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by Debra D. Bragg and Carolyn Dornsife

Though the idea of tech prep (technical preparation) was launched well over a decade ago, few communities adopted it. Some people didn't understand or appreciate it. Others did, but elected to continue existing practices. It was not until passage of the Tech Prep Education Act that attention was drawn to tech prep on a national scale. Beginning in 1992, federal grants for tech prep planning and implementation flowed to the states and local consortia to encourage the establishment of core secondary and postsecondary, academic and vocational curricula. Once distributed to the states, federal funds were available to implement changes. These grants signaled the importance of restructuring academic and vocational, secondary and postsecondary curriculum around something called tech prep.

Assuming that most tech prep consortia needed one or two years for implementation of their reforms, it is only now that the opportunity exists for a comprehensive evaluation of tech prep. This article describes the first NCRVE-funded research project devoted to an evaluation of tech prep. An overview of the study is followed by a list that highlights lessons learned by experienced partnerships about the best way to implement these reforms.

Like many new reforms, tech prep has had difficulty becoming established in local school systems, particularly within comprehensive high schools. Hard questions continue to be raised about how tech prep should relate to other school reforms and restructuring endeavors. Is tech prep predominantly about readying the middle majority for two-year college, or does it have something to offer all students including the four-year college bound and academically disadvantaged? Is tech prep intended to raise the academic standards of capable but disengaged students, or simply to ensure they finish? How does tech prep differ from existing vocational education programs--or does it? Without clear answers to these questions, the goals of tech prep are ambiguous. In turn, colleges, businesses, and other stakeholder groups don't know what to expect, nor how to respond. Community colleges in particular contend with competing demands, especially requests from local business and industry for short-term training of incumbent workers. Often these demands overshadow tech prep, impeding implementation efforts.

Despite the unresolved issues and conflicting demands, tech prep programs have proliferated, and have been linked to a number of promising trends. By the fall of 1995, tech prep was offered in well over half of the comprehensive high schools and the vast majority of community colleges in the United States. As tech prep implementation progressed, a wider net was cast for local partners. Now, as compared to the early 1990s when tech prep first began, more high schools, two-year colleges, businesses, and community-based organizations are engaged. Although federal funds continue to be the mainstay of local tech prep programs, a more diversified approach to funding tech prep is evident, including the use of more state and local funds. Increasing numbers of business/education partnerships and the growing use of work-based learning are also important signs of how tech prep is evolving. Support for tech prep is strong among the stakeholders who seem most integral to its long-term sustainability: state agency personnel, local secondary and two-year college administrators, business/industry representatives, vocational faculty, and students. Finally, local leaders identify tech prep as a foundation for newer school-to-work partnerships, and there are positive signs of collaboration between tech prep and school-to-work; hence, the appearance and use of such terms as tech prep/school-to-work systems.

Tech Prep Research Goals

Thus far, national research and evaluation has resulted in primarily program-level findings that focus on the reform process. Far less is known about the students who participate in tech prep/school-to-work, and almost no information exists regarding student outcomes or benefits attributable to tech prep/school-to-work participation.

Our 1998 research project focuses on enriching and deepening our understanding of student outcomes associated with local partnerships. Three goals guide the research:

  1. to describe six tech prep/school-to-work systems, focusing on policies and practices designed to enhance student transition from high school to postsecondary education and work;
  2. to compare educational and economic outcomes for participants and non-participants in the six tech prep/school-to-work systems; and
  3. to provide in-depth understanding of the various dimensions of student experiences in tech prep/school-to-work systems, exploring students' perceptions, preferences, successes and failures.

Building on case study research that began in 1996 or earlier, the project continues in-depth study of six sites in Florida, Illinois, Ohio, Oregon, New York and Texas. The sites are "mature," and are committed to tech prep/school-to-work as a primary means of educational reform and restructuring. Each site has taken a somewhat different approach to tech prep implementation, emphasizing key components (academic and vocational integration, articulation, career guidance) to varying degrees. The different approaches of the six sites are highly indicative of the variation that exists throughout the country in tech prep/school-to-work implementation. All sites have considerable experience with program evaluation and outcome assessment.

Lessons Learned from Mature Partnerships

Though each site has its own issues and concerns, each has made a long-term commitment to tech prep/school-to-work that guides its everyday decisions about policy and practice. Our previous research at these sites revealed important lessons about tech prep/school-to-work implementation. These lessons reveal the wisdom of experience over a number of years and in a variety of contexts. They will benefit other educators working on ambitious reforms at their schools.

Research on Student Outcomes

In 1998, a cohort of tech prep/school-to-work students will be randomly selected from the six sites. A comparison group of non-participants will also be selected. Approximately 3,000 students will be sampled. Using a follow-up survey as well as student records and transcripts, we will determine the students' educational and economic experiences and outcomes. In-depth interviews will be conducted with three to five students at each site, to provide further insight into how students personally experience and benefit from tech prep/school-to-work.

By the end of 1998, preliminary findings will be reported on a site-by-site basis, providing evidence of how each unique tech prep/school-to-work system influences student educational and employment experiences and outcomes. The investigators hope to provide new insights into the complex relationships between secondary and postsecondary education and work in tech prep/school-to-work partnerships.

