Tech Prep Articulation: Is It Working?
David J. Pucel
University of Minnesota
Sharon K. Sundre
University of Minnesota
Tech Prep has been a major educational reform initiative within the United States since the passage of the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology Education Act of 1990. It was reaffirmed and amended in the School to Work Opportunities Act of 1994 and will receive additional funding under the Perkins amendments of 1998. Since 1990, each of the states and territories has been provided funds to establish Tech Prep consortia containing at least one two-year postsecondary institution and one high school. In 1997, Grubb and Bragg indicated that the "tech prep concept is catching hold, since nearly two-thirds of the nation's high schools and most community colleges have some involvement with it" (p. 6). During 1998, the United States and its territories were allocated a total of $103,000,000 for Tech Prep implementation. The U.S. Department of Education lists eight major benefits of Tech Prep:
- Students in courses connecting theory and application are able to grasp concepts more quickly and relate them to problems they will encounter in the workplace;
- students are taught the skills that employers want;
- the Tech Prep sequence of courses allows the student to proceed from one educational level to the next without repeating coursework;
- Tech Prep provides options to make high school and college more attractive and relevant to students, potentially improving attendance and lowering dropout rates;
- Tech Prep encourages teachers to collaborate so that curriculum is reinforced;
- Tech Prep curriculum is designed with the input of business and industry to insure that students are being taught skills that employers want;
- Tech Prep builds student competence in mathematics, science, communications, and applied academics; and
- Tech Prep leads to a certificate or an associate degree and may lead to further advanced education. (U.S. Department of Education, 1994)
Many of these benefits can be accomplished during the secondary education portion of a Tech Prep program by modifying the way in which secondary education is delivered. For example, by teaching academics as applied academics, by teaching in the context of a career area, and by relating what students learn in high school to possible future careers. However, another major design and implementation component of Tech Prep programs has been the establishment of articulation agreements between secondary and postsecondary institutions. Imel's (1996) in-depth study of 10 Tech Prep consortia indicated that articulation agreements that link individual courses at the high school and college levels are a major defining feature of Tech Prep. An articulation agreement is a formal mechanism by which secondary and postsecondary institutions commit to jointly develop and implement Tech Prep curricula and instruction (Suba, 1997). This suggests that change in Tech Prep requires changes not only to the secondary components of Tech Prep programs, but also to the postsecondary components.
The U. S. Department of Education (USDE) has defined Tech Prep articulation as a process that links a high school and college course in order to help students avoid experiencing a delay or duplication of learning. USDE has anticipated that articulation will allow high school students to receive college credit, advanced placement, or both for articulated classes taken in high school. It suggests that encouraging articulation will provide an incentive for students to continue their education, will reduce costs to the student, and will minimize needless duplication of coursework (U. S. Department of Education, 1994). Many authors have also set forth the potential benefits of Tech Prep articulated programs (e.g., Bragg, 1994; Di Sibio & Gamble, 1997; Hammons & Eschenmann, 1992).
The major question is "Does Tech Prep articulation really work to provide the anticipated benefits to students?" The observations of the few studies that have been done to investigate this question have not been encouraging. Hayes (1995) surveyed the extent to which the states had implemented articulation agreements as part of their Tech Prep programs and found that 31 of the 37 responding states (84%) had at least some articulation agreements between secondary and postsecondary schools. However, credit-driven agreements, which establish "the possibility of students' [sic] receiving credit for course work completed at the secondary level" when they enter the postsecondary level, were reported by only 17 of the respondents (46%) (Hayes, 1995, p. 10). Hershey, Siverberg, and Ownes (1995) profiled diverse approaches to Tech Prep in 10 sites across the United States. They suggested that the articulation agreements they found provided tangible proof of progress being made toward implementing Tech Prep and of successful collaboration between secondary and postsecondary stakeholders. However, they questioned whether the articulated programs are actually making long-term contributions toward students achieving Tech Prep objectives. They indicated that articulation agreements represent plans for what is to be done, but that does not mean they are being implemented. Grubb and Bragg (1997) also cautioned that "how tech prep initiatives affect teaching and learning at the classroom level is less clear," (p. 6) than the enthusiasm that has been exhibited in establishing the programs.
This study was designed to determine the extent to which articulated Tech Prep programs are actually being implemented and monitored to ensure that the hypothesized student benefits are being achieved as students matriculate from the secondary to postsecondary level.
