The Education System Needs a Transformation. Career Technical Education Can Help

The Education System Needs a Transformation. Career Technical Education Can Help
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In an Oct. 22, 2015 photo, Josh Gonzales, 15, left, and Christian Shilling, 18, right, work on their school project, a 12 inch cabinet, during the Peyton Woods Manufacturing program at the Career Technical Educational Facility in Peyton, Colo. The new class, being taught by Dean Mattson from Oregon, is to help prepare students with skills and technical knowledge for a successful career in wood manufacturing. The program, which serves 9th through 12th grade, also helps students learn professional wood manufacturing skills, math, teamwork and problem solving. (Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via AP)

RCEd Commentary

What if we had a potential answer to the skills gap, a way to engage students, and a method to ensure students are not only college, but also career-ready?

There is: Career Technical Education. It’s experiencing a renaissance and policymakers and the media are taking notice.

The attention is happening for a reason: CTE works. The graduation rates for students who concentrate in CTE are almost 10 percentage points above the national average. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute recently released a study and found that CTE concentrators in Arkansas are more likely to graduate high school, enroll in postsecondary education, be employed and earn higher wages. And CTE holds great potential for students from low-income families; those who concentrated in CTE were 25 percent more likely to graduate from high school than their low-income peers.

There is incredible promise for CTE’s role as a successful, proven workforce and education strategy, and the public agrees. Eighty-seven percent of Americans believe that high school students should receive more education about possible career choices and employers are hungry for more prepared students and future employees.

So what is holding us back from ensuring all learners benefit from high-quality CTE?

There are two not insignificant barriers. The first is the stereotype and reality of “vocational education” that still exists across our country – a dumping ground for low-achieving students, those not “college material,” or other students disenfranchised because they live in a particular part of town or look a certain way. The other barrier is perhaps even more challenging: The systems and structures in place that keep CTE siloed and separate.

To support all learners on their career journeys, we need a full reimagination of the education system and what is aims to achieve, how it is delivered, what counts as success and who it aims to serve. This requires nothing short of a transformation.

To begin, we must hold ourselves accountable nothing short of excellence for CTE. All students – not just those in wealthy schools or districts – can and should have access to high-quality CTE. We need to draw a hard line when it comes to expecting quality. We need to get rid of programs that are no longer relevant in today’s economy, eliminate programs that equate being a safety net with a culture of low expectation, and invest in what is working.

The hard work has already started by amazing, fearless leaders who are eradicating the expectations gap and putting learners and learning first. For example, Tennessee has made great strides in this effort through their course revision process, which took a hard look at existing courses to see how they reflected rigorous expectations and labor market demand. Through this process, more than 180 courses were created, revised or renamed, and many more were retired or deleted. Policies such as these ensure that learners are taking relevant and meaningful coursework.  

Secondly, we must empower all learners so they can adeptly choose a meaningful education and career. All too often, students don’t have the support system to make informed decisions about their future, or real-life learning experiences that help determine what they want, or don’t want, to do. Vista PEAK Preparatory in Colorado breaks this mold by supporting its students through rigorous and regular advisement, as well as incredible real-world experiences.  Vista PEAK’s business education pathway students, who mostly come from low-income families, have traveled across the country to work with leading national companies like Google, SnapChat and BirchBox and regularly engage in internships and work-based projects with a breadth of companies. While the entire graduating class didn’t head into the business sector, all graduated high school (and with an industry-recognized credential), and over half of students earned postsecondary credit.  

Third, we need to finally shed the century-old education model of bell schedules and Carnegie units, disciplines that divide rather than complement one another, and learner levels that create barriers for financial gain rather than focusing on student success. It can be done: Waubonsee Community College’s Emergency Medical Technician program of study in Illinois spans secondary and postsecondary education, demands over 500 hours of clinical and field work resulting in 100 percent attainment of a state- and nationally-recognized credential, and even offers a flexible schedule allowing learners to complete the program of study, day or night.

To support and facilitate learning, we must reimagine teacher preparation programs, promote dual subject or learner-level certification, and vastly expand the opportunities for industry experts to supplement and support teachers and faculty. At Desert View High School in Arizona, Cesar Gutierrez, the manufacturing program’s lead instructor, spends his summer at a two-month externship paid for by partnering employers. In South Carolina’s Berkeley County School District, teachers sit down with their employer partners at the beginning of the school year to walk through the curriculum and identify lessons that can be guest taught by industry experts.

Finally, we must build systems focused on supporting learners – not around those who work for or in the system. We must break down silos. We must shed labels. We must take a serious look at our policies, funding streams and priorities and put learners’ education and career success first.  Earlier this month, 25 states, through the New Skills for Youth initiative with support from JPMorgan Chase & Co., took on this challenge of system transformation to help more students find pathways to success. While this effort is in its early stages, it’s promising that so many states are investing in this difficult but vital work.

America must commit to a shared vision to transform education through CTE. Achieving the vision’s potential requires leadership and large-scale shifts in public will. This is morally imperative work that will ensure all learners have access to a high-quality education and opportunity in the workforce.

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