College & Careers > Career Preparation

New report fuels fears of decline of regional occupational programs


Jesus Lupian works on a framing project in his carpentry class in San Jose. Photo by Neil Hanshaw.

Jesus Lupian works on a framing project in a carpentry class at Silicon Valley Career Technical Education in San Jose. Credit: Neil Hanshaw

A new report has raised concerns about the future of regional occupational programs that are geared to helping high school students explore career options and be prepared to enter the workforce after graduation.

The report, released this month by the California Department of Education, shows a 20 percent drop in the number of career technical high school teachers between 2011-12 and 2012-13. And only 38 percent of the state’s high school students took career tech courses in 2012-13, about 12 percent fewer students than the year before.

The decline “is staggering,” said Lloyd McCabe, author of the report and an education administrator for the education department’s Career Technical Education Leadership and Instructional Support Office. “You look at it and think it can’t be right. But I did the data twice.”

Shifting priorities

The decline reflects a shift in the state’s priorities away from traditional occupational classes such as auto shop or carpentry to career-oriented programs that put students on a college track. Some contend this shift is needed to ensure that students have as many options as possible when they graduate from high school. Others argue that the state has gone too far, overlooking students who are not college-bound and who need to be prepared to enter the work force or a short-term training program directly out of high school.

Career tech includes a broad range of courses from the basic high school automotive shop class to linked learning programs that combine rigorous college-prep academics with hands-on learning in a career “pathway,” such as health or business. State leaders are investing $250 million in one-time funds to develop linked learning programs and are providing dedicated funding to Partnership Academies, which rely on the linked learning approach by creating small learning communities at high schools that focus on an integrated career theme.

But the Regional Occupational Centers and Programs, which for 40 years have offered a wide range of career classes from cosmetology to engineering as part of the high school curriculum, no longer receive dedicated funding. Although many of those courses appeal to college-going students, these centers also serve high school students who want to explore well-paying careers such as dental hygienist or carpentry that do not require a four-year college degree.

The drop in career technical teachers and courses is occurring in these centers and in individual high school classes such as automotive shop, McCabe said. Regional Occupational Centers and Programs, which serve more than 400,000 students, can be located on a high school campus or a separate facility. Students typically take classes during their regular school day, although some centers offer courses after school.

The loss of dedicated funding “has accelerated the demise of career tech,” said Jim Aschwanden, executive director of the California Agriculture Teachers’ Association and a former State Board of Education member.

The regional occupational centers that supported the key courses have suffered cutbacks and are fading away, he said, citing the data in the new report as evidence. Currently 72 centers are open statewide, and two – Long Beach ROP and East Bay ROP in Oakland – have closed.

“What district is going to put students in the career tech pipeline if they see the structure is disappearing?” Aschwanden asked.

The pathway approach taken by Partnership Academies and linked learning programs is growing, however. Partnership Academies are one of the few state programs that will continue to receive dedicated annual funding of $21.4 million. In addition, 63 county offices of education and districts are piloting linked learning programs starting this school year.

Districts can also compete for a piece of the $250 million in one-time funds the state will provide during the next three years to create career pathways by building connections between high schools and local employers across the state.

On the other hand, the 72 Regional Occupational Centers have to compete with other district priorities.

‘Sea change’

Before the recession, the state allocated $486 million in dedicated funding to the centers. When the recession began, the state cut the allocation by 20 percent and allowed districts to use the money for any educational purpose. This year’s budget and the one the governor has proposed for next year essentially provide no funds for the centers, but districts who are currently funding a center or program are expected to continue to do so through 2014-15. The budget for this year and next also allocates a little more than $200 per high school student for career tech, but districts are free to spend the funds for other purposes.

Regional occupational centers and programs will remain viable if they provide courses that are key to local economic growth and maximize opportunities for students, said Hilary McLean, a spokesperson for the Linked Learning Alliance, a statewide coalition of education, industry and community organizations that advocate for linked learning programs. But if they don’t, she said, “they eventually will go by the wayside.”

There is a “sea change at work” on how to better prepare students for college and career, she said.

“We’re seeing a real interest in the linked learning approach that builds on career tech – integrates it with academics,” McLean said. “It’s better than the either-or approach – college prep track or isolated career tech track.”