The study examined:
- Whether administrators and instructors who develop and implement the secondary-postsecondary articulation agreements are knowledgeable about Tech Prep;
- whether administrators and instructors who are responsible for implementing articulation agreements clearly understand the components and requirements of articulation agreements; and
- whether and to what extent postsecondary institutions actually implement their articulation agreements by modifying their curricula and providing the anticipated benefits to Tech Prep students.
An advisory committee comprised of (a) state-wide secondary and postsecondary Tech Prep coordinators, administrators, and instructors; and (b) project personnel from the University of Minnesota, the Minnesota Department of Children, Families, and Learning, and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, purposefully selected eight consortia to represent Tech Prep programs throughout Minnesota. Three criteria were established by the advisory committee to try and ensure that the consortia selected would be representative of the range of programs in Minnesota. The criteria were geographic distribution, rural versus urban, and consortium size. Local consortium Tech Prep coordinators helped identify, within each of the eight selected consortia, four individuals who had been involved with the planning and implementation of the Tech Prep programs. The four individuals selected from each consortium included one secondary and one postsecondary administrator responsible for implementing Tech Prep and one secondary and one postsecondary instructor who were teaching Tech Prep courses from the same technical area. This was done to ensure that the two instructors from a consortium were responding in reference to the same Tech Prep program within the consortium and the results. Across the eight consortia, eight different technical areas were represented. The total sample size was 32. Data were gathered during February and March of 1998, by means of 60-90 minute interviews. A University of Minnesota graduate student, who had extensive formal preparation and experience conducting qualitative interviews, conducted the interviews. The advisory committee approved the interview questions, which are described below. When possible, all personnel from a given consortium were interviewed on the same day.
The sessions were taped, so that responses recorded during the interviews could be verified later. Documents were not requested to support perceptions of the respondents. The study was focused on determining what was occurring from the perspective of those who were implementing the Tech Prep programs.
A 33-item interview questionnaire was assembled, based on the questions developed with the aid of the advisory committee. The questions were developed by the following process. Federal legislation and Minnesota policy pertaining to Tech Prep were reviewed to identify the anticipated benefits of Tech Prep articulation. In addition, the procedures and results of other Tech Prep studies found in the literature were reviewed. From that information, a list of questions was developed. Those questions were brought before the advisory committee, which edited the questions and suggested others. The advisory committee organized the list of proposed questions into 10 major questions, the topics of which were then further refined by a series of more detailed questions. The questions were edited and agreed upon at the meeting. Because two-thirds of the members of the committee had the same characteristics as the people who were going to be interviewed, this process was viewed as sufficient to establish the validity of the questions. The process was also viewed as providing sufficient feedback as to not require a pilot study. Twenty-four of the questions were designed to be asked of all of the participants and nine were designed to be asked of only postsecondary personnel.
The results for each question were first tabulated separately for each of the four groups (secondary and postsecondary administrators and instructors). This was done to compare responses from different respondents within each group and to create a summary of similarities and differences. The summaries of responses to each question from each of the different groups were then compared, in order to identify similarities and differences between groups. Two different individuals reviewed each of the response summaries and compared them with one another. The reviewers then discussed and resolved their differences before arriving at the final results.
The results from each of the 10 major questions are briefly summarized below. The first eight major questions were answered by all of the secondary and postsecondary administrators and instructors. The first four questions provided information on respondents' knowledge and perceptions of Tech Prep in general. The second four questions, Questions 5-8, were designed to assess the amount of factual information Tech Prep personnel had about programs in their own consortium. The final two questions were answered only by postsecondary personnel, with respect to their own consortium.
Question 1. How knowledgeable do you feel you are about Tech Prep?
All of the secondary and postsecondary administrators and instructors (100%) felt they were knowledgeable about Tech Prep. Most had attended sessions where the purposes and expectations of Tech Prep had been described. They also gained knowledge during the design and implementation of programs.
Question 2. What is typically included in the [Tech Prep] articulation agreement?
