Emerging Tech Prep Models: Promising Approaches to Educational Reform
CenterFocus Number 5 / June 1994
Debra D. Bragg
Over the past decade, countless reforms have swept the country. Common
to many of these reforms is the goal of better preparing students for
"responsible citizenship, further learning, and productive employment"
(National Education Goals Panel, 1991). Nearly all reforms focus on
increasing the rigor of traditional academic subjects, yet few of
these reforms seriously consider how school-based academic knowledge
is linked to life outside of school. Newmann and Wehlage (1993) claim
that "[school] work has no intrinsic meaning or value to students
beyond achieving success in school" even with the most innovative
reform programs. Consequently, these reforms give hope for better
education to only a few--those most likely to succeed no matter how
their education is reformed.
Tech Prep makes a different promise. It engages students who have been
neglected by our nation's system of schooling and encourages them to
aspire to further education and rewarding work. A fundamental
underpinning of Tech Prep is the linkage of school-based knowledge to
the broader context of family, work, and civic life. Increasingly,
Tech Prep is recognized as an approach that can make education
fulfilling for students and teachers alike, and motivate students to
pursue their education and career goals.
With the federal Tech Prep Education Act in its third year, it is time
to reflect on the evolution of Tech Prep. In this edition of
Centerfocus, public policy linked to Tech Prep is discussed,
fundamental components of any Tech Prep initiative are introduced, and
five new models emerging from local innovative practice are examined.
This article is intended to encourage educators at all levels to
examine Tech Prep and consider its potential for reform within their
The Origins of Tech Prep
Tech Prep emerged from early efforts to reform vocational education.
The roots of Tech Prep can be traced to the late 1960s when a few
states began encouraging articulation between high school and
community college vocational programs (Dornsife & Bragg, 1992). In the
early 1970s the federal government urged state education agencies to
strengthen vocational education through secondary to postsecondary
articulation and better connections between academic and vocational
education (Dornsife, 1992a). Possibly related to these policies, but
more likely due to our nation's steady economic growth, the decade of
the 1970s was a time of expansion of vocational education,
particularly at the postsecondary level (Cohen & Brawer, 1989).
In 1984, the National Commission on Secondary Vocational Education
proposed numerous changes in vocational education and endorsed Tech
Prep as a method to achieve better coordination between secondary and
postsecondary vocational education (National Commission on Secondary
Vocational Education, 1984). The Commission also recommended limited
forms of academic and vocational integration in secondary schools--the
infusion of more practical, work-relevant applications into academic
courses and of more theory and academic content into vocational
The Tech Prep Associate Degree (TPAD) Model
Parnell's book, The Neglected Majority (1985), provided a vision and
conceptual framework for the development of Tech Prep initiatives.
Parnell advocated high quality vocational education, applied
academics, strong relationships between business and education, and
increased emphasis on the two-year associate degree. He argued
forcefully to refocus schooling to meet the needs of the "neglected
majority" of high school students who would never obtain the
baccalaureate degree. The 2+2 Tech Prep Associate Degree (TPAD) model
was designed primarily to meet the needs of these neglected students.
Secondary programs were to include applied math and science courses,
literacy courses, and technical courses connected to career clusters.
Postsecondary programs were for intense and specific technical
specialization in careers such as nursing, electronics, computers,
business, and agriculture. This combined secondary-to-postsecondary
education was to culminate with a two-year associate degree.
Early Tech Prep Implementation
By the late 1980s, 34 states had established Tech Prep programs
patterned loosely after the TPAD model (Tri-County Technical College,
1990). Yet McKinney, Fields, Kurth, and Kelly (1988) found that only
about ten percent of all programs claiming to be Tech Prep contained
the essential components of the model. Most programs were traditional
vocational courses articulated between the secondary and postsecondary
levels, the majority of which were using time-shortened or advanced-
placement articulation agreements (Dornsife, 1992b).
Although rarely in compliance with the TPAD model, Tech Prep programs
were reporting successes by the late 1980s. Prominent among these were
initiatives in Richmond County, North Carolina; Warwick, Rhode Island;
Portland, Oregon; and Pendleton, South Carolina (Dornsife, 1992b).
Enthusiasm of educators involved in these programs encouraged others
to consider Tech Prep as an option for vocational education. Some even
began recommending Tech Prep as an avenue to comprehensive educational
reform. With awareness of Tech Prep growing nationwide and
reauthorization of the federal vocational education legislation
imminent, a strong push for federal endorsement was made to guide the
development of new Tech Prep initiatives.
