Column: Effective career and technical education requires rigorous math and science courses.

Students work on wiring from memory as they practice on training boards during an apprentice HVAC program at the PTEC (Pinellas Technical College) St. Petersburg Campus last year. [Times file photo by Dirk Shadd]
Students work on wiring from memory as they practice on training boards during an apprentice HVAC program at the PTEC (Pinellas Technical College) St. Petersburg Campus last year. [Times file photo by Dirk Shadd]
Published March 20, 2019

High school students in Florida's career and technical education (CTE) programs deserve the broadest possible range of career opportunities, allowing them to enter the state's middle class as adults. While the Legislature has long been a leader in such programs, their nature has changed dramatically in recent decades with the growing importance of technology and automation in the economy.

A high school diploma is no longer adequate to ensure a stable middle-class income, but a bachelor's degree is not necessarily required. In fact, associate degrees and certifications at public two-year colleges provide access to careers that pay better than jobs that many bachelor's degree graduates have. However, to earn the postsecondary certifications and associate degrees that lead to most of these high-paying jobs, students must have strong skills in math and a high level of scientific literacy — skills that would have not been required of vocational-technical students 20 or 30 years ago.

For that reason, the CTE legislation making its way through the Legislature should not allow course substitutions in math and science. HB 7055, which just passed the House PreK-12 Innovation Committee, would dilute Florida's high school graduation requirements in math and science by allowing a student who earns an industry certification to graduate having completed only two math credits (Algebra 1 and geometry), instead of the four math credits that other students are required to take for graduation. A high school graduate with only Algebra 1 and geometry would be crippled in trying to complete a postsecondary certification or associate degree in a high-paying technology field. Furthermore, a student with a combination of industry certifications and high school computing credits could graduate having only one course in the natural sciences — the state's basic Biology 1 course.

Florida students would be better served if the CTE legislation mirrors the success of career-focused high school programs in states such as Arkansas, where CTE students who graduate within the state's Smart Core high school academic program are required to complete four math courses, including Algebra 2 (although the fourth math course can be a "computer science flex" course), and courses in biology and physical science. These students are well-prepared for postsecondary technology certifications and associate degree programs.

If HB 7055 becomes law, the students in Florida who will have the most to lose under a regimen of diluted high school graduation requirements for CTE students are those from low-income families — students who have traditionally been the easiest to write off as "not college material." But these students from disadvantaged backgrounds also stand to benefit the most from well-structured CTE programs that maintain college prep-level rigor in math and science, because students who take a increased number of CTE courses are more likely to graduate from high school than those who do not.

To reach their potential, Florida's students need access to strong CTE programs to prepare them for success in postsecondary certification or associate degree programs that lead to high-paying jobs in our evolving technological economy. Rigorous math and science courses are key.

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Paul Cottle, a physics professor at Florida State, was on the committee that wrote Florida's K-12 science standards in 2007-2008 and was chair of the American Physical Society's Committee on Education in 2013-2014. Former state Sen. John Legg was chair of the Senate Education Committee, is founder of Dayspring Academy in Pasco County and is a doctoral candidate in education focusing on postsecondary access for secondary students.