Thursday, November 10, 2011

Why Invest in CTE and STEM in High School?

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Related Posts:
Women in STEM Careers
Higher Wages in STEM
Minorities in STEM
Workers at all levels of education are needed to fill the gaps in the demand for STEM competencies. What's missing in our drive to raise STEM competencies, according to a new report "STEM" from the Center on Education and Workforce (CEW) at Georgetown University, is a clear pathway between high school STEM courses and careers and higher education in STEM fields. This is true for all students, but particularly for those students who are heading to community colleges or right to work after high school. The report argues that expanding and improving career and technical education STEM programs in high school is essential in order to deal with what the authors predict is an "impending shortage of STEM competencies."

STEM has been the focus of much attention in our schools recently, but most of the effort in this arena has been devoted to preparing elite students for baccalaureate and postgraduate programs. While college-educated STEM workers with bachelor's degrees or higher make up the largest proportion of STEM workers, there are also many opportunities in STEM for students with associate's degrees, certificates, and even some for students straight out of high school. Consequently, we should be teaching STEM skills to students at all levels, educating them about opportunities in STEM careers, and providing them with clear pathways to higher education.

Different Meanings of STEM
There is no standard definition of STEM and different reports use different definitions. For this "STEM" report, CEW included the following occupation groups: Computer occupations; engineering and engineering technicians, life and physical science occupations; architects, surveyors, and technicians, and mathematical occupations. The Department of Commerce reports discussed in previous posts exclude architects from their definition of STEM, but include STEM managers.
The CEW report predicts that nationwide, about 35% of STEM job openings through 2018 will require a high school education, some college, or an associate's degree. That means 840,000 of the 2.4 million predicted jobs in STEM will go to employees who have less than a bachelor's degree. Yet general education curricula tend to discourage average students from continuing into STEM fields:
"One of the most difficult challenges in the American education system will be improving the middle of the test score distribution. The demand for high-level skills, including STEM skills, has grown well beyond the elite careers that require a Bachelor’s or graduate degree...Strengthening the relationship between education and STEM competencies begins with a stronger focus on the middle in education policy." (page 76)
Not only does our economy need high school and community college graduates to fill nearly 1 million STEM jobs in the next decade, but those students will reap enormous benefits from an education that prepares them for these jobs. The "STEM" report finds that people with a high school diploma or less have higher lifetime earnings working in STEM jobs than in any other field. STEM jobs also pay more than all other fields for people with an associate's degree, some college, or a postsecondary certificate. The graph to the right shows how employees with less than a college education can earn more working in a STEM job than in other fields.

In Virginia, the majority of projected STEM employment still requires a 4-year degree or higher, but more than 30% of Virginia STEM jobs will be at the associate's degree level or lower. According to CEW projections, in 2018 there will be about 25,000 jobs in STEM fields in Virginia that require a high school diploma, 31,000 that required some college, and 56,000 that require an associate's degree. In total, their report predicts 113,000 jobs that require less than a bachelor's degree in STEM fields. [See the 2010 report, Help Wanted

In order to qualify for these STEM careers, however, students need to have a clear pathway laid out for them in high school and to be provided with a clear and effective transition to a two-year college. However, unless students are part of the minority who take a CTE program focused on STEM, they are rarely shown how to connect STEM courses to STEM career. According to the report, nationwide: 
"American high schools offer very little career and technical education or any substantial on-ramps to postsecondary career and technical education. As a result, students who don’t get career and technical preparation in high school and don’t succeed in the transition to postsecondary programs are left behind." (page 76)
In our current general education system, courses are organized into hierarchies — a student moves from algebra I to algebra II,  or from biology to chemistry to physics and teachers focus primarily on moving students from one academic level to the next. The report argues that to better prepare students for STEM  "we should focus on developing curricula that put academic competencies into applied career and technical pedagogies and link them to postsecondary programs in the same career clusters" (page 76). This is the strategy that is currently being applied in the majority of Virginia's CTE programs, with our firm emphasis on career education and counseling, dual enrollment, and industry certification. Furthermore, Virginia's CTE programs do reach reach a large percentage of secondary students. But there is more work to do to reach all of the students who need to build these skills. 

The "STEM" report concludes that to improve the STEM workforce and the American economy as a whole, we need to begin by expanding and broadening access to STEM-based career and technical education programs. The report recommends four steps:
  1. High school and postsecondary career and technical programs should focus on broadly conceived career clusters that maximize further educational choices as well as employability, as many students will need jobs if they are to pay for college and related expenses.
  2. To the extent possible, “learn and earn” programs in STEM should allow students to work and study in the same field beginning in high school.
  3. Programs of study that align high school and postsecondary STEM curricula should be strengthened.
  4. Hybrid programs that mix solid technical knowledge with the development of more general skills and abilities should be encouraged in a broader range of schools.
Virginia's Governor's STEM Academies, which combine work-based learning with academic and CTE STEM courses articulated to postsecondary programs, are exactly the kind of programs that the "STEM" report recommends. But they are not the only programs working toward this goal. The majority of our CTE programs include science, technology, and mathematics instruction coordinated with academic instruction; clearly articulated pathways to careers and postsecondary education; and some opportunities for work-based learning. However programs of this sort are complex, expensive to teach, and expensive to administer. Without substantial support from school divisions and the state, it will be impossible to expand and broaden access to these programs in the way that "STEM" recommends.