Time for a Redesign:

The importance of matching a district’s career and technical education to the demands and needs of the local labor market

Time for a Redesign
Terry Grier (right) wants to expand Futures Academy programs as superintendent in Houston, Texas, in hopes of involving a fifth of each year's high school graduates in the district.

My first experience in trying to reform career and technical education took place in 1979, my first year as a high school principal in rural southeastern North Carolina. During a surprise classroom observation of our agriculture teacher, I discovered students mesmerized by an unorthodox teaching method. The teacher had designed a slanted desktop that enabled him to show 16-mm films on the classroom ceiling.

But his clever display had nothing to do with agriculture. Students were watching an NFL game in reverse — spellbound watching the ball soar back from the receiver to the quarterback, snapping back into the center’s hands. The teacher explained the film was a reward for the students’ good behavior. Students revealed they saw films every week. “Backwards” teaching, indeed.

Still, as a young principal, I had no idea of the political storm I was creating by conferencing with the teacher and placing a letter of concern in his personnel file — nor the power of agriculture teachers in North Carolina.

I learned my own salary was tied to that agriculture teacher’s success. State law dictated that principals be paid one dollar more than their agriculture teacher. I learned some principals recruited experienced agriculture teachers and tolerated ineffective teaching in order to increase their salaries. The more I investigated, the more I found that agricultural education, as it was practiced then, was neither about the labor market nor about educating children.

The teacher was extremely popular with local farmers, and I was warned his students needed courses that allowed them to “use their hands.” I responded that anyone ingenious enough to create a system to show NFL films on the ceiling of a classroom was capable of engaging students in meaningful classroom activities. Using one’s hands was not enough, I argued. Students needed to be challenged to use their minds.

Middle-Skills Jobs

That was almost 35 years ago, and despite many positive changes in career and technical education, too many school systems run programs with no relationship to the job markets and students they should be serving. Educators don’t take the simple steps of meeting with business or industry representatives or reviewing statistics from the local workforce board or chamber of commerce to determine what middle-skill occupations — jobs requiring more than a high school diploma but less than a college degree — are needed.

America is paying a huge price for public education’s unwillingness to re-imagine its high school career and technical education programs. About 2 million jobs in the United States today go unfilled because Americans lack the required skills. If we don’t become serious about blurring the lines between our career and technical education courses and our academic offerings, we will see more jobs move overseas, where young people are being properly trained to meet workforce needs.

The Houston Independent School District’s Futures Academy program is reinventing career and technical education by creating high schools that forge direct, industry-based, career-themed pathways. This concept seems simple, but its power to solve so many problems of urban education — and America’s workforce — is vast. When students see a real-world application for what they are learning, they want to stay in school, do their best, set demanding goals and meet them. As educators know, developing students’ motivation to learn and succeed is more meaningful and enduring than applying external pressure.

Futures Academies blend strong academics with workplace experiences in a wide range of high-demand, high-growth occupational fields, such as biomedical and health sciences, logistics, energy and engineering. They prepare students for advanced college work or immediate entry into a career. Students leave high school both college and career ready.

Local Labor Demands

The framework is no more complex than the old shop-based vocational education: Establish blended-learning programs that result in industry certification or a two-year associate degree from a local community college, earned while a student is in high school, right on the high school campus.

We didn’t just bake the idea on a whim. In Houston, we used U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the local workforce board’s projections and employer research from our regional chamber of commerce, the Greater Houston Partnership, to identify middle-skills occupations in the Houston vicinity where an existing demand for workers will continue for the next 10-15 years.

The demand by local industry for middle-skills workers is a national phenomenon. In 2012, Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce published a report on the booming need (https://cew.georgetown.edu/report/career-and-technical-education/). In my own backyard, plant operating jobs at a chemical refinery that once required a Ph.D. now only need an associate degree.

Because the Houston Independent School District is an open-enrollment school district, where students can attend school anywhere space is available, we looked at under-enrolled high schools as pilot sites for Futures Academy programs and transport students living outside a school’s attendance zone. We began with five high schools during 2011-12 on these themes: global logistics and supply chain management; chemical and process technology; petroleum and alternative energy engineering technology; manufacturing engineering technology; and network and computer administration. Three more academies have been added since 2012: pharmacy technology, health sciences/nursing and construction technology.

In a partnership with the world-renowned MD Anderson Cancer Center at University of Texas, 50 rising 11th graders enrolled in fall 2013 in a program that leads to an associate degree in general education at no cost to them. Upon graduation, the students will receive priority acceptance into the School of Health Professions at the prestigious cancer research facility. After two years of college coursework and an internship, the students will receive a B.S. degree in such fields as cytogenetic technology, diagnostic imaging, molecular genetic technology or radiation therapy. The cancer center hires 40 percent of those who complete the B.S. degree program.

In all cases, the local labor demand drives the district’s Futures Academy programs. Process technology, for instance, is a field begging for skilled workers. Not long ago, CNN reported on the influx of workers from across the nation to Houston to fill these jobs because the local labor pool was not meeting the demand. That just didn’t make sense. Jobs in process technology pay in excess of $60,000 per year at entry level and only require a two-year associate degree. I asked my staff what it would take for us to make it happen, and we did it.

As a pilot, we designated 50 slots at each high school for students. Tenth graders selected were required to attend a double summer school session, located on their campus, between their sophomore and junior years. The dual-credit courses were taught by community college instructors. During their junior year, half of their courses were taught by school district faculty and half were taught by community college instructors. The same pattern continued over the summer and for the duration of their high school career.

Futures Academy students receive their high school diplomas from our district in June, but they must return for a third double-summer session delivered by community college instructors to complete their associate degree. That means students can earn at no cost an associate degree or industry certification in a high-wage, high-demand career field.

The first cohort launched in spring 2012 with 141 students consisting mainly of minorities from low-income families. Eighty-four students graduated in June 2014 with associate degrees or industry certifications. The second cohort began in spring 2013 with another 117 students, and a third cohort of 232 students began in spring 2014.

Our model responds to the needs of our community, as will our buildings. Because the district is preparing to rebuild 21 of its high schools, a facilities leader sits on the team to match programs with schools. Architects are being told, “Don’t build the same old box. Build a flexible building where classroom sizes can change and where they can support technology that we don’t even know about yet.”

Program Ownership

While excited by our progress, we are far from satisfied. We have struggled with providing true blended-learning courses. Of all the lessons we have learned, possibly the biggest was the importance of having someone at the central-office and school-level take ownership of the program. Therefore, we created a district-level department in 2014 whose sole responsibility is to nurture and expand Futures Academy programs. Also, each campus has a Futures Academy coordinator who serves as community college liaison and oversees business partnerships and advisory committees and recruitment.

We envision the day when more than 2,000 of our 10,000 high school graduates will finish high school with a no-cost, two-year associate degree in a high-demand, high-wage career field. We are confident the program can transform how we prepare students to be career and college ready.

Our academies embody a quote I’ve always embraced from John W. Gardner, who was president of the Carnegie Corporation and the U.S. secretary of health, education and welfare in the ’60s: “The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.”

The Futures Academy programs intends to lead career and technical education reform — to train tomorrow’s educated workforce, armed with the skills to think clearly and work masterfully.  

Terry Grier is superintendent of the Houston Independent School District in Houston, Texas. E-mail: tgrier@houstonisd.org. Twitter: @Tgrier