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CTE Slicker: The Evolution of Career Technical Education

Career Technical Education (CTE) is a proven method of motivating students to attend school more frequently and to be more engaged: therefore improving core academic skills. This career-oriented approach teaches the skills essential to lifelong learning, and often does so better than traditional schooling, particularly for disadvantaged youth. 

In many high schools, you can still find the same voc-ed (vocational education) classes that existed half a century ago. They tend to prepare students for jobs that don’t typically require college degrees, such as child care, cosmetology, plumbing, or welding.

But today’s CTE is very different than your grandmother’s voc-ed. Yesterday’s offerings of agriculture, business, Home Ec, construction, and marketing courses now also include Artificial Intelligence, App development, Cybersecurity, forensics, and robotics.

Investing in the Future

The Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act was reauthorized in 2018, providing $1.2 billion in funding for CTE programs and job training for students. Many programs use this funding to focus on areas generally associated with associate or bachelor’s degrees, such as coding, digital media, engineering, or business. Because career-tech-ed classes of all kinds are increasingly seen as roads to additional study after high school, they are meant to be more academically rigorous than those in the past. 

High quality, next-generation CTE learning spaces are often a hybrid: blending the latest technology to support digital media creation and processor-intensive computation with more “traditional” offerings such as machine shop, welding, and sewing. Though facilities are crucial for developing CTE skills, the most successful programs are those where schools partner with relevant industries. This allows students the chance to get first-hand experience with different tools, scenarios, or principles through internships: better preparing students for the world of work by providing academic content in a hands-on context.

In 2016, Gov. Gina Raimondo launched a Prepare RI initiative, reinvigorating Rhode Island’s public education with a focus on CTE. Students can attend classes at no additional cost during their school day, and companies offer internships to provide real-world experience. Students in the floraculture class provide the flower arrangements for prom and gather maple syrup from the trees on campus. 

A Chicken/Egg Quandary  

CTE’s popularity has risen over the past few years. But this popularity isn’t due to reform in existing CTE programs or renewed interest in traditional CTE pathways: it’s due to increased offerings of “new era” CTE programs. While courses like Manufacturing, Construction, and Human Services are declining, there’s an uptick in courses like Computer Science and Healthcare. Therefore, when data indicates increased CTE participation among students, many see a reason to celebrate. 

Yet, “CTE concentrators’ average test scores, graduation rates, and other indicators may be rising primarily through the addition of more academically oriented and otherwise college-going students to the CTE tent,” and not because traditional CTE students are experiencing more success. Translation? Academically-inclined students are skewing the data. It may simply be that new era CTE offerings attract a more academically successful student. But what about the student for whom traditional academia has never been a fit? 

It's essential that this student stay at the forefront. Besides giving students immediate training in career-related fields, CTE provides a sense of belonging for students who may struggle with traditional academics, as CTE programs routinely improve student attendance and graduation rates. Schools will need to actively seek out those students for whom traditional school is less successful and help them see themselves in the “new era” of CTE, rather than assume that the rising tide of new CTE classes will sweep these same students away.  

What’s Next?

Awareness of the need for comprehensive, cutting-edge, and inclusive CTE is on the rise. For instance, North Carolina State University is offering a 2020 Fellows Program and “will support postdoctoral, dissertation and graduate level fellows who conduct research on current issues related to the field of postsecondary career and technical education (CTE).”

By weaving academic skills within a real-world context, CTE motivates and engages today’s students, so that they—and therefore our country—can enjoy a more prosperous future. So, what are some baby steps that today’s administrators and educators can make to either implement or improve their career technical education programs? Explore the K12 Blueprint’s new Innovation Spaces toolkit to learn what schools can do to support their students’ evolving career-training needs.