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This National CTE Month, celebrating multiple pathways to student success

Bruno Manno | February 28, 2024

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February is National Career and Technical Education Month, an opportunity to consider how CTE helps young people flourish and reach their potential. Two facts should guide this reflection. First, the K-12 college-for-all model of recent decades does not serve the aspirations and needs of all young people. Second, Americans want opportunity pluralism, believing that many pathways, not just the road to college, lead to meaningful and prosperous careers.

Public opinion surveys report that Americans’ perception of the value of a college degree has changed, especially among young people. A Wall Street Journal headline blared, “Americans Are Losing Faith in College Education.” This shift includes a strong preference for young people acquiring practical skills and lifelong learning opportunities outside the college degree. Moreover, a recent study showed that half (52%) of college graduates are in jobs where their degrees are not needed, with the majority underemployed a decade later.

Federal support for CTE began with the 1927 Smith-Hughes National Vocational Education Act. Its legislative update in the 2006 Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act replaced the term “vocational education” with “career and technical education.” Federal funding now exceeds $1.462 billion. CTE differs dramatically from the vocational education of old, which tracked students based on family backgrounds and served as dumping grounds for young people judged as unfit for academic rigor.

CTE integrates technical training with academic coursework and offers a practical route toward employment and further education (there are also adult CTE programs). It equips young people with the knowledge and skills they need for high-wage, in-demand careers in fields like advanced manufacturing, health sciences and information technology that do not require two- or four-year college degrees. CTE programs include internships and apprenticeships and offer industry certifications and licenses that can be stacked or build on each other to earn students an associate or bachelor’s degree.

More than one-third of today’s ninth-grade public school students have a CTE concentration, having earned two or more credits in at least one program of study in high school. This is associated with increased student engagement and graduation rates, and reduced dropout rates. Those with a CTE concentration also are more likely to be employed full-time and have higher median annual earnings eight years after graduation than peers who don’t

A national effort created the National Career Clusters Framework to organize academic and technical knowledge and skills into a coherent sequence and pathways. The framework is used in different ways by 50 states, the District of Columbia and territories to organize their CTE programs. There are 16 framework career clusters representing 79 career pathways, many of these pathways lead to CTE credentials that enhance employment and earnings prospects for participants — especially for low-income students, and particularly in fields like health and business.

CTE programs have been developed to operate both top-down and bottom-up. Top-down initiatives include those created by governors and legislators from both political parties — for example, Delaware Pathways by Democratic Gov. Jack Markell and Tennessee’s Drive to 55 Alliance by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam. Similar programs exist in politically diverse states like ArkansasCaliforniaColorado, ConnecticutIndiana, Massachusetts, Ohio and Texas.

Bottom-up programs involving K-12 schools, employers and civic partners include 3DE Schools in Atlanta; YouthForce NOLA in New Orleans; Washington, D.C.’s CityWorks D.C.; and Cristo Rey, an effort comprising 38 Catholic high schools in 24 states. Other organizations like Pathways to Prosperity NetworkP-Tech Schools and Linked Learning Alliance form regional or local partnerships to provide assistance to those creating programs.

Fordham Institute study summarizes five benefits associated with CTE participation: It is not a path away from college, since students taking these courses are just as likely as peers to pursue higher education. Rather, it increases graduation rates; improves college outcomes, especially for women and disadvantaged students; boosts students’ incomes; and enhances other skills like perseverance and self-efficacy. (Benefits vary based on characteristics like race, ethnicity and gender.)

But while CTE and other types of career education programs have expanded, they often lack a connection to comprehensive K-12 career education frameworks that begin with early education and go through high school. For example, two-thirds of high schoolers and graduates say they would have benefited from more career exploration in school.

The international 38-member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development outlines a useful career education model organized by three categories: exposure, exploration and experience. This model advocates for early exposure to career concepts; active exploration of work possibilities; and direct experiences with the workplace through mentorship activities like internships and apprenticeships. This approach equips young people with the knowledge, tools and relationships they need for informed decision-making on their career trajectories.

Still, today’s conversation on K-12 education in the United States often falls prey to polarizing debates that cloud widespread agreement on inclusive approaches, like CTE, that prepare young people for jobs and careers. Embracing opportunity pluralism as a governing agenda is a pragmatic solution, transcending political divides and fostering a more adaptable, responsive education system that caters to the diverse aspirations of the American public.

National Career and Technical Education Month offers an opportunity to champion the cause of opportunity pluralism and advocate for a broader recognition of the various paths to success available to young people. This will enrich their lives and strengthen the fabric of society by ensuring a more inclusive, equitable approach to education and workforce development.

Disclosure: Walton Family Foundation provides financial support to The 74.

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