But Aschwanden is concerned that students who want to pursue careers that do not require a four-year college degree will lose interest in school and drop out without the options offered through regional centers.

Many of the centers’ programs, such as aerospace engineering offered at SoCal Regional Occupational Center in Torrance, meet the linked learning criteria, but others such as SoCal’s cosmetology or welding programs do not because they do not include an integrated academic approach.

In Torrance, aerospace is a big industry and a district could support a linked learning career pathway in that industry, said Christine Hoffman, superintendent of SoCal ROC. “But not everybody wants to be an aerospace engineer,” she said. “Kids want to be welders, electricians, auto technicians, animators. A single high school cannot do all the things that a regional occupational center can and does provide.”

The loss of dedicated funding for the career centers and programs is part of the recent overhaul of the state’s complex school finance system aimed at giving school districts more control over how they use state funds. The theory behind the new Local Control Funding Formula law, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, is that districts will support programs that are valued by their communities “based on the real-world problems they face,” Brown has said.

But Aschwanden isn’t so sure. He said some programs will survive, such as agricultural courses because they are science-based and the University of California has recognized them as meeting one of the “A-G” course requirements for entrance into the university system.

But, he added, if the past is any indication, districts will focus on what is tested. Although metrics showing how well high schools are preparing students for careers are supposed to be added to the Academic Performance Index in 2014-15, no one is clear on how that can be measured, he said. If career tech courses can’t be measured to contribute to a school or district’s API score, then districts are much less likely to support them, he said.

Districts have other compelling priorities, Hoffman said.

“All the new monies that the high schools are getting in the next three to five years are backfill for what they lost over the last eight years,” she said. “Whenever you get new monies, the first call will be on the negotiation table for salaries. That’s the reality of where the monies go.”

One of the problems with eliminating dedicated funding for the centers, advocates say, is that they typically involve large investments in facilities and equipment such as carpentry and auto shops or dental offices and beauty salons. If funds for the centers and programs disappear, the facilities and equipment will be sold, they say, and will be too expensive to rebuild in the future.

Hoffman said she is urging lawmakers to once again provide dedicated funding for these regional programs that she sees as crucial to local economies, and ultimately to the economic health of the state.

“By the time we realize what we have eliminated, it’s too late,” Hoffman said. “The facilities are gone, the equipment is gone, and we won’t have the funding to get them back.”

Susan Frey covers expanded learning time. Contact her. 

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10 Responses to “New report fuels fears of decline of regional occupational programs”

  1. Paul said

    on January 27, 2014 at 7:56 am

    This is a disaster, both for legions of students who would enjoy satisfying and lucrative work in skilled trades, and for the economy, which is top-heavy with holders of undergraduate degrees but is undersupplied with skilled tradespeople. Ask your coffee barista what he majored in, whether the coins in the tip jar allow her to repay her student loans, and whether serving coffee at Starbucks feels like a true calling.

    Students who doggedly pursue training in skilled trades, despite the decline of ROP; despite federal policy (everyone should go to university); despite state policy (school districts are rated on completion levels for courses required for state university admission); despite local policy (the comment about the capital cost of shops is telling; my local school district last year converted a high school wood shop to a computer lab); and despite parental preference (parents, too, insist on “college or else”); will be easy prey for private, for-profit career training institutes, many of which are under investigation for high fees (creating student loan debt) and low job placement rates (in which low-quality courses must surely play some part).

    In terms of the teacher workforce, the new, academic spin on career education within high schools will edge out teachers with real trades experience, whose special credential type only allowed them to teach “pure” trade courses. (I put “pure” in quotes because it is commonly used in just the opposite sense, e.g., to delineate pure and applied sciences. Here, I mean to delineate courses focused squarely on a trade from courses or programs that blend trade work and academic work. The latter courses are worthy, too, and we don’t have enough of them — algebra and geometry for construction trades comes to mind — but except in charter schools, they may only be taught by teachers with single subject, i.e., academic, credentials.)

