Vallas voc-ed plans spark debate

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Anyone familiar with the Chicago public schools would no doubt agree: Vocational education needs an overhaul. Training and equipment are outdated, and programs often don’t lead to jobs and careers.

Add-ons vs. integral change

“Voc-ed has been allowed to deteriorate over the last 10, 20 years,” says Charles Vietzen, who resigned after a brief stint as vocational education director to return as principal of Hubbard High in Chicago Lawn. Reviving programs will require “making up for years of neglect,” he adds. “It’s a mammoth project, and it’s not going to be done in a year or two.”

For Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas, the answer is simple: Scrap vocational courses that don’t lead to jobs and farm out most hands-on training to businesses, colleges and other institutions involved in job training. Vallas’ idea is part of a larger proposal, still on the drawing board, for overhauling high schools in their entirety. The full restructuring proposal is slated to be unveiled in December.

But the tentative plans have sparked criticism from a number of educators and activists, who agree that something needs to be done. One critic contends that 90 percent of vocational programs are useless, but says Vallas’ plans “fly in the face of all the latest thinking about preparing kids for jobs.” Like most of those Catalyst interviewed for this article—including some who are generally supportive of Vallas—the critic asked not to be quoted by name, citing a desire to maintain a cordial relationship with the administration.

Educators’ new thinking on school-to-work (the term now preferred over vocational education) is to use it as “a districtwide reform strategy that changes [teaching] practices,” says Richard Kazis, vice president of policy and research at Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based, non-profit group that focuses on job training for youth.

In contrast, critics say, Vallas’ approach would make career training a mere add-on to the curriculum.

Under Vallas’ plan, students would spend the bulk of the school day on a core curriculum of academic courses—math, English, science and so on. Vocational courses and any hands-on training students need would be conducted after school, on weekends and during summer school. Training would be done by City Colleges, other universities, businesses, community organizations and private, for-profit institutions such as DeVry Institute of Technology.

Students wouldn’t begin vocational training until their junior year, and only those students who are achieving at or above grade level would be permitted to enroll in vocational programs.

“What we want to do is, we want to have a core curriculum, very prescribed, heavy emphasis on academics,” Vallas said in an August interview. “The best school-to-work curriculum is the curriculum that teaches kids how to read, that ensures that they have quality language arts skills and that they can compute.

“You’re going to see more off-campus programs because basically we’re going to partner with any corporation that has legitimate training programs … or City Colleges or universities or what have you,” he continued.

Off-campus programs will be cost-effective, according to Vallas. Reiterating his vision recently, he said: “We’re never going to have the money to go in and retool programs, and there’s no guarantee that if we did go in, they wouldn’t become obsolete. We have some of the best vocational, technical training facilities in the country available here. Why can’t we take advantage of that?”

Scrap useless voc-ed courses

A Northbrook consulting firm, David M. Griffith and Associates, is now reviewing each vocational course the system now offers; the review is to include site visits to see courses in action. The goal, says Vallas, “is to determine which are legitimate, which lead somewhere and actually prepare kids for a job. The rest, we will jettison.”

The administration will use two criteria to judge whether courses and programs are legitimate, says Misael Alonso, the board’s new assistant director of vocational and technical education. The course must be part of a sequence of at least four courses, and the sequence must be in one of six career areas the board has judged to have the best job prospects, Alonso says: transportation, hospitality, food service, health, communications, and finance and business.

School-to-work for all students

The school-to-work movement is based on the fact that all youngsters, even those headed for college, eventually enter the workforce. Thus, all students need exposure to careers and training in skills they will use in the workplace. And, as one expert points out, such “business” skills as computer literacy, problem-solving and time management “can apply as much to doing a [college] term paper as to performing well on the job.”

Proponents have adopted the term school-to-work to reflect the movement’s broader goals, and because of the negative, second-class status conjured up by the term vocational education.

“It isn’t ‘voc-ed’ anymore,” says Barbara Buell, acting executive director of the Chicago Panel on School Policy. “It’s a concept of preparing all kids for the workforce.”

According to a 1993 U.S. Department of Education Report School-to-Work: What Does Research Say About It?, a good school-to-work program has the following four elements:

Four features of school-to-work programs

Integration of academic and vocational curricula. Schools should add more rigorous academic content to vocational courses, so that students learn more than specific skills like repairing a car engine and are prepared for post-secondary education. In turn, academic courses should use more of the applied learning found in vocational courses, such as hands-on projects. A host of education research has proven that students grasp abstract, academic concepts more readily when the concepts are taught using hands-on techniques.

