What if CTE was strengthened as a stepping stone to equity, rather than a replacement for a four year degree?
Educators, researchers, and policymakers alike are continually searching for the best strategies to build a workforce that is prepared for the 21st century. In order to meet workforce demands, a higher percentage of the American workforce will need a postsecondary credential than ever before. Career and technical education (CTE) has a role to play in developing young people who are prepared for their postsecondary trajectories – whatever they may be. However, there is disagreement over 1) what that role should be, 2) how early CTE should be emphasized, and 3) for whom CTE should be designed. In expanding the language used to emphasize a broader concept of career pathways, the state of Ohio may be providing the next step in answering those questions.
The most innovative development in Ohio is the approval of a “third” way to meet high school graduation requirements. Previously, students have been required to demonstrate proficiency to earn a high school diploma by passing the required statewide proficiency exams. The state now mandates that all students take the standardized assessments and at least one of the college preparation assessments (the ACT or the SAT). Beginning in 2018, the ACT and SAT can also be used to fulfill proficiency requirements for a high school diploma. In an effort to help students who are unable to meet those proficiency benchmarks, Ohio will now enable students to fulfill the proficiency requirement of a regular high school diploma by combining specific industry-recognized credentials with a certain score on a work readiness exam. This option is interesting, and contributes to many ideas that are important to the larger conversation about CTE in the United States.
1. What role should CTE play in preparing students for long-term success?
Ohio’s “third” way to graduate is central to the larger CTE debate: the question regarding whether or not CTE operates as a separate track to traditional high school academic work, preventing students who follow that path from having long term flexibility to pursue a range of post-secondary opportunities. However, Ohio’s policy shift regarding high school graduation requirements is a component of a larger emphasis on Career Pathways across the state. In addition to a growing “pathways” program and a focus on work-based learning, Ohio is acknowledging the reality that workforce preparation and industry-recognized credentials are increasingly valuable in today’s workforce. In Ohio, these credentials are identified through regionally assessed needs, industry partnerships, and a continued emphasis on workforce credentials as a potential stepping-stone to additional post-secondary education and/or degrees. The state hopes that all students will consider gaining one or more of these credentials while pursuing their high school diploma.
2. How early is too early to begin emphasizing careers in schools?
Ohio’s career pathways work may begin as early as grade 7. While beginning sooner may be useful, it is critical that these programs for younger students focus heavily on career exploration and learning, rather than selection of a career trajectory. In the past, education policy in the U.S. has placed value in a generalist secondary education, which gives young people a broader array of choices throughout their academic careers. Beginning CTE training earlier may lead to a better prepared workforce, but it also has the potential to limit choices for young people if implemented in a way that creates silos within specific career paths. The example set by Ohio is that conversation surrounding CTE can be reframed as Career Pathways, which can provide opportunities for students to explore pathways, without tracking them or limiting their choices.
It is important that these policies, when implemented, encourage career preparation as a dual strategy with academic preparation, rather than an “either-or” choice. In Ohio, a wide range of potential electives can be made available to students beginning in grade 7, and continue as a pathway if students choose. There are a number of potential pathways, including Agriculture and Environmental Systems, Business Administration, Health Sciences, and more, providing a range of pathway choices. One remaining concern is whether schools that serve smaller populations would be able to provide the same range of pathway choices as larger schools.
3. For whom should CTE be designed?
CTE programs at the secondary level should not create separate tracks for students based on their family’s income, but such programs may not be presented equally for all students. For any student, two-year degrees, industry credentials, and other post-secondary certificates tend to be significantly more affordable than four-year degrees, and often lead to professions with equal or greater entry-level salaries. CTE’s potential becomes more complicated in the long run. If strengthening and incentivizing CTE means tracking low-income Americans to two-year degrees, certificates, and careers that have less long term income potential, while wealthier students are tracked to four year and graduate degrees, then CTE only serves to reinforce inequality. Ohio’s example in expanding the CTE conversation to emphasize Career Pathways rejects the silos that CTE could create, by demonstrating the steps that all students can take to pursue a range of post-secondary credentials.
CTE should be a viable option for all rather than an inevitably for some. This is where Ohio’s Career Pathways program enters. Ohio’s efforts at integrating career and academic preparation, including the “third” way to graduate high school, bring me back to my initial question: what if CTE was strengthened as a stepping stone to equity, rather than a replacement for a four year degree? For example, what if earning credentials in the health care field allowed low-income students a clearer path to eventually earn a RN, after spending time in another role in the health care field? This distinction is key to Ohio’s continuing engagement with Career Pathways, and time will tell if defined pathways and industry-recognized certificates can become steps to higher valued degrees and careers in Ohio. For the moment, stakeholders in Ohio appear to be asking the right questions.