After a long period on the sidelines of American education, career and technical education (CTE) has moved to center stage, fueled by a growing sense that the “College for All” mantra, once a rallying cry for reformers, has not led to dramatically improved results. Although only 60 percent of American high schoolers score high enough on national assessments to be considered “college ready,” nearly 70 percent of graduating seniors nonetheless enroll in college. But many of those students—a startling 42 percent of them—do not complete a degree within six years. This means that for the roughly 3.1 million teenagers who graduated from high school in 2016, just 1.3 million are likely to have earned a degree by 2022.
Those who do graduate increasingly find that a college credential doesn’t guarantee a well-paying job—a scary prospect given that the average undergraduate borrower leaves school with nearly $30,000 in student loan debt. And, given estimates from Georgetown University researchers that more than two-thirds of good jobs today require postsecondary education in combination with high-quality work experience, it’s safe to say the situation is worse for degree-holders who lack formal work experience—and worse still for those without either.
Yet, in June 2019, U.S. businesses had more than 7 million job vacancies, including many in fast-growing, well-paying industries like health care, IT, and advanced manufacturing. Unfortunately for employers, however, only a bit more than six million unemployed people are looking to fill those jobs. This unprecedented labor market imbalance has stretched on for nearly a year and a half, forcing employers to consider a range of strategies to get people into jobs. For some, this has meant raising wages or changing entry requirements for jobs. For others—especially those in industries facing structural shifts due to new technologies or massive waves of impending retirements—it’s increasingly necessary to identify new sources of talent and to rethink how they train and retrain employees in a quickly evolving labor market.
The convergence of these forces has led to a push to more deliberately prepare all high school students—not only those enrolled in career and technical education classes—to more directly enter the world of work. Responding to pressure from educators and employers alike, Congress, in a rare example of bipartisan cooperation, passed the Strengthening Career and Technical Education (CTE) for the 21st Century Act (Perkins V) in summer 2018. The year prior, states passed more than 240 policies related to CTE and career readiness. Of these, 180 were relevant to high schools, with many designed to increase funding, improve data or accountability systems, or support work-based learning programs, like apprenticeships.
As long-time advocates celebrate the renewed support for CTE, others have reacted with alarm, citing concerns about CTE’s history of inconsistent quality and its legacy as a “dumping ground” for students—especially minority and low-income students—who were deemed not to be “college material.” In this vein, a recent article in Democracy (Clara Bates, “Our Divided Education System,” Fall 2018) warned that this renewed interest in career and technical education “spells trouble” for public high schools, and cautioned that CTE will “cement existing economic and racial stratification” and “consign students to limited, often low-paying careers for life.”
Though not without historical basis, these arguments misunderstand contemporary career and technical education and, in particular, what recent policy efforts seek to accomplish. Until at least the late 1980s, when CTE was still known as vocational education (or simply “voc ed”), it did indeed facilitate decades of racially motivated segregation within schools, pushing poor and minority students into occupational training programs and out of more academic college prep classes. White students, meanwhile, remained in academic courses, enrolled in college, and secured solid middle- and upper-class jobs. The impacts of this two-track system reverberate in our society still. But while voc ed cemented divides between college prep and job prep classes, today most new policy activity related to career education aims to bring these two “tracks” more closely together to ensure that graduating high schoolers are no longer prepared to succeed in college or in a career, but in both.
To some extent, this change is already well underway within CTE programs. Beginning in the 1990s, voc ed made a concerted effort to reinvent itself as career and technical education, taking steps to dramatically change its image. CTE educators raised the quality of instruction, purposefully integrated core academic material within high school CTE, and mapped out clear pathways for students to move seamlessly from high school CTE classes into related college coursework and, eventually, into careers. CTE educators prioritized pathways that led to high-wage, high-growth occupations, and took steps to jettison those that did not. With a well-balanced academic transcript that combined high-quality, relevant CTE coursework and traditional academics, the thinking went, CTE graduates would have options: They could head straight into in-demand jobs or enroll in college and be well-prepared to succeed in either. It worked. According to analysis from the Department of Education, “secondary CTE students are closing the gap with non-CTE students with respect to the number of core academic credits earned and college-going rates.” While research on the impacts of secondary CTE is limited, structured CTE models have been linked to increased college matriculation and completion rates, as well as positive labor market outcomes—including higher earnings—for students who head directly into the workforce.
Today, 98 percent of U.S. school districts offer CTE, with more than 80 percent of those embedding CTE courses within the academic program at comprehensive high schools. The convergence of the two high school “tracks” has had virtually no effect on the traditional college prep track, however. Even as “College and Career Readiness” became a nearly ubiquitous mantra across K-12 education, most high schools doubled down on their college prep focus, raising academic standards and graduation requirements and often sidelining elective courses like CTE. Even as college completion rates stagnated, student debt rose, and employers voiced concerns about their ability to hire high school and college graduates alike, high schools continued to largely ignore the “career” half of their mandate. Today, the problem is not that CTE is failing to sufficiently prepare students to succeed in college; it’s that the college prep track is struggling to prepare students to succeed at all.