The Federal Role in Tech Prep
In the 1990s, the federal government became a strong supporter of Tech
Prep. The Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology Education
Act of 1990 (commonly known as Perkins II) supported Tech Prep in two
primary ways. Most significant of the two, the Tech Prep Education Act
was passed as part of Perkins II to target public policy and funding
toward implementation of local 2+2 Tech Prep. Second, Perkins II
allowed states to use basic grant dollars to fund Tech Prep. In a more
recent development, the federal government has expanded support for
Tech Prep as one of several methods of improving the nation's
school-to-work transition system. Pending action by the U.S. Congress,
this newest federal initiative offers the potential for spreading the
Tech Prep philosophy more widely throughout the nation.
The Tech Prep Education Act
The Tech Prep Education Act (Title IIIE) defined a Tech Prep program
as a combined secondary and postsecondary education program that--
By law, all local Tech Prep consortia are charged with addressing what
is commonly referred to as the seven "essential elements" of Tech
Prep. These essential elements are: 1) formal, signed articulation
agreements; 2) a core of required courses in mathematics, science,
communications (including applied academics), and technologies in the
two years of secondary school preceding graduation and two years of
higher education or at least a two-year apprenticeship following
secondary instruction; 3) curriculum development; 4) in-service
training for teachers; 5) training for counselors; 6) equal access for
special populations to the full range of Tech Prep programs; and 7)
preparatory services to help all populations participate in Tech Prep.
- leads to an associate degree or two-year certificate;
- provides technical preparation in at least one field of engineering technology, applied science, mechanical, industrial, or practical art or trade, or agriculture, health, or business;
- builds student competence in mathematics, science, and communication (including applied academics) through a sequential course of study;
- leads to placement in employment.
In Fiscal Year '92, $63 million dollars were appropriated for the Tech
Prep Education Act. Since that time, $90 million have been distributed
annually to the states for local Tech Prep implementation. These
federal funds are used by the states to establish Tech Prep consortia
comprised of local education agencies and public or private higher
education institutions that collaboratively develop and operate the
programs. The impact of the Tech Prep Education Act has been
unmistakable in stimulating the development of new Tech Prep
initiatives. Since 1991, 850 local consortia have received federal
funding for Tech Prep (Layton & Bragg, 1992). In Fiscal Year '93, the
majority of these local consortia moved from planning to
Fundamental Components of Tech Prep
As with any educational innovation, the concept of Tech Prep is
changing as it spreads throughout the country. Beyond the federal and
state influence, practitioners at the local level have a great deal of
autonomy to develop Tech Prep to meet the needs of their students,
faculties, employers, and communities. Sometimes these local needs
provide the impetus for the development of new Tech Prep models. Local
pioneering Tech Prep models embody fundamental components central to
the overall Tech Prep philosophy. Often these fundamental components
are a dramatic departure from current educational practice. In some
situations, they reinforce systemic educational reform. These six
components constitute the foundation for new Tech Prep models:
These six fundamental components are consistent with the conceptual framework created for Tech Prep by early leaders and with the essential elements in the federal Tech Prep Act. Given the growing consensus around these fundamental components (and recognizing that there are many additional components needed to support a successful Tech Prep initiative), it is important to understand how these components are carried out in practice.
- Secondary-to-postsecondary articulation is essential to create smooth transitions and reduce drop-out, failure, and costly inefficiencies for students. Articulation to the postsecondary level opens doors to a wide array of career fields and enhances upward mobility for students beyond what they could expect with only a high school diploma. Eventually, through formal articulation between secondary, two-year, and four-year postsecondary education, it may be possible to eliminate the "terminal" stigma of vocational education by documenting its developmental and life- long nature, and its connection to other aspects of the total educational system.
- Integrated and authentic core curriculum ensures progressively rigorous offerings and experiences for students in academics and broad career cluster areas beginning at the secondary level (or earlier) and proceeding to the two-year postsecondary level (or beyond). Building on horizontal and vertical curriculum alignment, the content--academic, occupational, and technical--is blended or merged in Tech Prep to create a highly motivational approach to learning.
- School-to-work opportunities support learning through work-based experiences and offer opportunities to learn about and explore careers. These can occur in a variety of arrangements using structured individualized career plans; work-based learning experiences such as 2+2 youth apprenticeships or cooperative education; or in-school experiences structured around career clusters. The goal of this component is to link learning in the school setting to the workplace and community.