One way for high schools to more readily integrate curricula is to reorganize all courses—both academic and vocational—around broad career areas.

Structured links to post-secondary education. All students should be prepared academically for some type of post-secondary education, either a 2- or 4-year college or some kind of technical training.

Structured work experience. Workplace training should be integrated with and reinforced by classroom instruction. Training should give students an orientation on how the industry works and the occupational credentials they need for an entry-level job. In a construction program, for instance, students might receive credentials showing that they have completed an apprenticeship-level training program.

Community involvement. Schools, employers, community groups, government agencies and post-secondary institutions should all be involved in designing and monitoring programs.

Begin career awareness early

Ideally, experts say, school-to-work efforts should be woven into the curriculum starting in elementary school. In the early grades, children would begin to get exposure to careers through reading assignments and visits from professionals. In the middle grades, students might take field trips to a variety of workplaces to see how professionals in widely different fields rely on academic subjects every day—for instance, how an auto mechanic and a physicist use math and science on the job. Then, in high school, students would take part in workplace training and internships.

Cities like Boston and Milwaukee have launched systemwide programs along these lines.

Non-integration a major flaw

Vallas’ plans, however, appear uncoordinated and piecemeal. “There’s a big problem there,” says Christopher Koch, a policy advisor for the Illinois State Board of Education. The state board has a federal school-to-work grant pending and will have to provide Chicago’s share of federal funds if the grant goes through. (See related story.) “All your dollars need to be going the same way.”

Most troubling to some are Vallas’ plans to move vocational courses and training to after-school and weekends.

“That’s cause for concern,” says Janel Highfill, interim executive director of the Chicago Workforce Board, which is overseeing the School Reform Board’s use of a $4.85 million federal school-to-work grant. (See related story.) “If people think you’re kind of sweeping [technical training] off to the side, that’s not a real solution.”

But she adds: “As I understand it, there will be opportunity for outside input” when the high school proposal is unveiled. “I don’t consider it a done deal.”

The plan “would have major implications for state funding,” Koch says. “Here the state is working toward integration of voc-ed and academics, and then you’re telling me you’re going to have voc-ed on weekends?”

Besides making integration of vocational and academic courses more difficult, the plan would help to perpetuate the second-class image of technical training.

“There needs to be a concerted effort not to pit academics against technical education,” says Lila Leff, program coordinator of Edge/Up, a federally funded school-to-work initiative at Senn and Lake View high schools. (See related story on Edge/Up.) The two are interdependent, she adds. “To work in manufacturing today, you have to be able to do geometry. You may also have to do trigonometry.”

Kazis of Jobs for the Future agrees. “You need to converge the two. Then you can start to build a new kind of curriculum.”

Further, the plan to reserve vocational training for high-achieving youngsters would lock out kids who stand to benefit the most from the new approach. Applied learning and hands-on teaching “are a way to reach kids who are unmotivated to learn,” says Kazis.

“If you take kids who are turned off to academics and then just crank it up and say, ‘OK, if you do better [academically] then you have all these options open,’ they’re not going to go for it,” he maintains.

‘Systemic’ has different definitions

Vallas brushes aside suggestions that the board take a more comprehensive, systemic approach. “We’re not going to get caught up in process here,” he says. “We’re interested in action.”

” ‘Systemic’ means a hundred things to a hundred different people,” he adds. “The way you take a systemic approach is to revamp the core curriculum so that kids can go to college or vocational training and excel in it.” Students can’t take advantage of good vocational training unless their basic skills are up to par, he notes.

As for after-school training, “a lot of high schools shut down at 1:30 or 2 p.m.,” Vallas says. “Kids might have to leave after lunch three times a week, or some kids might have to start early on some days. We’re not talking night school here.”

Also, Vallas points out, the voc-ed and curriculum committees now working on their sections of the high school restructuring proposal will have to meet before the proposal is unveiled “so changes [each recommends] can be integrated and coordinated.”

Overall, Vallas maintains, critics “don’t understand or are oversimplifying what we’re doing.”

On-the-job training program

To give students more on-the-job experience, the board has launched a $2 million Corporate Campus Initiative that aims to provide teens with workplace training. It hopes to have contracts for some 10,000 training slots in hand by September 1997, with Corporate Campus providing the bulk of those slots.