    In my experience, practically-minded teachers, whose training and experience had come from outside the public education world, were a breath of fresh air in any school. Aside from being competent in their trades, they tended to relate easily to their students. Trade courses should never have been thought of as lesser courses for students on the fringe, but they nevertheless did provide a safe home for students who saw themselves as different — a place where students could experience personal success and acceptancd by adults.

    Killing ROP saves money only in the short term. The savings will be made up many times in unemployment and welfare payments (and human despair) for marginal university graduates who can’t find suitable work; in student loan defaults by graduates of private, for-profit career training institutes; and in scarcity of, and ever-higher prices for, skilled trades work.

  2. Fred Jones said

    on January 27, 2014 at 9:23 am

    Interesting that those advocating for an extremely narrow approach to CTE delivery (via LLPs) seem to have no qualms with the ongoing demise of broader forms of Voc Ed. I wonder what their true agenda is: 4-year college for all or genuinely broad and rewarding opportunities for all students (and our economy)?

  3. el said

    on January 27, 2014 at 10:40 am

    There is the claim that the issue is just that the money is no longer earmarked for CTE/ROP, and the suggestion that the same money is available, but the situation is more complicated.

    Because this money for many districts was allocated to a county office of education, or to multiple county alliances pre-LCFF, it finds itself in Hold Harmless budgets at the COEs. That is, each of those offices are not getting new money but keeping about the same money they already have, while also getting a different set of responsibilities.

    Similarly, in some cases (not all), some CTE money is going to districts… but again, if the district is in hold harmless status or if the district contains Necessary Small Schools, that money is either not allocated at all or still a net loss, because the districts weren’t funding those CTE programs before, and their new hold harmless numbers don’t reflect that they’re taking on responsibility to fund CTE now.

    The CTE/ROP classes are very valuable, and I would like to see them available to kids both on and off the academic tracks, whether or not the classes themselves have a strong academic component. Kids interested in engineering will significantly benefit from classes teaching electrician, plumbing, and automotive classes, just as kids who are not interested in advanced math will. Summer programs might be especially valuable, given how impacted kids’ time can end up being, with all the stuff we try to cram into their heads in a relatively short time.

    There’s a real danger that we’ll lose even more dedicated facilities and experienced staff in these areas.

    Oh, and despite the reassurance in the article, last I heard, high school ag programs in California were looking especially vulnerable. I’m not sure why the mismatch there. There are some pretty innovative and interesting ag programs out there, and there’s a strong presentation component as well. The kids also have strong opportunities in the ag program to make money raising and selling animals, money that usually goes towards higher education.

  4. navigio said

    on January 27, 2014 at 10:54 am

    I dont necessarily see LLPs as a true ‘college-for-all’ program, rather a reflection of the goal of opportunity for college for all. there is quite a difference, especially in schools that had effectively been given up on entirely. This is one of the problems in looking at numbers at the state level.

    Btw, its not clear whether pathway enrollment is excluded from these numbers..

  5. Susan Frey said

    on January 27, 2014 at 11:25 am

    All career tech teachers and students are included, but CDE says the decline is in teachers and students in ROCP and single high school classes like auto shop.

  6. Laura Kohn said

    on January 27, 2014 at 1:54 pm

    The data are difficult to interpret. For example, the percent of students in CTE courses is down from 2011-12, but higher than 2010-11. In any event, this is an input number, and we need to keep an eye on the prize(s): graduation rates and post-secondary attainment. If those outcome measures are down (or if intermediate indicators like credit accumulation and chronic absenteeism are going the wrong direction), then we should be extremely concerned. If those are steady or up, then maybe we are improving our education offerings for the range of high schoolers with varied aspirations, and we should celebrate.

  7. Tom Smith said

    on January 27, 2014 at 3:41 pm

    It was not until the middle of the article that I read about loss of categorical funding. Why should the author,Lloyd McCabe, be so surprised if funding is cut 20% and made non-categorical that funding for ROP is going to drop more than 20%. With a 20% loss in teachers, is it not likely that the number of students would drop 20% as well?

    I commend all ROP teachers for sticking it out in the difficult climate over the past several years. Let’s not marginalize ROP, Career and Technical Education, nor Adult Education as a slush fund for K-12 education. It it far too important for our society!