All but one of the participants (97%) had a vision of what should be included in an articulation agreement. They indicated that the typical process for arriving at an articulation agreement was for instructors within a program area to meet, share coursework, and review each other's materials before agreeing on the articulation of specific courses. The four groups (secondary and postsecondary administrators and instructors) indicated that a typical articulation agreement included most or all of the following elements: course descriptions written from syllabi of courses to be aligned, credit designations, information about credit transfer and test-out procedures, a description of the transfer review process, a list of student expectations and requirements, text and project information, and appropriate signatures from both institutions' administrators and instructors.
Question 3. How do students who complete secondary Tech Prep benefit when they get to the postsecondary level? List all multiple ways.
All of the participants (100%) could list multiple benefits. Administrators at both levels indicated that participation at the secondary level helped students focus on what they wanted to study, helped them obtain a better understanding of various postsecondary processes, and increased their probable success in postsecondary courses. Instructors indicated the benefits of hands-on experience in the field, a stronger knowledge base, and more preparation in subject areas and technical skills.
Most of the responses focused on what might be considered to be the career development benefits of attending secondary Tech Prep programs and on the advantages of an applied curriculum.
There was also an indication that students would be more knowledgeable about the technical aspects of their career fields. Although most of the respondents had indicated, when responding to question two above, that transfer credit and testing-out were elements of articulation agreements, they did not mention either of these elements when asked about benefits.
Question 4. How much more quickly do students who complete secondary Tech Prep Programs progress through the postsecondary program?
Only one secondary instructor indicated that students who completed secondary Tech Prep programs students progressed more rapidly through the postsecondary program. This clearly indicated that the respondents had not observed this benefit, which the USDE had anticipated would be a result of students participating in articulated programs .
Question 5. How many Tech Prep articulation agreements and programs are there within your consortium?
Only three secondary and one postsecondary administrators were able to provide an exact number of articulated courses within their consortium. The rest of the participants made guesses. This suggests that little attention has been given to considering the Tech Prep activities within the consortium as a cohesive program, which required monitoring and distribution of information throughout the consortium. Even though all 32 people were selected because they were involved with Tech Prep programs, they did not seem to have information on overall consortium activities.
Question 6. How many students that you consider Tech Prep are in this [secondary or postsecondary] institution?
Only three of the thirty-two participants could provide an exact number of Tech Prep students enrolled in their institutions. This again suggests that little emphasis has been placed on monitoring the Tech Prep activities or on sharing information across the consortium regarding Tech Prep activities.
Question 7. What type of review process is used to ensure that Tech Prep articulation agreements are met?
Only 34% indicated that an annual review or meeting was held to ensure compliance with articulation agreements. All four members of one consortium indicated they had an annual dinner meeting, specifically to discuss the Tech Prep activities. Many reported that a review process was not necessary to receive funding. The fact that most did not have a review process was probably a major reason why they could not answer questions five and six above, which required factual data.
Question 8. Have criteria or policies been established for awarding transfer credit between secondary and postsecondary institutions? Are the criteria or policies written?
Eighty-eight percent of the participants indicated that criteria or policies had been established for awarding transfer credits between secondary and postsecondary institutions. However only 53% indicated they were written down. Most of those who indicated they had written policies indicated that they were written into the articulation agreements. Others indicated the policies were in their Policies and Procedures Manual, their Student Handbook, or both. When asked how transfer credits were evaluated as students moved from the secondary to the postsecondary level, all of the participants responded, but there was no internal agreement about the process within any of the eight consortia. The fact that people from within the same consortium could not agree on how transfer credits from secondary schools were to be evaluated indicated that little importance has been placed on this key element of articulation agreements.
Question 9. Are students identified as Tech Prep students when they enter the [postsecondary] program?
Only 50% of the postsecondary respondents indicated that students were identified as Tech Prep students when they entered the program. Within three of the consortia, both the postsecondary administrators and instructors indicated they did not identify Tech Prep students. There was only one consortium in which the instructor and administrator agreed that Tech Prep students were monitored once they entered the postsecondary institution. In most cases, the Tech Prep students were not identified and were treated as any other student. Therefore, even though most of the participants responded to question eight that transfer criteria had been established by their institutions, most of the postsecondary institutions were not identifying transfer students when they entered.
Question 10. To what extent did you modify your original (postsecondary) curriculum in order to implement the articulation agreement?
All of the postsecondary participants indicated that there was little or no modification of their curriculum to accommodate Tech Prep programming within their postsecondary courses. Both postsecondary administrators and instructors clearly stated that when changes were needed to curricula, those changes were to be made at the secondary level, not at the postsecondary level.
