Of Punch Cards and Liberal Education:
Anne Arundel Community College
My last posting in my series on school-college alignment described how the Maricopa Colleges have been using the Significant Discussions Guide to help them align learning from school to college to university. The Significant Discussions project, as I’ve written in previous posts, aims to improve student success by promoting collaboration on curriculum alignment among secondary schools, community colleges, universities, and employers. Anne Arundel Community College (AACC), in Maryland, has been using the Guide in their own way with high schools in their county. This local work is part of a larger career and technology education (CTE) program for high schools throughout the state.
Maryland, I discover, is a national leader in CTE. The state has merged secondary vocational and college preparatory programs. Instead of the two traditional tracks, Maryland has embedded CTE within the overall high school program. If you choose a career cluster, what you get is an infusion of applied learning, for example, in arts, media, and communication, starting in tenth grade. The goal is to develop and reinforce the more traditionally academic knowledge, skills, and abilities through application and hands-on activity in real-world settings. CTE is particularly attractive to students who are not thriving in the high-stakes testing regimen of No Child Left Behind. This approach clearly aligns with the emerging blended model of liberal education advanced in the LEAP initiative.
Maryland’s CTE is part of a larger alignment plan, with dual enrollment options offered at community colleges. That’s why AACC began using the Significant Discussions Guide. Kathleen M. Beauman, long-time applied-learning advocate and director, Business Education Partnerships, Division for Learning, was originally hired by Anne Arundel to work on “tech prep” education, connecting career and college pathways. The connection between CTE and liberal education is no mystery to Kathy. She says, “It’s all about liberal education in the twenty-first century. These programs can demystify learning for all students and make learning lively and relevant, despite the heavy influence of high-stakes testing.”
Kathy tells a story of an “ah ha” moment some years back, when she first started working on alignment programs at Anne Arundel in the 1990s. A group of angry school leaders in the county responded to her invitation to a meeting. They identified a problem. The county high school students were doing poorly on the college’s examination for computer basics. Many were failing. Ensuing discussion brought some facts to light. First, the college had changed the course textbook three or four times, without telling the high schools. Worse, the test bank of questions contained numerous items about punch cards. Punch cards! In the 1990s! No wonder students were having trouble with that test.
The realization motivated Kathy in her new work as the liaison between the two systems. She could see why her work mattered. She eventually found her way to the College and Career Transitions Initiative (CCTI, 2002-2008; see my blog post of June 6, 2011). Through the CCTI project Kathy began to get a national perspective on alignment. Among best outcomes of the project was a new advising practice. Anne Arundel hired “transition advisors” to work on-site in county high schools.
Picking up the Significant Discussions Guide, Kathy found further help to redesign program articulation with partner high schools and to improve leadership for the shared work. Traditionally, the college had controlled decisions on credits accepted from schools. The Guide and connections with other colleges in CCTI suggested a different approach. AACC began to use the Sinclair Community College model for proficiency assessment. That model worked with shared learning outcomes and expectations for performance. To reach agreement, the college and schools organized a pilot project for professional development, involving high school and college faculty and staff. The meetings began with a gap analysis; participants then worked together to design assessments and set policies and procedures for awarding credit. This kind of work requires frequent communication and commitment to a sustained relationship. AACC is in the process of reformatting existing articulation agreements into a proficiency framework through their work with Anne Arundel County Public Schools.
The assessment tools include rubrics and portfolios. For example, a high school student may seek proficiency credit in architecture and interior design by submitting an original portfolio of work, which is assessed according to a rubric. The rubric addresses quality, accuracy, complexity, and completeness of the drawings. For each of these components of the student work, performance-level descriptions address such outcomes as quantitative reasoning, clarity of notations, and goals of complexity. No doubt about it, these outcomes mirror AAC&U’s LEAP essential learning outcomes.
Looking at the program materials from AACC, I’m struck by their integrity. There is no line separating career-focused activity from liberal education. The two are one. From this vantage point, I have trouble understanding why policy makers persist in approaching vocational education as if it were the polar opposite of what one would do within the liberal arts. The more I explore what is happening on the ground when schools, colleges, and universities collaborate on behalf of the future workforce and the future well-being of locales, the more starkly false that dichotomy appears to be. The best and most innovative alignment work is thoroughly integrative—career and technical and liberal education, including the liberal arts, coming together to advance essential learning outcomes. It has been refreshing and affirmative to meet people like Kathy Beauman all over the country who brighten when I say career and technical education is part of liberal education. Of course, they say, how could it be anything else?