By Lynn Coale
Patricia A. Hannaford Regional Technical School District
A recent study conducted by the Vermont Department of Labor identified the 67 most promising jobs in the state. Most of these jobs will require education past the secondary level. The higher paying jobs and those with the most openings require a bachelor’s degree or better. Of further interest, most of these jobs are in STEM fields. Businesses continue to report that they have a difficult time finding a young well educated workforce in the state. In fact, another Department of Labor report would suggest that the slowest growing demographic entering the Vermont workforce are those workers between the ages of 18-25.
The present reality for students graduating from secondary schools in Vermont would suggest that the above mentioned gaps are not going to self-correct any time soon. Vermont has one of the nation’s highest rate of on time graduation at 87 percent. However, only 41 percent of our high school graduates matriculate on to post-secondary education, and of these only 21 percent complete a post-secondary degree within a five-year time frame.
These completion rates put us near the bottom in the nation.
Of course, there are many reasons for this disparity between high school graduation and college graduation. and not all students should or have the skills to move on to post-secondary. However, it is imperative to maintaining a skilled workforce that we further study this trend and make efforts to correct it.
There also is a trend in Vermont k-12 schools of increasing numbers of economically disadvantaged students. These students tend to do less well in school. They move onto post-secondary at reduced rates and are underrepresented in STEM careers. Females in this demographic fare even worse.
As part of a STEM Equity Pipeline project, the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center in Middlebury conducted a survey of third and sixth grade students in one of our elementary schools in Addison County. (It is defined as a survey because the numbers were not statistically significant.)
The information we gained was interesting and does represent the demographics of the population of the Hannaford Career Center. Specifically, we have very few girls in our STEM classes and economically disadvantaged female students are almost non-existent in these classes. What did the survey say? Third grade girls liked math and thought they were good at it. By sixth grade, this confidence begins to diminish. The majority of sixth grade girls reported plans to go to college but did not identify a career choice. Half of sixth grade boys had college plans and most could identify a career choice. Again, this survey was very limited but further exploration in this area should be done.
Encouraging Continuous Learning
There are some interventions that we believe will encourage more students to pursue higher education and specifically enter STEM careers:
Dual Enrollment credit where a secondary student can earn college credit while completing their high school experience has proven to be very effective at encouraging post-secondary entrance and completion. This is especially true for first generation college students and students from economically disadvantaged homes.
Mentorship and early exposure seem to be effective at encouraging young women to enter STEM careers. Some examples of programs that are being introduced to elementary and middle school students would include: After school coding/tech classes, lunch bunch Maker Spaces, and summer time tech camps. These programs need to have role models that are gender equal and activities should focus on activities that are of interest to both male and female students.
Enhanced career and technical education projects that incorporate science, math, literacy, research, team work, and presentation in solving meaningful problems are an exciting way to engage students in their own learning. Not only do students learn by doing but they also create a framework to continue their education via the exploration of their worlds.
Meaningful industry recognized credentials that can be articulated to college credits provide a seamless transition from the world of work to a degree program. These type of agreements between institutions of higher education, credential granting agencies, and business would greatly assist students to continue to grow on both their career and educational ladders.
Working Toward a K-12 System of Education
To truly transform education, we must form college and career ready K-12 systems that partner with higher education and business. These systems would incorporate rigorous career and technical education programs that include apprenticeships and “Stacked Credentials”; that are aligned to college credits leading to degrees; and are taught by skilled educators that understand that students learn best when solving real world problems.
Lynn Coale is the director/superintendent of the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center in Middlebury. He serves on the Board of Advisors for UVM Continuing and Distance Education.