- Inclusive educational opportunities are fundamental since the Tech Prep philosophy is that education must be accessible to everyone. To ensure this, preparatory and developmental experiences must be available to accommodate individual learner needs.
- Outcomes-focused curriculum ensures that the graduates of Tech Prep have the skills, knowledge, and attitudes to be successful in attaining whatever outcome they choose, whether it be a two-year or four-year college education, immediate employment, or military service. To achieve these outcomes, Tech Prep utilizes outcomes assessments that are authentic and performance-based and promotes continuous improvement as a top priority of program evaluation.
- Collaborative implementation creates shared responsibilities for Tech Prep among key groups (e.g., educators, students, parents, employers, community agencies, citizens) to ensure that the curriculum is relevant and well-supported. Enhancing student learning is the central focus of all collaborative implementation efforts. The formal consortium arrangement required by the Tech Prep Act is central to providing a foundation and network for collaboration. It helps to solidify ownership for Tech Prep among key groups.
Emerging Tech Prep Models
A wide array of approaches to Tech Prep have developed since passage
of the federal legislation. The following discussion introduces five
Tech Prep models:
[text 1 | text 2 | html 1 | html 2 ] summarizes how these five emerging Tech Prep models exemplify the fundamental components of Tech Prep.
- Pre-Tech Prep
- Adult Tech Prep
- Integrated Tech Prep
- Work-Based Tech Prep
- Tech Prep Baccalaureate Degree
A clear mandate of the Tech Prep Act is to develop programs with a 2+2
curriculum configuration. Unfortunately this design does not reach
students who are in danger of dropping out of school earlier than the
11th grade. Recognizing the importance of this issue, some local
consortia have decided to begin Tech Prep-like education prior to
grade 11, thereby creating a 4+2 curriculum (i.e., all four years of
high school plus two years of postsecondary education).
Many local Tech Prep consortia utilizing this "preparatory" or
pre-Tech Prep model have committed to vertical curriculum alignment.
The model relies heavily on enhancing teaching and learning by
interdisciplinary, project-based curriculum and team-centered
cooperative learning strategies beginning in the middle/junior high
school years and sometimes as early as elementary school. Remedial
education and support services are provided to help students improve
their educational achievement. Early career awareness and exploration
are also important elements. For example, students begin to connect
their learning with work and the community through mentoring and
A program that typifies many of these components is located in Catawba
County, North Carolina. Known as Mid-Tech, this program involves
approximately thirty-five middle-school students and three faculty in
a two-year school-within-a-school housed at the Catawba Valley
Community College. The program offers integrated curriculum across all
subjects, including rotation through six career areas. The program's
goals are to help above-average ability, low-achieving students gain
confidence in themselves, stay motivated to achieve in school, and see
the potential of future educational opportunities and careers.
Adult Tech Prep
The Adult Tech Prep model is designed to meet the needs of the large
and growing population of adult students enrolled in two-year colleges
who have not had adequate secondary preparation. In one approach,
known as the "bridge" program, adult students are assessed to
determine their academic competencies and then placed in applied
academics courses or advanced academic and technical courses of the
A related approach to Adult Tech Prep was developed at Black Hawk
College in Moline, Illinois. In this model, adult basic education
(ABE) students complete the General Educational Development (GED) and
then progress into two-year college classes alongside Tech Prep high
school graduates (Schaad, 1993). Key courses in the program are
applied academics, computer literacy, and job readiness. To further
integrate the curriculum, this Adult Tech Prep model emphasizes the
SCANS (Secretary of Labor's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills)
competencies and utilizes interdisciplinary projects. Overall, the
program is intended to provide adult students with the opportunity to
complete the GED, progress into college with preferred credentials,
and ultimately become successfully employed.
Integrated Tech Prep
For the past two summers NCRVE has conducted one-week professional
development institutes to assist large urban schools and two-year
colleges to implement integrated Tech Prep. These institutes have
involved interdisciplinary teams of urban educators from 30 major
metropolitan areas across the nation, including New York City,
Chicago, and Los Angeles. The plans developed by these teams specify
comprehensive academic and vocational integration as the core
curriculum of Tech Prep.
