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Career and technical education programs have grown into robust training opportunities for students

CTE-edCareer and technical education (CTE) or vocational education: either term used to stir up negative images of students without ambition. But those misplaced reputations are disappearing. CTE has established itself as a path that many high-achieving students choose in pursuit of industry certifications and hands-on skills they can use right out of high school, in training programs, or in college.

Instead of being dismissed as the class for low-achieving or behaviorally-challenged students, CTE has emerged as a way for students to develop practical skills while participating in rigorous and high-quality courses.

In fact, 94 percent of high school students are part of CTE—and this doesn’t include the millions of postsecondary students who also are enrolled in CTE programs, according to the Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE).

Students who focus on CTE programs have an average high school graduation rate of 90 percent, compared to an average national freshmen graduation rate of 75 percent, according to ACTE data.

Of high school students in CTE programs, more than 70 percent enrolled in postsecondary education soon after completing high school.

(Next page: What are educators saying about CTE, and how are states supporting CTE efforts?)

By 2020, it is estimated that more than 16 million jobs will require a two-year associate degree or some post-secondary education. And many of those jobs will be in CTE fields, including IT and health care, according to 2014 ACTE survey data.

CTE looks “vastly different than what it looked like in the mid-80s,” said Sarah Martin, head of the Career and Technical Education department in the Katy Independent School District. Instead of focusing on pre-determined job skills, “a greater focus is placed on academic rigor, career-focused programs of study, collaboration between secondary and post-secondary education, and greater accountability.”

CTE offerings include courses in engineering, information technology, agricultural sciences, and more.

“One of the great things about career and technical education is that the courses taught are a direct reflection of the needs of the workforce,” Martin said.

CTE’s value and reach are much stronger today, Martin said, noting that students have many options when it comes to applying those skills, be it in postsecondary education or a move directly to the workforce.

“[The] bottom line to CTE is to provide students with the knowledge and skills to transfer into higher education and the workforce,” she said.

Students have access to CTE programs as early as middle school, and many opt for CTE courses because they are hands-on and engaging.

“Students make connections to the content because it makes sense to them; often not realizing they are applying concepts learned in their core classes,” Martin said. “CTE is where theory meets application.”

CTE’s evolution

As CTE continues to expand and offer students robust education options, many are hoping that districts make CTE a viable option for students.

The Youth CareerConnect grant, established by the U.S. Department of Labor in collaboration with the Department of Education, encourages collaboration among K-12 school districts, institutions of higher education, and businesses to combine rigorous academic standards with work experiences and skills development to enhance instruction and offer real-world learning opportunities.

“There is growing consensus in states across the nation that the goal of the K–12 education system is to prepare all students to graduate from high school ready for college and careers. Yet, in all but a handful of states, the priority goals set to drive student performance toward and beyond college and career readiness sputter out after the word “college,” notes Making Career Readiness Count 2014, an annual report from the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium (NASDCTEc).

The report notes that the term “college and career readiness” often is interpreted as “college or career readiness,” and that when student performance indicators aren’t tied to career pathways and career experiences, states send the message that career readiness is second-best to college readiness.

If states hope to set students up to excel in a four-year postsecondary institution or in a technical program, they should encourage school districts “to provide all students experiences that put them on a path to access and succeed in the careers of their choosing, as well as experiences they need to build the knowledge and skills necessary for entry into and success in postsecondary education. Whether high school graduates enroll in a traditional two- or four-year institution, enter a postsecondary technical program or apprenticeship, or go directly into the military or workforce following high school graduation, they need the same core of academic skills, particularly in English/language arts and mathematics.”

The report issues a handful of recommendations to help states strengthen those efforts:
1. Use multiple measures of college and career readiness
2. Engage state CTE/college and career readiness leaders as well as workforce and economic development leaders
3. Find the appropriate balance of uses across public reporting and accountability
4. Use publicly-reported information to inform decisions

States are taking notice. Many K-12 districts now require students to earn CTE credits or participate in CTE courses before high school graduation.

A round-up report focusing on CTE actions in 2013, compiled by NASDCTEc and ACTE, tracks states’ CTE developments and policies.

In May of 2013, Alabama passed a $50 million bond that supports CTE programs and other technology programs. Of that $50 million, $20 million will be distributed based on the number of CTE students at each school.

Iowa directed $1.5 million to support the Statewide Work-Based Learning Intermediary Network Program that connects businesses with education to provide students and teachers with work-based learning opportunities.

Montana approved a bill that creates a state-level program to support career and technical student organizations.

In Texas, House Bill 5 puts more emphasis on CTE, helping students identify postsecondary paths that may not include four-year college enrollment.

In Florida, a growing need to equip students with real-world skills and knowledge led to the Career and Professional Education Act (CAPE) of 2007. Part of that act includes student access to state-approved industry certifications used by state employers.

A study found that high school students who took at least one technology course and at least one industry certification exam displayed better attendance and higher grade point averages than similar students who did not take any technology courses or exams.

Those students also earned admission to four-year institutions at the same rate as similar students who did not take technology courses or certification exams, according to a 2012 report from Grunwald Associates and Adobe Systems.

Industry response

The industry is beginning to respond to state policy changes and to calls for more robust CTE offerings.

“For a while, a lot of people were steering all students toward a college path,” said Jeff Lansdell, president of CEV Multimedia, which produces CTE curriculum resources. “Some students may not be college-bound but they need to be career-ready.”

“CTE touches so many lives, that having that extra emphasis now, so students can be more college- and career-ready, whether they enter the workforce with a skill or whether it’s going to help them be better prepared for college, is great,” said Clayton Franklin, CEV Multimedia’s vice president of brand management.

“We’re really noticing, in regards to how education policy is put together, the emphasis on CTE—it’s been really refreshing to see that,” said Dusty Moore, president of iCEV, the platform through which CEV produces and delivers its content.

“CTE offers a fine-tuning that students need to succeed and thrive in the workplace,” Moore added.

High school CTE credits or certifications can be used for higher-ed credit or career advancement. And CTE growth extends well past high school.

Many students opt to follow a technical program that will give them practical skills and knowledge and put them on a path to an internship or career once they complete their training, or once they finish post-secondary education after their career training is completed.

Udacity and AT&T recently announced a partnership around “nanodegrees,” described as “compact, flexible, and job-focused credentials that are stackable throughout your career.”

So far, forthcoming nanodegrees include front-end web developer, back-end web developer, iOS developer, and data analyst, with more planned in the future.

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