Tech Prep administrators and instructors seemed to understand the intent and required elements of the postsecondary portions of Tech Prep programs, and the role of articulation agreements in setting up those programs. However, once the programs had been established, it appeared that little attention was paid to whether the programs complied with the terms of the agreements. The fact that personnel were not able to provide detailed information about what was actually being done to implement articulation agreements suggested that they did not place a high priority on implementing Tech Prep programs and monitoring Tech Prep activities. Although the study did not specifically ask about how funding was being distributed between secondary and postsecondary levels, many postsecondary personnel volunteered that they received essentially no funding to implement the programs, and did not have resources to ensure implementation of the programs as set out in the articulation agreements.
When asked how the articulation agreements were monitored to ensure compliance with transfer and curriculum agreements, most consortia had no formal process in place. Further, most consortia personnel indicated that an evaluation system to monitor articulation agreement compliance was not a requirement for entering into a Tech Prep program. When asked if students more efficiently completed the postsecondary portions of Tech Prep programs because of having completed the secondary portion, only one of the 32 educators interviewed thought this to be the case. Consortia seemed to be making little effort to ensure that Tech Prep students were identified when entering the postsecondary institutions and that adjustments were made in the students' postsecondary programs of study based on what they did in high school. Again, although the study did not ask specific questions focused on the benefits to postsecondary institutions of belonging to Tech Prep consortia, postsecondary personnel volunteered that the real benefit to them was as a recruiting device for their programs. This may partially explain why it was not considered important to identify Tech Prep students and to allow them to receive some explicit benefits when attending the postsecondary programs.
The study indicates that the programs in it were not achieving some of the basic goals set forth by the USDE for Tech Prep articulated programs. Students were not given the advantage of progressing more efficiently through a seamless, non-duplicative curriculum in a technical area on their way to their career goals. They were being treated the same as other students when they entered the postsecondary programs. In most cases, no one seemed to care enough to even find out if they had completed a secondary program before entering the postsecondary program.
Although the findings of this qualitative study are not generalizable to Tech Prep programs across the country, they should alert policy makers of the need to revise expectations for Tech Prep programs or to put systems in place to make sure that expended funds are directed at achieving the goals as currently stated. Based on the student benefits perceived by respondents, many of the goals of Tech Prep that depend primarily on the secondary schools are probably being achieved. Maybe the planning that occurs during the creation of articulation agreements contributes to more effectively accomplishing the USDE goals that depend on the secondary schools. If these other goals are of higher priority, maybe the fact that the postsecondary institutions have not made curriculum modifications, or have not identified Tech Prep students in order to allow them to progress more efficiently through the postsecondary programs is not a serious problem. One could argue that the major goals of helping students to focus their education and to become more technically proficient are being achieved, so that when they reach the postsecondary programs they still have a higher probability of success.
On the other hand, if a major anticipated design component of Tech Prep is to create an articulated program with a " sequence of courses (that) allows the student to proceed from one educational level to the next without repeating coursework," something needs to be done to ensure this is occurring. Students need to be identified and programs need to be modified, so the students can achieve these benefits.
If funding of the postsecondary portions of Tech Prep programs is a major factor inhibiting them from implementing articulation agreements, then funding formulae for consortia may also need to be examined. The modifications to student personnel systems that are required in order to identify Tech Prep students and the curriculum modifications needed to accommodate the students' unique needs based on previous secondary experiences are costly.
This qualitative study substantiated the concern of Hershey, Siverberg, and Ownes (1995) about whether the anticipated student benefits of articulated Tech Prep programs are actually being realized. Currently the procedures in place seem to require secondary and postsecondary institutions to include certain elements in their articulation agreements. Those agreements are then reviewed as a basis for funding a consortium. However, simply developing articulation agreements does not mean they are being implemented. If the anticipated student benefits of articulated Tech Prep programs are to be realized when students enter the postsecondary institutions, there not only needs to be a system in place to monitor the development of articulation agreements, but there needs to be another system to monitor their implementation.
Pucel is a Professor in the Department of Work, Community, and Family Education at the University of Minnesota, St. Paul.
Sundre is a Graduate Assistant in the Department of Work, Community, and Family Education at the University of Minnesota, St. Paul.
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