Recently, the board awarded the first round of Corporate Campus grants, giving nine organizations a total of $856,000. The organizations had to find partner high schools from which students would be drawn for training.

In general, the board has the right idea, says Leon Jackson, chairman of Leadership for Quality Education and president of Multi-Fac Corp. Still, he cautions, it may prove difficult to recruit employers. “It’s high-risk,” says Jackson, a former School Board member. “We do a little bit of that [hiring young people], and I don’t mind telling you, it’s hard to bring youngsters on who have no background or training.”

Businesses may well decide the effort isn’t worth their time, he says. “Once people see what’s involved, you’re going to lose them.”

Vietzen of Hubbard High agrees. “It’s very difficult to find jobs for high school kids that really train them for some specific career.”

Forty-three companies and non-profit institutions applied for the first round of grants. But several sources who saw the proposals judged most to be worthless and hinted that a few of the winning grants were below par as well. The main problem, critics maintain, was that the proposals failed to spell out how on-the-job training and school curriculum would be fused and steer students toward meaningful careers.

“An after-school job at Jewel isn’t school-to-work,” says one observer. “School-to-work has to be related to the curriculum. But their [the board’s] thinking is that any job is better than nothing.”

Shaky beginning for board’s program

The RFP (Request for Proposal) form for the Corporate Campus program was not well-written, says John Connolly, executive director of Jobs for Youth, a local non-profit organization that places an average of 1,500 dropouts and other at-risk youth in private-sector jobs each year.

The board “really didn’t have it designed by people who knew what they were doing,” he says. “It was the most obscure RFP that we’d ever seen.”

Jobs for Youth was turned down for a grant, Connolly reports, because “they said we had no clear linkage to the business sector.” However, the group had found two partner schools and matching corporate funds to help carry out its proposal. It wanted to participate, he says, because most of the young people the group works with have attended the public schools.

Getting more grant money wasn’t the motive, he insists. “We’re non-profit; it’s not going into our pockets. We’ve got private-sector money, but we’re really anxious to work with the schools.”

In general, Connolly adds, “It’s hard to know what the board is looking for. … I don’t think they have a clear concept of what they want.”

The grants were approved by the board in late August, but Catalyst was not able to obtain copies of the contracts. Catalyst requested copies in mid-September, but it was not until mid-October that it was told to file a request under the Freedom of Information Act, and that contracts were not available because they had not yet been signed.

Since the first round of grants, the board has rewritten the Corporate Campus RFP, Vallas reports. The first grants were made hastily, he admits. “We wanted to get some options out there. We’ve since learned what we want the program to do.”

More outside experts will be involved in judging future proposals, he adds.

Prospective grantees will have to detail how they plan to accomplish specific performance goals, says Alonso; for instance, integrating school curriculum and workplace training, preparing students for post-secondary training and raising students’ career awareness.

Troubles at central office

School-to-work advocates also worry about the turnover in the board’s Department of Vocational Education, asking how the board can develop better programs without continuity.

Since last December, the department has had three directors. “I think people took one look at the mess and didn’t want it,” one source says.

Several well-informed sources question whether the board can attract innovative, competent administrators to run the department.

One observer notes that employees are afraid to criticize Vallas even if they disagree with his ideas. “Good businesses can’t work like that,” the observer says.

Vietzen and his successor, Calumet High Principal Tam Hill, both resigned of their own accord to return as principal of their schools. Beyond that, says Vallas, turnover is “because the people who’ve been in voc-ed weren’t doing the job.” Current Director Diane Grigsby-Jackson held several administrative posts at City Hall before joining the board. (Grigsby-Jackson has been on leave for illness and was unavailable for an interview.)

The board is now searching for candidates to fill four managerial posts in the department, says Alonso: business partnerships; research, evaluation and program development; off-site learning opportunities; and school-to-careers, funded programs.

The research position is particularly important, Alonso says. “There’s been very little information [in the past] as to whether vocational programs have any impact,” he says. “This person will do nothing for us but monitor programs.”

The board’s fundamental problem, however, isn’t personnel and programs—it’s a lack of serious thought, says one outsider. With the administration launching improvement initiatives right and left—putting schools on probation, opening more preschools and so on—vocational education has become “just like 50 other things on Vallas’ plate,” the observer says. “But at least they’re acknowledging the challenge, and I applaud them for that.”