In the quest for higher graduation rates, it’s easy to focus on the “three R’s” of reading, writing and arithmetic, or even adding science and technology to the mix. After all, our students should be graduating with the basics firmly under their belt. If they can’t master these subjects, not only might they be sidelined come graduation time, but their ability to get ahead, raise families, buy homes and contribute to our economy is in doubt.
But too often this focus on fundamentals has equated to book learning and spitting back facts in essays and multiple choice tests. For many of Washington’s students, this method of learning is hopelessly abstract. It’s one reason that Career and Technical education has attracted renewed interest. Today’s CTE classes include everything from robotics to firefighting. It’s not your grandpa’s shop class, although some CTE classes may also involve power tools and safety goggles. And why not?
It turns out when students focus on careers and tackle hands-on, relevant projects related to their interests, they learn better and more deeply. They start to develop a vision of a successful future, and they become both inspired and motivated to complete their education. Experiential learning provides students with a direct connection between academic subjects (those coveted “three R’s) and the real world. Why should math be tucked away in a textbook when it can be used to measure the foundation of a house or the turning radius of a robotic arm?
That concept of career-connected learning has begun to take root throughout the state, not just in CTE classes. In January, the state’s Workforce Board and State Board of Education adopted a joint resolution in support of these concepts. The resolution also requested the Legislature create a Career Ready Policy Work Group to identify and recommend career readiness learning standards. The two agencies also came together to request adequate funding for CTE programs during the current legislative session.
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The momentum is clearly here to drive career-connected learning into more classrooms, helping more students find relevance and a reason to stay and graduate high school. At its best, such learning not only motivates and inspires students to dig more deeply into what they are learning, it also helps them make crucial connections with higher education. In many cases, students in CTE classes can receive dual credits, helping them graduate from high school with college credits they can immediately apply toward further education.
To demonstrate the power of career-connected learning, the Workforce Board is hosting a first-ever CTE Showcase of Skills on the Capitol Campus on Monday. Students from 21 Washington high schools and Skills Centers, and four community and technical colleges, are building tiny homeless shelters, putting their construction skills, related academics, leadership abilities, and compassion for others to work in front of policymakers and the public. These transitional shelters will then be shipped to Seattle where homeless people will get a second chance at a fresh start. You can’t get much more real world than that.
Eleni Papadakis is the Workforce Board executive director and Perry England, Washington Workforce board chair.