When many of us think of “career and technical education,” we likely recall dusty wood shops, half-finished projects, and cantankerous teachers with untamed hair and maybe a missing finger or three. Or we might envision a class of students and teachers corralled in a section of rooms, walled off from the rest of the school like the two Berlins of old. Or perhaps we think about students who choose career and technical courses because the perception is that they’re “easy electives.”
But in Henry County, Georgia, career and technical education isn’t easy at all: it’s all about challenging students academically.
At the New England Secondary School Consortium’s 2016 High School Redesign in Action conference, Sharon Bonner and John Steiner of the Henry County’s Career, Technical, and Agricultural Education (CTAE) program guided participants through their district’s experiences in a session entitled, “Creating Competencies for Career, Technical, and Agricultural Education.”
The Henry County Career, Technical, and Agricultural Education program will provide a rigorous, relevant, and technologically advanced curriculum that will be available to all Henry County students, teaching them how to be lifelong learners while preparing them for the transition to secondary, postsecondary, and employment endeavors. Remarkably, Henry County’s CTAE program currently serves 82% of the students in the school district, and just over 11,000 high school students are taking at least one CTAE pathway course this academic year.
When developing the program, Sharon Bonner, the CTAE coordinator, and her team reached out to industry partners to understand their needs and determine the core skills and competencies they want to see in employees. Problem solving, communications, and work ethic were among the transferable skills and traits they learned industry leaders sought—and needed—in new hires. Following their research, they worked collaboratively with colleagues to align industry standards with academic-content standards, and then design competency-based learning experiences and assessments that require students to demonstrate their learning in novel ways.
Bonner guided session participants through a “hands on/minds on” activity to deepen their understanding of the program and its goals. Each table received a collection of middle-level and high school course standards. The participants were then tasked with categorizing each standard into one of the district’s five CTAE “graduation competencies” for grades 6–12. Some participants discussed ways to empower students with choice. Others raised questions about possible ways to ensure that students select a diversity of standards (and not stick with the same standard in project after project). Each session participant received a copy of the Henry County’s CTAE competencies as a resource.
For many, the highlight of the session was hearing from John Steiner, a middle school CTAE teacher. Steiner discussed working with his engineering students on an array of authentic learning opportunities that require them to solve real-world problems aligned with the knowledge and skills they will need to succeed in both college and today’s demanding workplaces. For one project, Steiner’s students built and programmed a robot that moved about and executed specific tasks, which required them to apply concepts and principles they learned in class. In other words, they didn’t just have to memorize concepts and regurgitate them on a test—they had to deeply understand the ideas and then use them to solve a challenging series of problems that integrated skills and knowledge from robotics engineering, computer programming, mathematics, and other disciplines.
Steiner and Bonner also shared short video clips of CTAE students talking about their experiences with competency-based learning, which underscored the importance of giving students voice and choice in their education. Unfiltered and insightful, each student reflected on what did and did not work for them, and how they became stronger learners as a result. One student expressed delight in having clear communication about assignments and grading. Another student noted that the electronic portfolio system is not only user-friendly, but it effectively eliminates the proverbial the-dog-ate-my-work excuse. And still another student reflected on the old days of when teachers gave students traditional grades. Competency-based learning was hard work for this student—it made him really think.
Indeed, competency-based career and technical education is about exactly that: making students think more and learn more through doing.
Find the conference on Twitter: #NESSC16