  8. Dave said

    on January 27, 2014 at 6:06 pm

    Well said, Paul. I took shop in junior high in the 1970′s; I enjoyed it tremendously. It is a shame vocational technology courses and schools have been stigmatized and pushed aside in our narrow-minded obsession with college for all. Worse, not all students wish to pursue higher education in the liberal arts, sciences, or other fields. They simply wish to have the opportunity to provide for themselves via the skilled trades, which are now nearly closed off to them via public schools. I hope communities begin to educate themselves so they can influence the allocation of funds to maintain and to expand the options offered via public education: traditional high school, vo-tech / CTE high school, “linked learning” high school, community college, four year college, etc.

  9. Brian Ausland said

    on January 28, 2014 at 11:23 pm

    Having worked directly with many of those cited in the article I am reminded of the age-old maxim, “consider the source”. As a one-time teacher in CA high schools, who taught both academic core and CTE I worked with many students in developing their own understanding and application of the research standard “assess the credibility and accuracy of each source”. As I said, since moving from the classroom I have now worked in many capacities with both statewide and national projects aimed at reform and innovation to better align instruction, programs, and resources to increase engagement and opportunities of more students. I have seen the value of advanced CTE pathways as delivered through ROP structures that have worked in our schools cohesively for decades to integrate the interests of students with the needs of industry and all the while address the desire for high schools to keep students on target to graduate with opportunities to continue to pursue a career-area of interest either through direct workforce entry, community college or technical certification programs, or in some instances post-secondary education. I understand, and have participated in Linked Learning projects and worked along-side hundreds of Partnership Academy teachers. There is definitely room for the evolution of more programs that blend CTE and Academics yet there is also a documented interest in, need for, and research to support the value of focused, articulated CTE pathways that provide students a means to engage in real, industry-based expertise level skills and experiences. Having teachers whose own expertise and experiences resonate from those very domains and not as an add-on to an academic credential via a two week awareness program, has long been the focus of ROP funded and administered coursework.
    What I do know from working at these upper levels of education reform and initiative founding though, like that pushing through the CTE/STEM arenas of our secondary programs currently, is this: With the upheaval of proposed change, often times new models like Linked Learning, so quickly hang their shingle out with so much fan-fare and use as part of their own establishment strategy the exclusion of existing programs and mechanisms where success has been constructed over years.
    And quite often, these new programs are most adamantly supported by those who find new leadership positions tucked into their implementation scope and funding as carved from the funding of those other sources. What I am always keen to know, is the degree to which the executive and key staff of these new initiatives draw from those that worked and/or are actively engaged in education as a teacher or administrator at any of our schools. Typically though, I’ve found that the majority of those that wave these new banners with the most vigor have grafted themselves into positions with these initiatives from backgrounds in public policy, governmental services, or various educational auxiliary administrative support roles without any real background in curriculum, instruction, teaching, or school administration and leadership. They support and bolster the merits of programs in which they do not have the requisite experiences or aptitudes to even know if they ever will work, or even how to implement them effectively in the event that they do, at schools that they have not walked on, let alone ever worked. I like and understand the role of Linked Learning and integrated curricular models that provide students opportunities to see clear applications of their academic skills through the lens of career fields and industry-sectors and is accomplishable if woven into the strength of the existing CTE environments many of us have worked so hard to establish for our students in California. But that will only happen at the hands of practitioners and leaders knowledgable in how to structure and impart meaningful instruction from class to class, and systems implementation from school to school, and that is the network that stands to be torn apart by what amounts to little more than good intentions at the hands of public relations executives, who only slightly understand the product they’re selling let alone the needs of the consumer they’re selling it to.

  10. Jeannine Huffman said

    on January 31, 2014 at 8:10 am

    “A 20 percent drop in the number of career technical high school teachers between 2011-12 and 2012-13. And only 38 percent of the state’s high school students took career tech courses in 2012-13.”

    A reader might infer that the decline in teachers and numbers of students who took CTE courses is because of lack of interest, when in reality it is the lack of CTE teachers being hired and the lack of courses being offered. Research at ACTE shows Career Technical Education plays a pivotal role in dropout retention and recovery for at-risk students.

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