By December 1998 we'll offer a technical report oriented towards practitioners, administrators, and policymakers. It will provide insights into how the different models of tech prep/school-to-work operate, how student achievement can be assessed, and how students experience and benefit from such programs. The report will present highlights of successful relationships between high schools, community colleges and universities, between education and business, between academic and vocational education, and between school-based and work-based learning.

Site Profiles

The East Central Illinois Education-to-Careers Partnership is headquartered at the Danville Area Community College (DACC) in Danville, IL. The consortium is located in a rural region of East Central Illinois serving twelve high schools, a regional vocational center, and the community college. The tech prep initiative is directed at grades 9-14. Over 70 business and labor partners are involved, several of whom sponsor youth apprenticeships for tech prep students in the areas of manufacturing, accounting, banking, health occupations, and food service. The consortium sponsors a tech prep student leadership organization that prepares students to be ambassadors for tech prep, encouraging student leaders to market tech prep to younger students. Mentoring is another key feature of this tech prep/school-to-work partnership.

The Miami Valley Tech Prep Consortium is headquartered at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, OH. This consortium is located in an urban area, but the large geographic region served is suburban and rural as well. Besides the community college, eight vocational education planning districts (involving 64 comprehensive high schools) are part of the consortium. Over 100 businesses (manufacturers, automotive dealers, hospitals) are engaged as well. The consortium awards scholarships to most students who matriculate from the secondary to postsecondary level in a 2+2 curriculum sequence (grades 11-14). The University of Dayton participates in the consortium, offering students the opportunity to complete the final two years of college with a baccalaureate degree.

The Golden Crescent Tech Prep/School-To-Career Partnership is headquartered at Victoria College in Victoria, TX. Like many of the partnerships in Texas, the region served by the Golden Crescent Partnership is expansive and primarily rural. It involves nearly twenty high schools or independent school districts (ISDs) directly, and another twenty high schools or ISDs outside of its region. Since passage of the School-to-Work Opportunities Act, this consortium has developed a governance structure and supporting policies to fully combine tech prep and school-to-work activities. Tech prep pathways are offered in such areas as electronics/instrumentation advanced technology, associate degree nursing, and microcomputer technology.

The Hillsborough Tech Prep Consortium is located in the large and growing metropolitan area centered around Tampa, Florida. Students in Hillsborough County matriculate to the community college from eighteen comprehensive high schools, one magnet comprehensive technical high school, and three adult vocational centers. Several courses of study are offered at the secondary level, including the tech prep course of study where students take appropriate community college preparatory courses, plus applied technical courses, and the college/tech prep course of study, where students meet both college prep and tech prep requirements. Utilizing the expertise of both the Hillsborough School District and the Hillsborough Community College, the consortium has developed an extensive evaluation system, documenting student academic performance in core subjects such as mathematics, English/communications, and science at the secondary and postsecondary levels.

The Mt. Hood Regional Education Consortium is headquartered at Mt. Hood Community College in Gresham, OR, outside Portland. This consortium serves eight high schools in seven school districts, as well as Mt. Hood Community College. The consortium started such curricula a decade ago; its long history with tech prep contributed to its selection as a national demonstration site for tech prep for the U.S. Department of Education in the early 1990s. To date, Mt. Hood Community College has articulated thirteen professional-technical areas with its "feeder" high schools. It serves over 30,000 students each year, one-third of whom are graduating high school seniors from inside the district. A major secondary school partner, Reynolds High School, consistently matriculates 35% of its graduates to Mt. Hood Community College, and has a particularly strong tech prep/school-to-career initiative in the career pathways of business management systems, industrial and engineering, and natural resource systems. Reynolds High School has moved aggressively to changing the learning environment by re-organizing around four houses or families, named after the mountains that surround the community-Mt. Adams, Mt. Hood, Mt. St. Helens, and Mt. Jefferson.

The New York City Technical College Tech Prep Consortium is headquartered in Brooklyn, New York. Six secondary schools are partners with the New York City Technical College (NYCTC) of the City University of New York. Each of these secondary schools offers a distinctly different curriculum: one is an elite entrance-by-examination school, another is a traditional vocational-technical school, a third is a health professions magnet school, a fourth is a small "New Visions" high school, and the two remaining are comprehensive high schools, one of which serves a large limited English proficient (LEP) student population. NYCTC has three career divisions that lead to associate and/or baccalaureate degrees in engineering technology, business and communications technology, and health and human services. Among its accomplishments, this consortium has developed an integrated English course titled "Great Thinkers" to help students improve their writing skills and prepare for the college placement tests.

Debra D. Bragg is the NCRVE site director at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and principal investigator of the tech prep/ school-to-work student outcome research. She can be reached at (217) 333-0807, or via email at d-bragg1@uiuc.edu.

The project's co-director is Carolyn Dornsife, who has worked at the NCRVE site at University of California at Berkeley since 1992, directing or codirecting projects related to tech prep. She can be reached at (510) 642-4004, or via email at dornsife@uclink.berkeley.edu.

For more lessons learned regarding tech prep/school-to-work, order Tech Prep/School-To-Work Partnerships: More Trends and Challenges (MDS-1078) by calling the Materials Distribution Services at (800) 637-7652. The full text of the report is also available online at ncrve.berkeley.edu, under "Full-text Reports."

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