Strong CTE courses provide a mix of theoretical and practical knowledge and, because they focus on skills and knowledge related to specific career trajectories, frequently require students to apply their learning in real-world contexts. Students in automotive courses learn about engines by taking them apart. Students studying cybersecurity learn about hackers by hacking. And those in animal science pathways study the behavior of animals not just through textbooks, but by observing, handling, and caring for them. These types of learning experiences tap into the enormous potential of teenagers’ dopamine-drenched brains, which crave new, exciting experiences, and are exceptionally well-primed to learn from them.
Students in CTE courses also work together—a lot. Project-based assignments are common and require students to collaborate to solve real-world problems they might encounter in workplace scenarios. These projects challenge students to draw on both their technical and academic know-how, and force them to develop collaboration, problem-solving, and leadership skills that will serve them well in whatever they choose to do after graduation. By creating opportunities for students to take risks with their learning, engage directly with their peers, and pursue the tangible reward of a final product—whether a new engine, a website, or a business plan—strong CTE courses capitalize on the learning potential in teens’ changing brains in ways most teacher-centered classroom instruction—still the norm in most high schools—far too often does not.
CTE programs challenge students to solve problems not only about the real world, but in the real world. More than three-quarters of CTE programs now connect students to internships, practicums, clinical experiences, apprenticeships, or other structured forms of work-based learning, in cooperation with local employers. Though the design and quality of these experiences can vary, the most intensive among them challenge students to apply classroom learning in new contexts, and have been shown to increase motivation, comprehension and, in some cases, even bump students’ GPAs. Well-designed, these experiences can also help students build so-called “soft” or “employability” skills like communication, collaboration, and problem-solving, and expose them to important workplace mores that cannot easily be taught within the confines of a traditional high school classroom.
Whether a student is headed to college or straight to work, these experiences can help ease the often rocky transition from adolescence into adulthood. We know, for example, that teens benefit from structured, supportive relationships with adults—especially adults who are not their parents or teachers—during their complicated identity formation process. Through these relationships, adolescents encounter and get to “try on” different adult identities, and they learn what it takes to be seen by those adults as capable, competent peers. Especially for students with limited social networks, these relationships can expose them to a much wider range of possible futures and help them understand how to get there.
Critics who fear the resurgence of interest in CTE have noted that even philosopher John Dewey felt that vocational education was, as Clara Bates explained, a “threat to democracy and economic mobility.” To be sure, Dewey was wary of any two-track system of education, noting in 1915 that an education system that sorted students into separate academic and vocational tracks—one focused on training managers and the other on workers—would “make both kinds of training narrower, less significant and less effective.” He was right: It did.
But Dewey never dismissed the potential of vocational education outright. Instead, he advocated for an “enlarged” model of education—one in which traditional liberal education would be “reorganized” so students could acquire not just academic knowledge, but also “industrial intelligence” by engaging directly with the “scientific and social” elements of work.
Only when the two competing tracks were merged, Dewey believed, could schools graduate students with both “trained imagination and resourceful skill for expert action in a complex society.”
To an extent, many of today’s career education reforms have the potential to create a more balanced vision of secondary education—one in which learning is more applied, high schools are more open, and opportunities exist to foster strong relationships between students and adult mentors working in their communities. Currently, despite a robust body of research demonstrating that teenagers—even the most academic among them—need opportunities to channel their energy toward activities that feel purposeful, to safely challenge themselves in adult-like settings, and to experiment with what psychologists call “possible selves,” most high schools are not set up to provide these opportunities. Instead, because of the rigid and slow-to-adapt design of the American high school, and the proliferation of smart phones and other devices, teens are increasingly isolated from one another, from adults, and from the fast-changing world they are preparing to join.
After years of prioritizing college readiness states are responding to pressure from policymakers, employers, and parents by taking steps to ensure all students—not only those enrolled in CTE courses—also have opportunities to develop the well-rounded skills they’ll need to succeed in the world of work. Michigan, for example, recently enacted legislation requiring all school districts to incorporate “grade-appropriate” career development instruction within “core instruction” at each grade level, beginning in kindergarten. Indiana passed a bill to pilot “interdisciplinary employability skills standards” in traditional high school courses. Virginia and Oklahoma took steps to ensure counselors promote college and career opportunities evenly, mandating that students (and, in Virginia, their parents) be informed of the full suite of career development opportunities available to them—including internships, apprenticeships, and CTE courses that meet core graduation requirements. Many other states introduced new policy or funding to expand those types of opportunities. And that was just in 2018.
Even more significant have been the changes states have made to their federal accountability rating systems. Whereas states have traditionally relied almost exclusively on college readiness measures like SAT or ACT performance to evaluate high schools, 40 states will now take into account some measure of career preparation. In New Hampshire, for example, the list of “college and career indicators” high schools must collect to demonstrate their effectiveness has been expanded to include three new measures: the number of students earning industry recognized credentials, completing career pathways, or earning ACT career readiness certificates. (Districts must choose two college and career indicators from a list of seven, in addition to other academic achievement indicators.)
It’s too soon to know for sure if these policy shifts will yield a generation of high school graduates who are better prepared to succeed in their careers. Some changes, like greater financial support for structured, sustained, work-based learning opportunities within and beyond CTE pathways, hold more promise than others. But, taken together, they are a significant public acknowledgment that change is needed in the American high school. And by recognizing that career education can be a valuable ingredient in its evolution, policymakers, and educators have taken an important first step toward acknowledging that CTE, despite its dark history, has a great deal to offer—not just to students, but to the college prep track that has for so long overshadowed it.