Career education plan stirs fear of minority ‘tracking’

Mar 11, 2013 by

success-ruler1-300x217Not so long ago, some Texas public schools had a bad habit of channeling minority high school students into bricklaying and cosmetology rather than preparing them for college.

Lingering memories of those days are fresh on the minds of the many Latino and African-American state leaders who are uneasy with current legislative efforts to loosen Texas’ high school graduation standards so that students can pursue more career training.

“This notion of having a degree that is really a career-tech degree scares me, I have to admit. I am old enough and I am suspicious enough to wonder who is going to be in that career tech,” Education Commissioner Michael Williams said at a recent gathering of business leaders.

“I suspect it’s going to be people who look like us rather than somebody else,” Williams, who is African-American, said as he pointed to a high-level Latino state official in the audience. “That scares the bejeebus out of me.”

Old-school vocational education fell out of favor in Texas after the 1984 education reforms pushed by Dallas businessman Ross Perot led to higher academic standards.

Today, there are about 200 “career and technical education” courses in areas such as finance, information technology and manufacturing, but only 10 percent of those courses count toward the core academic requirements needed for graduation.

The 2007 enactment of the 4×4 graduation plan — four years of math, English, science and social studies — meant that students had little room in their schedules for the career training courses that did not satisfy the 4×4 requirements.

Supporters of the 4×4 say the structure ensures that all students are pursuing a course of study that should prepare them for life after high school.

But a newly involved coalition of business and industry say the rigid requirements of the 4×4 have been a contributing factor in the dearth of well-qualified workers coming out of Texas high schools ready to work in advanced manufacturing and other skilled trades.

College isn’t for everyone and students should know that they have other potentially lucrative options, the coalition members argue. They are pushing for more flexibility in the requirements so that students will have more time in high school to explore career training.

And the proposal has a lot of political momentum.

Robin Painovich, executive director of the Career and Technology Association of Technology, said the career training classes can be just as rigorous as traditional academic offerings and would be valuable additions to any student’s course of study. The options include, among other, engineering and robotics, computer animation, accounting, and welding.

Others like the idea of giving students more opportunities to prepare for well-paying careers that don’t require a college degree, particularly if those courses keep them coming to school.

“If you’re getting six figures, is that bad?” asked state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin. “There really are some good-paying jobs out there that we don’t have the workforce to fill them.”

But Rodriguez said he and others in the Mexican American Legislative Caucus are also on high alert for indications that low-income and minority students could be disproportionately steered into the career option and away from the college path. That hurts individual students and the state as a whole because minority students constitute the majority of students in Texas public schools.

Rodriguez said he will be suspicious of any bill that doesn’t openly acknowledge that tracking of low-income and minority students has happened in the past and should not happen again.

House Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, said his bill is aimed at providing all students more options to pursue what interests them, whether that is fine arts, math and science or construction management. But he is also keenly aware of the potential for schools to divert some students to a graduation path that might have fewer core academic requirements.

“I want to be very, very careful that we don’t create that sort of track,” Aycock said in an interview after he filed House Bill 5 last month.

State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, a Hispanic Democrat from San Antonio, said she recalls her parents having to battle with school officials to allow her into the higher-level math classes that she would need to go to college and eventually become a pharmacist.

“We can’t decide for students what their choices should be,” Van de Putte said.

She is pushing changes to the legislation to ensure schools report demographic data on which students are pursuing the graduation pathways with fewer academic requirements than the graduation plans for college-bound students.

“We want to know which schools are really doing well at giving their students the opportunity to really choose,” Van de Putte said.

Linda Anderson, who has worked in career training education as a teacher and administrator for more than 30 years, said she believes everyone’s interests could be served by keeping the 4×4 but approving more career training courses to satisfy some of those requirements.

Students would have more course options, but they would also be assured that they have the basics for whatever lies ahead after high school, said Anderson, now the director of career and technical education in the Birdville school district near Fort Worth.

The systemic discrimination that tracked some students more than 30 years ago has been replaced today with subtle discouragement, even with the 4×4 requirements, said Lisa Fielder, chief executive officer of College Forward, which helps low-income Central Texas high school students apply for and get through college.

“They believe they are too often discounted in the public education system, that they are not expected to achieve,” Fielder said. “If anything, we need to increase rigor. Our students are capable of incredible feats, but they have to be asked. If we don’t expect much of them, that is exactly what they will give us.”

Diana Gomez, who grew up in Kyle and graduated from University of Texas last spring, said she was the lone Latina in her Advanced Placement classes in high school, meaning that her fellow minority classmates were guided into lower level courses and away from the college track.

Now an AmeriCorps member working with College Forward in Manor, Gomez coaches high school students through the process of applying for college, scholarships and financial aid. And she sees the same tendency to discourage students from dreaming big.

“Proposals like this would make it a lot easier for students to be tracked away from … four-year universities,” Gomez said of the graduation plan legislation.

Fielder said she wants the rigid 4×4 to stay in place so that state students can’t make course choices that could adversely affect their academic and career trajectory so early in life.

“If there is one door that students can choose, they will walk through it,” Fielder added. “What I’m afraid this is doing is … opening a third door and I mourn for the students who before they know what is behind that door go through it.”

Career training is valuable, Fielder said, but “it need not be the default position ever for any student based on any arbitrary thing like family income, family background, family education status, skin color, ethnicity. And I’m afraid that too often it could be.”

Career education plan stirs fear of minority ‘tracking’ |

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