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Tech prep runs into problems in South Carolina


In what could be a harbinger of the future for the
nation, early signs indicate the tech-prep route in South Carolina’s
high schools does not run much better than the so-called “general
track” that it replaced. Education officials believe that inadequate
teacher training for the rigorous applied classes could be one problem
with the program.

Tech-prep courses target students who cannot handle college-prep
work yet still need preparation for jobs. But some say tech prep has
become synonymous with mediocrity.

The federal government, other states and national tech-prep
supporters are closely monitoring the outcome of the debate here
because every state offers tech-prep programs.

“This is not just a problem in South Carolina,” says Dan Hull,
president of the Center for Occupational Research and Development, a
Waco, Texas, group that supports tech prep. “The problem, in many
cases, is that principals and superintendents are not providing the
professional development that teachers need to change their teaching

Jan Nashatker, a teacher at South Aiken (S.C.) High School who
instructs students in algebra, geometry, and math for technologies
courses, says tech prep has a tarnished reputation.

“In the minds of a lot of teachers, you’re cast into a situation
you’re ill-prepared for with students who are ill-prepared,” she says,
adding, “And you’re expected to produce results.”

The federal government for the past several years has allotted $100
million for tech-prep programs under the Carl D. Perkins Act. The money
is divided among the fifty states.

South Carolina education officials say that a handful of school
districts statewide perform superbly with good teacher training and
high expectations for students. In most districts, however, teachers do
not get special training and do not ensure that applied classes are as
challenging as their college-prep courses.

“My worst fear, and I think the worst fear of all of us, was that
the general track would just be renamed,” says Nancy Dunlap, a top aide
to state Education Supt. Barbara Nielsen. “My fear is that’s what’s

The Center for Occupational Research and Development recommends that
high school teachers receive at least five days of training on how to
teach in tech prep’s contextual learning style.

“Then, about every month for the first year,” Hull says, “those
teachers will need from two hours to a half day of follow-up training”
to smooth over any problems they may encounter.

Nationally, tech-prep programs have been around for more than a
decade. South Carolina lawmakers, concerned about students poor
performance in the general track, mandated the change to tech prep in
1994. Last year for the first time, South Carolina high school freshmen
were required to choose either a tech-prep or college-prep path. More
than 73,000 students took tech-prep courses last school year.

The state’s Department of Education is collecting results from South
Carolina’s eighty-six school districts and the board plans to discuss
the issue this month.

State education officials contend that the applied-path and
college-path courses are supposed to teach students the same body of
knowledge – just in different ways. For instance, a college-prep
physics class might discuss speed and velocity in abstract and
mathematical terms. An applied-physics student might learn that lesson
while trying to design a car to win the Indianapolis 500 motor race.

Across the country, approximately 4 million students, 20 percent are
enrolled in tech-prep programs. But Hull says a higher percentage
probably should be placed in tech-prep courses.

“The research shows us that about 80 percent of all students are not
abstract learners,” he says. “Traditional courses in math and science
don’t work for them.”

Sandy Sarvis, who oversees tech prep for South Carolina’s Lexington
District 4, worries that if the tech prep is not seen as the equal of
college prep across the state, all districts may suffer the stigma.
Officials at the University of South Carolina, for instance, say they
are watching how well students who came out of tech-prep programs are
doing in college classes.

“If they’re doing fine, I think our committee will feel
comfortable,” says admissions director Terry Davis. “If we see students
are struggling, we’ll have to question [tech prep’s rigor].”

Hull has some harsh words for high schools, two-year colleges, and
four-year colleges and universities that insist on sticking with
conventional teaching methods.

“The schools of education at so many universities have not come
forth and recognized the research on contextual learning,” Hull says.
“They don’t teach these methods to our teachers, so our teachers come
out of school teaching science and math the same way they did thirty
years ago. As long as the universities remain in the dark ages, we’ll
have these problems.”

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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