4 lessons from vocational-technical schools

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Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve shared a number of videos on the way in which regional vocational-technical schools have made impressive progress on key metrics of academic learning, leveraged parental involvement and the business community, and provided lessons for all schools on how to support special needs students and lower dropout rates.

With such success in the 26 regional vocational-technical schools, which function as standalone schools, two questions arise:

  • How do we show the same level of success in Massachusetts’ other vocational-technical schools that operate within larger districts and do not have the same level of autonomy seen in the regionals?
  • What are the lessons for the rest of the schools or for specific student populations?

Here are four big lessons from the success of the regional VTEs:

  1. A number of local districts are considering regionalization opportunities, and as they do, they should study these vocational-technical regions as examples of how communities with often divergent interests can band together to create successful regional schools.
  2. Schools looking to advance broader skills assessments can learn from regional VTEs, which have school-based skills assessments that supplement (but do not replace) the MCAS exams. The majority of VTEs have senior project programs that serve as additional graduation requirements, much as some urban charter schools require satisfactory completion of college courses in order to graduate.
  3. Given the remarkable academic and occupational-education success that VTEs have had with hard-to-serve populations, district high schools that already have Chapter 74 programs should review the regional VTE playbook, integrating academic and occupational learning, individualizing intervention and remediation, and offering cognitive apprenticeships.
  4. Given the success of regional VTEs with at-risk students, state and city leaders should push hard to give existing VTEs embedded in larger urban districts the autonomy enjoyed by regional VTEs. That autonomy has been an important factor in the rapid and measurable improvement of their programs.

Of the four lessons, the last one is the one most important, because it can have the broadest and most significant impact in the short-run. Furthermore, it builds on the Governor’s own agenda of identifying turnaround models within the traditional public school framework. Many urban VTEs are working hard to improve their performance, but even with its progress the past few years, Boston’s own Madison Park School has a long way to go.

To get it done, we need a push from the Governor, urban legislators, and city councilors. If such a change were to occur, these site-based schools would continue to be accountable to the local school committee, so I would expect no opposition from committee members. The real challenge would be to get district superintendents on board–because they would have to give up their centralized hold on these schools.

Can we agree that improving student achievement is more important than preserving the superintendents’ stronghold on these schools?

Only time will tell.

Crossposted at Boston.com’s Rock the Schoolhouse blog.