Don’t Start From Scratch on Dual Enrollment

This is cross-posted from my response on National Journal.com/Education Insiders to questions about expanding dual enrollment programs.

Today’s advocates of increasing dual enrollment-type programs would be wise to revisit the last, and in many ways the most promising, attempt U.S. schools made at trying to smooth the transition between high school and college: the Tech Prep initiative. This nation-wide program started in 1990 as part of the reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology Education Act, backed by massive federal dollars over several years.

Tech Prep programs consisted of two years of secondary and two years of post-secondary instruction leading to an associate degree or certificate in a specific career field. While the quality of the programs varied across the nation, Tech Prep had a significant impact in many places. The Tech Prep curriculum ran parallel to the standard college prep one. Students in Tech Prep programs left high school having already earned credits at a community college via very specific articulation agreements.

What I remember most about Tech Prep as a high school English teacher in the high-poverty Mississippi Delta was the extensive professional development, the deliberate and highly effective academic/vocational course collaboration, and the complete reorganization of student counseling and advising. Where before, only the top students had the benefit of individualized career planning with the overburdened high school counselor, under Tech Prep every teacher received training in how to advise students on college and career choices; and each of us had a group of students whom we followed from 9th grade through graduation.  The federal law also required that special needs students be included.

Academic subject area teachers teamed up with our vocational colleagues to teach parallel units and to align our subject matter giving students practical applications of academic concepts. Federal funding for Tech Prep tapered off and finally ended in 2011; although, many states kept the initiative alive at the local level.

While not perfect, Tech Prep addressed and revealed some of the most important challenges in helping more students move successfully from high school to college.  For example, even today, many CTE teachers are specially licensed by their states to teach at the secondary and community college levels, and often serve both populations simultaneously. A similar sharing of resources could and should exist in academic courses. Tech Prep programs also tackled the problem of developing workable articulation agreements between school districts and colleges or consortiums of schools, again with varying degrees of success.

Ideally, dual enrollment students could take college level courses in art or music appreciation, visual or performing arts, as well as academic content that may have been cut from their K12 school programs such as foreign languages or technology courses.  For that matter, why not make courses now considered general orientation by colleges available to students who are still in high school such as those in employment readiness or study skills.

I teach Freshman Composition to high school juniors and seniors who meet the entrance criteria for our college’s dual enrollment program. Enrollment in college-level core academic subjects is still largely based on traditional college admissions criteria (aka ACT subsection test scores) despite mounting research evidence that those scores do not correlate well to actual student performance in college courses. We could serve students better by determining their readiness for these courses based on their areas of interest; how well they have performed in prior classes; and individual student ability to handle the additional workload.

While it’s never too early to expose children to the richness of the liberal arts core; no student should be locked into a career track. One of the weaknesses of the original Tech Prep programs was that students couldn’t switch to the more traditional college prep curriculum after the ninth grade. Likewise, kids on the college preparation track could not easily add any of the CTE programs to round out their learning experiences.

If current trends hold, most of today’s students will merge from one career to another multiple times during their lives. Therefore, in their formal education, young people need the freedom to explore different subjects and learn about many fields on the way to their working lives.

We should not only expand dual enrollment, but eventually make education from preschool through graduate school a true, personalized continuum.

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