Bringing Career Academies to Scale

The United States desperately needs to bring career academies to scale. High school dropouts represent seventy percent of the 2.5 million people in prison in America and seventy percent of the additional 4.5 million people on probation and parole. The country does not have put up with ruined kid’s lives in poverty and crime. And we shouldn’t have to put up with paying for the costs of incarcerating millions people. Today, American high schools tear down low and average achieving kid’s self-esteem. Because they are not college material, they are literally treated like second-class people. This leads directly to the well-known “school to prison pipeline.” They dropout and become involved in crime. This is a national disgrace and a national tragedy. A million high school dropouts each year desperately require an appropriate education. There are low and average achieving groups that don’t drop out, but also doesn’t go to college that constitutes an additional, equal sized group. This group also desperately needs job skills. This means two million kids per cohort or eight million kids in total need career academies as we speak.

At 400 students per career academy, this means we need twenty thousand new career academies created across America. There are career academies presently in place so the number will be slightly smaller. It could actually be more because not all career academies would have the optimum 400 students enrolled. 400 students is a workable number that means 100 students will be enrolled in each cohort or class. A career academy, however, can be smaller or larger than 400 students. The point is taking career academies to scale in the United States is a major undertaking.

The element that retards many societal reform plans is finance. The great thing about career academies is that that ninety-five percent of the funding for high schools is already provided by individual states. Thus, the great majority of funding for career academies is already in place. There is an additional expense for necessary training of principals, teachers, and counselors, providing supplies and equipment for career technical education, (much of the additional expense for career technical education is already provided by state and federal budgets) and employment specialists.

The career academy is a very different type of high school. The selection of principals is the key element in bringing career academies to scale. Therefore, it requires substantial training of principals. Principals of these new schools must be advocates for career academies, for career technical education, and for average and low achieving students. This is in stark contrast to today’s high schools that only honor high achieving students. Training is also needed for career academy teachers and counselors. The curriculum of career academies is taught around the career theme and uses project-based learning. Counselors must understand related community college technical education programs, career ladders related to the career theme, and where employment related to their particular career theme exists. These are new and different approaches to education that are necessary for teachers and counselors in a career academy to learn. If they don’t want to teach or be a counselor in a career academy, they must look for another job or school or school district. Inherently, this means the teacher’s unions must be on board to support career academy reform. In general, teacher unions are not the problem in school reform, but they must be included in planning to avoid sticky situations in implementing career academy reform.

Perhaps the second most important element in career academy reform to selecting and training the principal is leadership from the school board and superintendent. Far too many school reforms have come and gone after a few years. Principals, teachers, and counselors just wait out the reform until the next thing comes along. No reform will be successful without long-term support from the school board and superintendent. Due to normal turnover, this means ongoing training for these positions by the state departments of education. The state departments of education must educate school boards and superintendents on the reality of the work world after high school, career technical education, and of different high school evaluation criteria. This will be very different for school boards and superintendents and a new role for state departments of education.

Evaluation criteria for non-college-bound students (the seventy percent who will not go on to graduate from college) must change to be more appropriate for the student population. New criteria such as school attendance, completion of a four-year sequence of career technical education, a certified job skill, graduation rate, and employment rate six months after graduation, are appropriate for evaluating career academies. These criteria represent a completely different concept for evaluating today’s high schools. It really means state departments of education must take on an ongoing education role for training those responsible for high schools in America. Someone must take on the responsibility leading career academy reform of the high schools. It must be the state departments of education.

A resource that would be necessary for this reform would be a National Center for Career Academies. Centers such as this are typically located in a major university led by a recognized leader in the field. The center would provide tools for training protocols for principals, teachers, and counselors, ongoing research, and provide evaluation tools. A national center would avoid duplicating rubrics, training protocols, and evaluation tools necessary for scaling career academies.

The significant point is the scaling up of career academies nationally is not only possible, but also necessary. The youth of America deserve a decent life and high-level job skills are the only way forward for this population. Waiting for the community college is not a feasible alternative. The biggest high school drop out rate occurs in the ninth grade. We must have career academies that grab student’s interest early and keeps them engaged throughout their high school experience. Individual states must not wait for federal intervention to support career academies. Scaling up career academies is feasible and needed. It is, however, primarily a political issue that requires political leadership. Governors, state legislators, and mayors must create career academy models in their own states to help these kids.

James C. Wilson, Ed.D.

Dr. Wilson is the author of Disposable Youth: Education or Incarceration? available on

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Dr. Wilson is the author of Disposable Youth: Eucation or Incarceration? on
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