’” said Arnold. “Now we have an accountability model that is encouraging those students to look beyond four-year colleges to opportunities like apprenticeships.”

After years of concern that career tracks were a dumping ground for kids not seen as college material, the U.S. Department of Education appears to be reevaluating its position. In a 2014 letter, the Department of Education’s Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights, urged districts to ensure that low income and minority students have more access to vocational programs. This idea is old news to Nancy Hoffman, vice president for program and talent development at Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit focused on ensuring that low-income students graduate high school with a clear path to career success. In order to serve low-income students well, she says, career education programs must be designed to cater to all students

“If you make it rigorous and get rid of the stigma, it’s going to have a diverse population, in terms of race, gender and family education levels,” she said.

A recent study by the Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank, found that career education students — especially poor children and particularly boys — were more likely to graduate from high school, enroll in college and earn higher wages than their peers who didn’t take career courses. Kate Blosveren Kreamer — deputy executive director of Advance CTE, a national nonprofit that represents state officials responsible for career and technical education — said the key to ensuring that more students enjoy these benefits is to use accountability systems to shut down less rigorous career programs that don’t lead to student success.

Related: Push for career-technical education meets parent resistance

“There are a lot of people that still think these programs are lower rigor,” said Blosveren Kreamer. “I don’t think that’s inherently true, but there is a mix out there. Hopefully, we can eventually use accountability to find and replicate the good programs.”

In communities that lack schools with a track record like Breckenridge’s area technology center, the accountability system is only half the battle. For families and educators to value career pathways, they must first see that the programs are actually setting students up for successful lives. That’s why the state department is working with districts to build programs that are not only rigorous, but that will also lead to jobs.

Stephen Pruitt, Kentucky’s commissioner of education, said there’s still work to do in bridging the perception gap between the college and career sides of the curriculum.

“I want to break down the walls between college and career,” said Pruitt, who started as commissioner back in September. “One of the smartest kids I’ve probably ever taught, he’s now a resident at Vanderbilt, I had him in AP Chemistry. He loved medicine and the school had a great occupational health program. He really wanted to be a part of it, but because of the stigma around [career and technical education] his parents thought it might keep him from getting into college. It took some convincing, but I think a part of the reason that he’s at Vanderbilt right now is that program.”

One school district, Hardin County, is attempting that balance by designing career education courses specifically geared to kids headed to four-year colleges. After a disappointing start for the district’s pharmacy tech program, Dan Robbins — the center’s principal — decided to recruit some of the district’s top students.

“We looked for a different student for the pharmacy program,” said Robbins.  “It’s a privilege, they have to be selected, and now we’re looking at the AP Chemistry and AP Biology kids for those spots.”

Kentucky officials created the bonus half point for students who reach both career and college readiness standards for this very reason: to encourage schools to make career education available to more — even all — students, not just those who, in the past, may have been considered unable to tackle the rigor of the college-prep program.

Kentucky’s approach has created a lot of buzz in the education community. At a recent meeting of state education superintendents, interest in replicating the system was high. Steve Canavero, superintendent of public instruction at the Nevada Department of Education, said the recent recession is his state has made career education an imperative.

“We’ve been calling something college-and career-ready that was in fact just about student success in coursework that led to college,” said Canavero.  “We got here by a need to diversify our economy. Our economy was historically built on tourism, gaming and mining, and it was incredibly susceptible to downturns. We had one of the worst downturns in the country during the last recession. We know that we in education have to do something different.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about High School reform.

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