Redefining Education

Education is often viewed as the ticket to a better life. Just look at the economics of a good education. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the median annual income of male high school graduates working full-time in 1999 was $33,184. The median income for male full-time year-round workers with a bachelor’s degree was $52,985. This alone is enough to show that education pays. This is also what is bringing into question our current system of education.

Higher education is already grappling with the question of 'purpose.' In the past, their focus was always on societal need, rather than self-gain. Mission statements read; "liberate students to explore, to create, to challenge and to lead." Now, as more and more students attend college for job training, there is growing competition from for-profit and virtual institutions whose mission statement read; "to provide career-oriented programs," or "programs that prepare students to articulate and advance their personal and professional goals." As traditional colleges and universities find themselves competing for these students, more and more are responding to the need for a market-driven education.

Responding to that same trend, vocational education programs and career academies are popping up everywhere on the K-12 scene. Only this time, vocational education means a lot more than taking a class in home economics or wood shop -- it means legal labs, criminal justice labs, electronic labs, cyber zones, travel and tourism and much more. It means real-world learning opportunities, specialized expertise and well-educated students ready to enter the local workforce. Classes being offered mirror future job opportunities and provide many students with a real chance and, often times, their only chance for rewarding employment

Career academies have been in existence for more than 30 years. The first, an 'Electrical Academy,' was founded in 1969, at Philadelphia’s Edison High School, and sponsored in collaboration with the Philadelphia Electric Company. In 1981, a 'Computer Academy' at Menlo-Atherton High School and an 'Electronics Academy' at Sequoia High School brought the model to California’s Silicon Valley. In 1982, New York City started the first 'Academies of Finance' at John Dewey High School in Brooklyn, a project that was sponsored by the American Express Company. Seeing the success of the New York City project, American Express and a number of other companies came together to form the National Academy Foundation (NAF), which serves more than 32,000 students through a network of 575 Academy programs located in 40 states and the District of Columbia.

Since 1990, the number of career academies has soared. Today, approximately 24 percent of our nation’s high schools have a career academy. The common elements are curricula that combines academic and occupational courses based on a career theme, partnerships with employers and the local community and smaller learning communities that create a more personalized and supportive educational environment. Early career academies were part of a school-within-a-school organizational structure. Their main focus was on student retention and vocational preparedness for at-risk students. Now, many exist as stand-alone high schools and offer a variety of careers options as well as simultaneous career and college preparation.

Although rapidly growing in number, career academies may not be the 'golden bullet reformers are looking for. Several research studies were conducted by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC) as to the effectiveness of these academies. The results were mixed. On the minus side, there was no noticeable improvement in graduation rates or standardized test scores. On the plus side, for students who were at risk of dropping out, there was and increased likelihood of their staying in school, improved attendance and more credits earned towards graduation. Improvements were also seen in students’ level of engagement, participation in extracurricular activities and avoidance of criminal behavior.

In my view, the biggest threat to the continued success of career academies may be NCLB and our obsession with standardized test scores. What is more important — standardized test scores or staying in school? According to a 2000 report by H.M. Levin, the additional earnings associated with completing one more year of high school are estimated to be four to 10 times greater than the additional earnings associated with one grade-equivalent year of test score gain. A college education may be our ultimate goal, but keeping at-risk students in school, engaged in education and giving them workplace experience is not a bad alternative.

DEBORAH P. MOORE -- Moore is editor-in-chief of School Planning & Management and College Planning & Management. She can be reached at .