February is National Career and Technical Education (CTE) Month, a time to recognize the huge contributions the CTE enterprise makes to our economy and to helping young people figure out their futures and gain the skills needed for career success. In my 42 years of working on CTE policy in various capacities, I’ve seen support for CTE wax and wane, and I’m pleased that right now, CTE is getting the attention and support it deserves. At the same time, I’ve been reflecting on the advancements we’ve made in CTE, but also the challenges still facing us.
When I started working on vocational education¹ in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was little attention focused on the quality of the programs or how they connected to the labor market. Vocational education programs mostly provided short-term job training to youth who needed skills to get a specific job. Often low-income youth and youth of color were tracked into these job skills programs, with little attention paid to developing their academic skills or ensuring that they graduated from high school. And there was zero talk of preparing them for postsecondary education. Students in vocational education were not viewed as “college material.” Did these programs help some young people? Yes, probably, but the legacy of tracking and low expectations haunts CTE today and is forcing many educators to face up to the inequities that exist in the system.
In 1990, major amendments to the federal law were made to promote high school graduation and entrance into postsecondary education, particularly for those youth who were not on a college track. The Tech Prep program, authorized by Congress, was designed to connect the last two years of a high school CTE program with two years of study in the same subject area at a community college (2+2). Tech Prep was a major innovation for CTE, but also for education in general, as it advocated a comprehensive approach to articulating CTE coursework from grade to grade leading to a postsecondary degree or credential. Tech Prep was the first career pathway. Tech Prep not only promoted strong partnerships between K-12 and postsecondary educators, but also with employers, to ensure that jobs existed in the areas of study and that curriculum would match labor market needs. Tech Prep programs supported increased guidance and counseling for students and ensured that special populations had equal access to these opportunities. Today, we take programs that bridge high school and college, such as early college high schools and dual and concurrent enrollment for granted, but in 1990, this was groundbreaking work. In states and communities that developed well-defined and structured Tech Prep programs, many of them have persisted and evolved into even more comprehensive models.
Another key part of Tech Prep was the push to integrate academic and career and technical curriculum. For the most part, academic teachers and career and technical education teachers lived in separate worlds that never intersected. But by 1990, people realized that students learned better when they could see how abstract concepts and ideas could be applied to real-world problem solving, and, just as importantly, there was widespread agreement that vocational curriculum lacked academic rigor and needed to integrate English, math, and science to better prepare students for changing careers. However, curriculum integration is hard work, and it’s taken decades to get to the point where there is high quality and rigorous career and technical curriculum. And unfortunately, there are still too many academic teachers who could do a better job of telling their students why they are learning what they are learning!
More recently, CTE has made significant strides in creating strong partnerships with employers and helping provide work-based learning opportunities for youth. Employers want workers with employability skills, and they prefer some work experience when hiring. With youth unemployment so high, work-based learning opportunities are a great way for students to develop needed skills. Innovative high school models such as P-TECH provide young people with the academic, technical, and professional skills required for 21st century jobs and lifelong learning. NAF career academies across the country rely on business people and community leaders to volunteer on local advisory boards to play an active role in developing their future workforce by shaping talent in high school and providing work experiences. The Linked Learning model organizes schools around industry-sector themes, which are woven into lessons taught by teachers who collaborate across subject areas with input from working professionals, reinforced by work-based learning with employers. These examples provide a path to excellent and relevant CTE. I hope state leaders, as they develop plans for the new Perkins V legislation, pay attention and promote them.
While the CTE landscape has improved dramatically over 40 years, there are still issues that need to be addressed. One is that we don’t have enough guidance counselors to help students select the college and career pathway they want to explore or follow. The current counselor to student ratio of 1:482 is embarrassing and a sad statement about our investment in our youth and schools. Another challenge is that there are not enough work-based learning opportunities for all the students that would like to participate, and particularly for low-income students and students of color who would benefit the most.
Ensuring high quality CTE curriculum and programming means having enough trained teachers, yet two-thirds of states and especially rural areas are experiencing shortages that result in fewer opportunities for students. And lastly, we still need to focus on ensuring that all students have equitable opportunities for college and career preparation, that equity gaps are addressed, and that the CTE enterprise realizes its power in preparing traditionally underserved youth for success. States, as mentioned before, are at an important flexion point where they can address many of these issues as they develop their state plans for the Perkins V.
I’ve always believed that high quality CTE is an effective pathway to help young people explore their futures, engage with meaningful and applied studies, establish relationships with professionals and career mentors, and participate in work-based experiences where they can develop employability and social and emotional skills. So, here’s to CTE, and all the teachers, administrators, advisors, CTSOs, employers, and community partners that contribute to the future wellbeing of our youth.
¹ That’s what it was called back then; the term career and technical education didn’t become common until the 2000s. In 1970, the authorizing federal legislation was the Vocational Education Act. In 2006, it was amended and renamed the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act.