Alternate pathways

For a better life, Colorado teenagers travel to Wyoming to take a test

PHOTO: Anna Boiko-Weyrauch/Rocky Mountain PBS I-News

Three young women are going to take a test 90 miles away from home.

Just south of Cheyenne, Jackie Esparza pulls over her maroon Dodge SUV on Interstate 25 to pose for a selfie with the “Welcome to Wyoming” sign. The 19-year-old Thornton-resident is excited for the photo – it’s only the second time she’s been this far north.

The women are teen moms who never graduated high school but want to become cops or nurses. Their best chance is to earn their high school equivalency degree – but not by taking the GED offered in Colorado, they say.

In 2014, the GED high school equivalency test was rewritten, computerized and privatized. The content now reflects the national Common Core State Standards and costs $150 for all four modules – $90 more than previously. Since its transformation, the number of Coloradans taking and passing the new test each week has plummeted by 75 percent, according to state data.

Nineteen other states have responded to falling numbers of test takers by offering alternatives to the GED, such as the HiSET, run by the administrator of the GRE graduate entrance exam, or another called the Test Assessing Secondary Completion, or TASC.

The women on this road trip are attempting the HiSET test, which costs just $50. The closest test center is the Cheyenne campus of Laramie County Community College, where a third of the test takers this year came from Colorado, managers said.

“I just feel that it’s a little less intimidating than the actual GED,” said Lexis Hernandez, who flips through vocabulary flashcards in the backseat. “I feel a lot more confident studying this.”

Dropout rate impacts state

When she got pregnant and dropped out, Esparza joined more than 400,000 other adults in Colorado who didn’t finish high school.

Even though the state has more college graduates than the national average, one in 10 adults have no high school diploma or equivalent certificate. Without such credentials, they are cut off from trade schools, college and many well-paying jobs.

Esparza wanted to aim higher for herself. She has dreams like studying criminal justice in college and volunteering in Africa.

Esparza studied for the GED for more than a year and passed one subject test, science. She took the language arts section three times and was a few points away from passing, but almost ready to give up.

Esparza started looking for jobs, but found nothing satisfying.

“I don’t want to keep working at Panda Express and stuff like that,” she said. “I don’t want that for my life.”

State data suggest that more people like Esparza are discouraged from completing the GED since the test was rewritten, according to an I-News analysis of Colorado Department of Education data.

From 2011-2013, 77 percent of testers in Colorado completed all subject areas of the test after they took at least one. In 2014 and 2015, 52 percent of testers went on to complete all parts of the test.

The number of people passing the test has also plummeted. On average, 211 people a week in Colorado passed the GED from 2011 to 2013. Now the number of people passing has dropped 75 percent to about 52 people a week in 2014 and the first 10 months of 2015.

As of October, 2,276 people passed the GED in Colorado this year. In the three years before the test changed, an average of 10,949 people a year passed the test.

The state is not keeping up with the number of students who drop out of high school or businesses’ needs for high school-educated workers, said Shirley Penn, former adult educator and president of the Colorado Adult Education Professional Association.

Penn is a member of a community taskforce lobbying the Colorado Department of Education to offer alternatives to the GED.

“That has a huge impact on our state economically,” Penn said. “I think it hurts business and industry and I think it hurts the families because they’re stuck at that low income.”

The state is reviewing alternatives to the GED because its contract with the test’s vendor is set to expire in 2016, director of postsecondary readiness at the department, Misti Ruthven said.

The department asked makers of high school equivalency tests to submit proposals for implementation in Colorado. The department has received a few responses and will pass along the information to the State Board of Education for its meeting December 9-10, she said.

The number of test takers also dropped the last time the test changed in 2002, Ruthven said.

That year 11,216 people took and 6,967 people passed the test in Colorado, official GED data show. After the recent GED revision, 4,313 people took and 1,577 people passed the test in 2014.

For its part, the department couldn’t voice an opinion about the falling numbers.

“It’s very difficult to make comparisons from when the test changed and before that because we know it is a very different landscape and environment,” Ruthven said.

The State Board of Education is open to having multiple testing options, chairman Steve Durham said.

“The general feeling is that competitive options are a positive thing,” he said.

Alternative tests to the GED are “less rigorous,” said CT Turner, head of government relations for the GED Testing Service, and encouraged looking beyond the number of testers. He is concerned students will pass an alternative test and get a certificate but be unable to obtain higher degrees because they lack the necessary education.

“The preparation is what’s really important,” Turner said.

Third time a charm

Once Esparza arrives at the test center, she fumbles through her bag for notes and reviews facts from the Industrial Revolution.

“Pray for me!” she pleads as the disappears into the test room. An hour later, she’s disappointed. Esparza failed the social studies test by one point.

“I wasn’t even that confident about history,” she said, frowning.

Esparza returned a third time to Wyoming and retook the test.

On Oct.  22 she donned a cap and gown and processed to Pomp and Circumstance. The organization that helped her study for her high school equivalency certificate and paid for the tests, Westminster-based Hope House of Colorado, held a graduation ceremony for her and four other young women.