Career academies and occupational clusters/career paths are frequently
used as the model for integrated Tech Prep. Career academies are
schools- within-schools that usually include four faculty members
representing the academic disciplines of math, science, and English,
and a specific career field. Virtually any occupation can provide the
basis for a career academy that is articulated with secondary and
postsecondary institutions. In the best of situations, a consortium
can implement several career academies in different occupational
areas, and these academies could be accessed by students located at
any of the consortium's member institutions. In addition, academy
faculty teams could include academic and vocational faculty from any
of the consortium's secondary or postsecondary schools, thereby
facilitating student transition from school to school, or to college.
In the career path model or career cluster approach, a consortium's
member institutions and their faculties organize to deliver academic
and vocational education around broad career clusters. Career cluster
areas such as engineering and industrial technologies, environmental
and life sciences, and health and human services link diverse faculty
groups within and across a consortium. At the secondary level, these
career clusters provide the context for learning academic and
vocational subjects and enhancing career exploration opportunities. At
the postsecondary level, selection of a specialty within an
occupational cluster is necessary. However, even at this level, the
provision for understanding fundamental knowledge that spans a broad
career cluster area remains important.
Oregon is the first state to implement the integrated Tech Prep model
statewide by institutionalizing occupational clusters/career paths. In
Oregon, eight broad career cluster areas have been designated to link
academic and technical subjects across the entire curriculum (e.g.,
science and technologies, art and communications). An intriguing
aspect of Oregon's approach is the use of these broad career clusters
to bring together the theory and practice inherent in occupations
requiring different levels of educational preparation, ranging from
high school to advanced graduate study. Students in a particular
cluster such as science and technology may seek careers in a whole
array of occupations (e.g., maintenance, scientist, technician,
engineer). By taking this approach, Oregon hopes to dismantle existing
school tracks so tightly linked to economic strata and replace them
with pathways based on related career strands.
Work-Based Tech Prep
Since its inception, Tech Prep has been primarily a
school-based--school- to-college--reform. However, recent developments
in work-based learning promise to make the relationship between
education and employers much stronger--in effect, moving employers
from the role of advisors to fellow educators. The new School-to-Work
Opportunities legislation introduced by the Clinton administration
offers the potential to create formal partnerships between education
and business, industry, and labor to legitimize the work-based Tech
In work-based Tech Prep the workplace is deliberately used for student
learning. These programs are formal, structured, and strategically
organized by instructional staff, employers, and sometimes other
community supporters to link learning in the workplace to students'
school-based learning experiences. Formal instructional plans directly
relate students' learning activities to their career goals. Employer-
sponsored mentors and coaches are essential to the model. Many work-
based Tech Prep programs also incorporate the following strategies:
wages or stipends for students, formal assessment and certification of
skills based on industry standards, recognized credentials of academic
and occupational mastery for completers, and incentives to encourage
business to participate. Examples of work-based opportunities that
can fit this Tech Prep model are postsecondary/clinical experiences,
2+2 youth apprenticeships, formal registered apprenticeships, and
A consortium that has woven work-based learning into Tech Prep is
located in Rockford, Illinois. Begun in 1990, this consortium launched
an integrated Tech Prep program with interdisciplinary teams composed
of school and college personnel. A local business, industry, and labor
group played an active role in designing the core curriculum. Building
on these partnerships with employers and support from the U.S.
Department of Labor's Bureau of Apprenticeship and Training, the
consortium has enrolled a small group of high school students in youth
apprenticeship programs at manufacturing sites provided by two of the
sixteen firms that support the program. Eleventh grade students who
complete the program receive a scholarship based on performance, and
twelfth grade students are paid for four hours of their school/work
day. Students who complete the course earn nearly one-quarter of the
hours toward a journey person's card in a machinist occupation.
Tech Prep Baccalaureate Degree (TPBD)
The TPAD model designates the associate degree as the preferred
credential for Tech Prep. Although the Tech Prep Act endorses this
requirement, it also encourages local consortia to develop programs
that require the associate degree as a midpoint in ultimately
attaining the baccalaureate degree. Unfortunately, most local Tech
Prep consortia have had difficulty articulating Tech Prep with
baccalaureate-degree programs, and universities in many states have
failed to modify admission requirements or curricula. The unwavering
devotion of these institutions to traditional academic preparation has
made this level of articulation nearly impossible in all but a few
states. Minnesota is one of the exceptions.
