New Opportunities Open Up with Career and Technical Education

There is a growing demand among Americans, especially the latest Gen Z cohort entering high school, for increased offerings of education and training options such as career and technical education (CTE). The consensus is that the long-standing K–12 focus on “college for all” has not been universally beneficial to students. The concept of “opportunity pluralism” is being advocated for as an alternative, emphasizing that a college degree is just one of the avenues to post-secondary success.

CTE programs, both for middle and high school students and adults, aim to equip students for various high-paying, high-skill careers that are in demand. These programs cover fields like advanced manufacturing, health sciences, and information technology, which may not necessarily require a traditional college degree. Students enrolled in CTE programs can earn industry certifications and licenses, and some programs offer pathways for further education, including associate and bachelor’s degrees.

CTE Today

The federal involvement in modern-day CTE traces back to 1917 with the Smith-Hughes National Vocational Education Act. The rebranding of vocational education to career and technical education under the Carl. D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act occurred in 2006. Federal funding for CTE in the year 2023 exceeded $1.462 billion.

Current CTE differs significantly from the vocational education practices of the past, which often segregated students based on socio-economic backgrounds. CTE focuses on integrating academic coursework with technical and career skills to provide viable pathways to careers and further education. By fostering connections with local employers through internships and apprenticeships, CTE programs help students develop social capital and establish meaningful relationships and mentorships.

The National Career Clusters Framework, developed by Advance CTE, organizes academic and technical skills into 16 Career Clusters and 79 Career Pathways, serving as a foundational structure for CTE programs across U.S. states and territories.

Nearly all public school districts offer CTE programs to high schoolers, with a considerable percentage enabling students to earn dual credits. The popularity of technology courses among high school students is particularly noteworthy. Additionally, a significant portion of high school teachers specialize in CTE, with a substantial proportion boasting a decade or more of teaching experience.

A notable 37 percent of 9th-grade students focus on a CTE concentration, which has been linked to increased engagement, graduation rates, and career success. Students with a CTE concentration tend to secure full-time employment and earn higher median annual incomes post-graduation.

A teacher and three students using a copy machine
Cristo Rey, a network of Catholic high schools in 24 states, includes “bottom-up” CTE instruction to train its students in practical life skills. Here, students at Cristo Rey San Antonio learn how to operate a copy machine.

Successful CTE programs typically encompass five key features outlined in another article from Education Next: an academic curriculum tailored to industry needs, work experience with mentors, guidance counselors to assist participants, a written agreement among educational institutions and employers, and supportive policies and regulations.

Many of these programs provide credentials that signify the completion of specific instruction courses. These credentials can be stacked over time, potentially leading to an associate or bachelor’s degree. Credential Engine identifies over a million unique credentials across various categories, with significant spending on training and education programs in the U.S. estimated at $2.133 trillion.

Credentials from CTE programs, especially when stacked, have demonstrated considerable value and benefits, particularly for low-income students pursuing careers in sectors like health and business. Research organizations like the American Institutes for Research CTE Research Network focus on assessing the impact of CTE on student outcomes and provide valuable insights into program effectiveness.

Studies from the RAND and Brookings Institution highlight the advantages of CTE, showcasing improved graduation rates, better employment prospects, and enhanced skills development. CTE programs are recognized for their positive impact on students, emphasizing the significance of these career-focused pathways.

CTE and Career Education

Despite a growing interest among young people, including Gen Z, in pursuing alternative education routes beyond traditional college paths, many K–12 students lack adequate information on programs like CTE. Studies indicate that access to career exploration in middle or high school could significantly benefit students in determining their future career or education pathways. Addressing this informational gap is crucial to improving the transition from school to work and ensuring better outcomes in terms of wages and career satisfaction.

Effective CTE pathways are part of a comprehensive career education initiative focused on instilling career aspirations in students and equipping them with the necessary skills and knowledge to achieve their goals by the end of high school. International organizations like the OECD have documented various successful program models that integrate schools with work experiences in a structured manner.

  • Exposure activities introduce students to various careers, starting from a young age and progressing through school with practical experiences like workplace visits.
  • Exploration activities enable students to engage in job-related tasks such as job shadowing and resume development, starting in middle school and continuing into high school.
  • Experience activities involve work-based learning opportunities like internships and apprenticeships, providing valuable hands-on experience and potential career pathways.

Frameworks like Colorado’s work-based learning continuum offer structured approaches for middle and high schools to introduce students to the world of work effectively. Combined with tools like YouScience, which use AI for career assessments, these initiatives empower young people in discovering their strengths and matching them with suitable career options.

Career education programs offer numerous advantages, as evidenced by OECD research linking early career preparation to enhanced career outcomes in adulthood. These initiatives not only benefit individual students in terms of employment and earnings but also contribute to the development of social capital and mentoring relationships essential for personal and professional growth.

A Governing Agenda

While K–12 education discussions often center on ideological divides, the concept of “opportunity pluralism” presents a more inclusive narrative emphasizing multiple pathways to success, including CTE and college preparation. Implementation pluralism is encouraged to allow for diverse programs aligned with community needs and to leverage local innovation and experimentation.

Opportunity pluralism offers a practical agenda for policymakers from various perspectives to redefine the goals of public education. Led by civic pluralists, this agenda focuses on establishing diverse career pathways programs to empower students and bridge political divides through collaborative efforts.

Bruno V. Manno is senior advisor at the Progressive Policy Institute and a former U.S. Assistance Secretary of Education for Policy.

The post Career and Technical Education Clears New Pathways to Opportunity appeared first on Education Next.

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