“I’m really excited because I’m moving on with my life,” she said after the ceremony.

Esparza has already applied to four colleges.

Chalkbeat brings you this report in partnership with Rocky Mountain PBS I-News. Learn more at rmpbs.org/news. Contact Anna Boiko-Weyrauch abw@rmpbs.org.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.

Revisiting CTE

Workforce training programs may soon look different in Memphis schools

Health care and information technology are among the career pathways that likely would be emphasized under a proposed revamp of career and technical education in Shelby County Schools.

Memphis students would get more opportunities to earn job certifications before graduation under a proposed revamp of career and technical education in Shelby County Schools.

Details of the overhaul are still under wraps, but Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin wants to make sure the district’s offerings align with the region’s most sought-after jobs. That may mean more classes focused on hot career fields like health care and information technology.

The school board is expected to get a first look at the proposal later this month.

Career and technical education, or CTE, is getting renewed attention under a state and federal push to prepare students for jobs of the future. And it’s especially important to students in Memphis because nearly half of graduates from Shelby County Schools don’t enroll in any formal education after high school and 21 percent aren’t working either — the highest rate in the nation.

Meanwhile, business leaders are talking with school leaders about improving education pathways to equip graduates for work in high-demand jobs that don’t necessarily require a college degree.

“We need our students to have work-based learning experiences and residencies and then [businesses] don’t even have to train them,” Griffin said. “They’ll come out with a license; we’re going to pay for it. They’ll come out with a license ready to work.”

Currently, the 27 traditional high schools in Tennessee’s largest district offer a total of 207 classes that explore 16 career paths ranging from finance to advanced manufacturing. About 20,000 students participate.

PHOTO: SCS
Hamilton High students tour Barnhart Crane and Rigging Co. in Memphis on National Manufacturing Day in 2016.

But of about 400 participating seniors who are eligible to gain job certification, less than half did so last school year. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson says that has got to change.  

“The point of revamping our CTE program is we don’t really have true effective career paths right now,” Hopson told school board members last week. “We spend $20 million on CTE, but its not designed to say that when I finish this program, I’ve got something I can go out to an employer and say ‘I’m skilled and I’m ready for this job and I’m certified.’”

Shelby County Schools has incentives to revamp its CTE programs. In response to a new federal education law, the Tennessee Department of Education will grade schools in part on how well they prepare students — not just for college, but for directly entering the workforce.

“It’s about making sure you can map and track and document and assess and quantify whether or not something is working,” said Terrence Brown, who co-directs CTE for the district. “And all of that has been on the college-bound, academic part of the house, not in trade and industry and skills and training. [Now] the age of accountability has now come to career and technical education.”

To measure a “ready graduate” under its new plan, Tennessee will look at how many students earned industry certification, took dual enrollment or Advanced Placement classes, passed military entrance exams, or earned a 21 or higher on the ACT. The metric accounts for 20 percent of school and district scores under a new grading system being rolled out later this year.

As part of its stepped-up commitment to workforce training, Shelby County Schools already has introduced a major change to one of its most historic high schools. East High began this school year to transition to an optional school focused on transportation logistics, engineering, and technology in partnership with several businesses such as global engineering manufacturer Cummins.

But the goal is to get a quarter of students districtwide participating in CTE by offering courses at more high schools. And the focus will be on equipping students for high-demand jobs that offer living wages in the Mid-South. More than 100 jobs fit that bill and not all require a college degree, according to a report from the Center for Economic Research in Tennessee. Those fields include electricians, machinists, medical record technicians, and computer support specialists, all of whom earned at least a median income of $40,000 per year in 2016.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos talks with students during a 2017 tour of career and technical education programs at Oakland High School in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has promoted the importance of career training by visiting schools with robust CTE programs such as one in Murfreesboro that she toured last November during her first stop in Tennessee as education secretary.

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who helped author the new federal education law, told Politico recently that updating how federal funds are allocated for CTE is one of his top priorities this year.

But some educators and advocates worry that CTE will become a second-tier track for students viewed as incapable of going to college — or that their advantage in a fast-changing workforce will be short-lived.

“We want to make sure we’re not doing what we use to do with (vocational-technical education),” said Maya Bugg, CEO of Tennessee Charter School Center. “My dad would tell me that, as a black male, they funneled him to vo-tech because you’re a black male.”

A 2015 Stanford University study of CTE programs in 11 countries showed short-term employment gains for students. However, the researchers also found that those students lacked the skills to adapt to changes in the economy later in life compared with peers with a more general education.

Brown said Shelby County’s redesigned program will focus on higher-wage jobs that students can get certified for during high school or can train for in technical schools after graduating. That could boost business prospects when big companies consider locating to Memphis — such as the city’s recent failed bid to land an Amazon headquarters.

“One of the things we believe Amazon was looking for was (information technology) people who could come off the bat and write code and set up cybersecurity,” Brown said. “If you have an IT certification, you’re going to be in demand.”