The Minnesota technical college system and the University of Minnesota
are developing an applied-baccalaureate program in engineering
technology to create a Tech Prep Baccalaureate Degree (TPBD). Still in
its infancy, this model is capturing the attention of educators
because it offers hope for transforming applied-associate degree
programs currently thought of as "terminal" into viable transfer
programs and expanding postsecondary occupational-technical transfer
programs far beyond what is available today. A key focus of TPBD is an
inverted curriculum design based on an integrated curriculum involving
hands-on technical courses and related academics at the technical
college level, and more abstract theoretical courses and other general
education requirements at the university level.
Although this curriculum approach may seem backwards to some--and is
certainly contrary to the conventional wisdom of teaching theory
before practice--the approach is gaining favor from such unexpected
places as traditional four-year engineering curricula. In a recent
article entitled "Why Integrate Design?," Peterson (1993) indicated
that some engineering faculty may see the integration of theory and
practice at the beginning of the curriculum as intruding upon
"traditional sacred ground" (p. 28). Yet he defends the approach as a
way to build upon students' previous learning experiences and
facilitate cooperative learning and creative problem solving
throughout the curriculum. In addition, the long tradition of
four-year schools using cooperative education and
professional/clinical experiences provides a logical base for
providing work-based learning in the TPBD model. Use of this model in
other career fields such as health, business, and agriculture--where
transfer from two- to four-year college already occurs at a relatively
high rate--is a logical next step for wide-scale application of the
Implications for the Future
Tech Prep offers a distinct alternative to educational reforms focused
exclusively on traditional academic content and school-based teaching
for college-bound students. It includes students neglected by other
educational reforms, engaging them in learning that is grounded in
family, work, and civic life. Such fundamental components as formal
articulation, integrated and authentic core curriculum, school-to-work
opportunities, outcomes-focused curriculum, inclusive educational
opportunities, and collaborative implementation can provide a sound
basis for defining and assessing the Tech Prep models that are bound
to emerge in the future. Whether it is Tech Prep for the very young,
the neglected majority in high school, or nontraditional adults, or
whether it is based on an integrated, work-based, or
baccalaureate-focused approach, Tech Prep can be an important vehicle
for reforming education. It may prove to be the "real world" reform
needed to reach our nation's goal of preparing all students for
responsible citizenship, further learning, and productive employment
in our economy.
Cohen, A., & Brawer, F. (1989). The American community college. San
Dornsife, C. (1992a). Tech Prep and educational reform. In D. Bragg
(Ed.), Implementing Tech Prep: A guide to planning a quality
initiative. Berkeley, CA: National Center for Research in Vocational
Education, University of California at Berkeley.
Dornsife, C. (1992b). Beyond articulation: The development of Tech
Prep programs. Berkeley, CA: National Center for Research in
Vocational Education, University of California at Berkeley.
Dornsife, C., & Bragg, D. (1992, December). An historical perspective
for Tech Prep. In D. Bragg (Ed.), Implementing Tech Prep: A guide
to planning a quality initiative. Berkeley, CA: National Center
for Research in Vocational Education, University of California at
Layton, J., & Bragg, D. (1992, December). Initiation of Tech Prep by
the fifty states. In D. Bragg (Ed.), Implementing Tech Prep: A
guide to planning a quality initiative. Berkeley, CA: National
Center for Research in Vocational Education, University of
California at Berkeley.
McKinney, F., Fields, E., Kurth, P., & Kelly, F. (1988). Factors
influencing the success of secondary/postsecondary vocational-
technical education articulation programs. Columbus, OH: National
Center for Research in Vocational, Ohio State University.
National Commission on Secondary Vocational Education. (1984). The
unfinished agenda. Columbus, OH: National Center for Research in
Vocational Education, Ohio State University.
National Education Goals Panel. (1991). The national education goals
report. Building a nation of learners. Washington, DC: U.S.
Government Printing Office.
Newmann, F. M., & Wehlage, G. G. (1993, April). Five standards of
authentic instruction. Educational Leadership, 50(7), 8-12.
Parnell, D. (1985). The neglected majority. Washington, DC:
Community College Press.
Peterson, C. (1993, May). Why integrate design? Prism, 2(9), 26-29.
Schaad, D. (1993). Adult Tech Prep: A model for the "forgotten" adult
student. Update on Research and Leadership. Champaign, IL:
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Office of Community
College Research and Leadership.
Tri-County Technical College. (1990). Tech Prep program description.
Pendleton, SC: Partnership for Academic and Career Education.
Debra D. Bragg is Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois and a Project Director at the National Center for Research in Vocational Education
This brief was developed at the Institute on Education and the
Economy, Teachers College, Columbia University, which is part of the
National Center for Research in Vocational Education.
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