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CTE in education: 3 ways to improve career pathways for students

October 27, 2022

Career and technical education (CTE) pathways are certainly no new invention in the world of college and career readiness. 

After all, a primer on the history of CTE notes that the country’s first manual training school opened its doors more than 140 years ago in St. Louis and that the movement finally reached widespread acceptance in the decades following World War I.

So, what is CTE in education today? Its overarching aim is roughly the same: providing students with structured pathways toward post-high school education and careers by combining academic work with occupational know-how. Nevertheless, CTE in education looks a little different in modern times than it might have in the past—it constantly flexes to fit the needs of our ever-changing work and educational spheres.

Traditional coursework shouldn’t eclipse CTE pathways

To serve the needs of the entire student population, leaders must be certain that more traditional coursework doesn’t eclipse CTE tracks.

In an Edutopia article on the benefits of robust CTE programs in high school, Sean Cassel notes that many district leaders do a great job of creating more traditional pathways for students seeking academic rigor, such as offering a variety of AP courses and specialized guidance surrounding readiness for higher education. However, other students who might not be interested—or who plan not to attend college—could be left to their own devices.

[READ: “5 strategies for promoting well-being throughout your school community”]

Why CTE is relevant in 21st-century education

For learners in CTE programs, results from the field speak for themselves. 

In a CTE facts and figures sheet, the U.S. Congressional Career and Technical Education Caucus affirms that such programs can nudge students toward lasting success. CTE-involved students graduate high school more often than their non-CTE counterparts, resulting in an economic savings of $168 billion annually. CTE students and their families are also more likely to be “very satisfied” with how their programs have prepared them for life after graduation. At the same time, these tracks still emphasize student choice and flexibility, given that roughly three-quarters of CTE students choose to continue their education after high school.

Beyond this success, robust CTE programs encourage a wider variety of students to enroll, bucking previous patterns and breaking down barriers from the past. Regardless, this hasn’t always been the case. In its brief on CTE, the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education notes that most CTE program participants have historically been male, people of color, learners with disabilities, or students from low-income households. On the other hand, robust CTE tracks “present the opportunity for students to go in-depth in experiences that may not be traditionally associated with students of their gender, race, or socioeconomic status,” the brief’s author writes. In short, instead of reinforcing social norms, a great CTE program can move past them.

Up-and-coming opportunities for CTE in education

Well-defined, multifaceted CTE pathways can be an incredibly powerful tool when it comes to meeting the needs of a wide variety of students and steeling them for an ever-shifting job market. Next, we’ll cover just a few of the overarching opportunities we see when examining CTE programs in high school. For education leaders looking to provide relevant pathways for all their students, these pointers could be helpful to keep in mind.

[READ: “Responsive paths for learners: Dr. Shari L. Camhi and Anthony Mignella”]

1. Focus on ‘future-proofing’ students

Today, education leaders would be remiss to assume that CTE-oriented courses and advanced academic pathways make up their own unique—and separate—tracks. Modern CTE students often have schedules that emphasize elements of both in a bid to diversify their academic experience and earn a competitive edge. In other words, it’s problematic to assume that a CTE student isn’t interested in college by default or that a learner acquiring the basics of automotive mechanics one class period wouldn’t be heading to AP calculus or International Baccalaureate Mandarin the next.

The best and most competitive CTE programs recognize this and set their students up for a wider range of possibilities. Case in point: Michael Fitzpatrick, the superintendent-director at Massachusetts’ Blackstone Valley Regional Vocational Technical High School, mentioned in an Edutopia article on modern CTE programs that his school works not only toward a mission of prepping students for competitive job markets but also has an aim to give them the upper hand when labor trends shift. This includes preparing students in case they decide to pursue a college degree, imparting the soft skills necessary for successful upskilling or reskilling, and cultivating students’ overall resilience and adaptability.

[READ: “3 ways to prepare high school students for college writing standards”]

“The sophistication—the demands made by industry for adaptability and transferability—need to accompany the skill sets of the students,” Fitzpatrick said.

2. Extend CTE programs beyond school walls through business and institutional partnerships

Without partnerships with businesses, higher education institutions, and community, state, and regional organizations, even the best high school CTE program can fall short. 

The reasoning for this is twofold:

  1. Unprecedented change means students should be learning directly from the institutions on the front lines of these shifts to ensure success after graduation.
  2. Getting a foot in the door prior to graduation means students are more likely to secure competitive roles after their CTE programs. This also benefits industries facing skills gaps and understaffing.

For instance, the Tech Ready Apprentices for Careers in Kentucky program enables high school students to secure credentials that are important to their chosen industries as well as high-quality apprenticeships, according to a Southern Regional Education Board report on partnerships for aligning education with careers. And in the Atlanta area, one health care partnership involves five local workforce boards, eight colleges with technical education programs, and seven school districts. The goal? Offering Atlanta’s youth a pathway toward solid middle-class jobs in health care.

Further north, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) also has a diverse, well-defined CTE program filled with many opportunities for students to get hands-on training in the field and collaborate with relevant industry organizations. At the end of CPS’ entrepreneurship program, for example, students can pitch their business ideas for the chance to win seed capital from established organizations. This begins at the classroom level, but students with successful business ideas can go all the way up to a national competition held by the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship.

3. Actively address racial equity

Thoughtfully designed CTE pathways—programs built to ensure equitable access and outcomes—are certainly a powerful tool for schools looking to bridge opportunity gaps and address racial disparities. 

An article on racial disparities in CTE by the Center for American Progress (CAP) points out that, unfortunately, we have a long way to go. Students of color often contend with disparities when accessing and participating in CTE pathways—and these gaps actually worsen the longer students of color stay on a CTE track. Although white, Black, and Hispanic students participate in at least one CTE program at roughly the same rate, a gap emerges when we look at the percentage of each demographic participating in three or more courses. There, we find that 22% of white students are taking more CTE courses, whereas only 18% of Black students and 16% of Hispanic students are doing the same. 

The CAP article also notes that data from CTE coursework in Illinois uncovered similar gaps in CTE programs that emphasize STEM programming more heavily. Moreover, reporting from the Urban Institute notes that, on average, students of color see lower earnings than their white peers six years after entering these programs. 

Of course, these gaps in continued CTE education—not to mention a general lack of access to CTE pathways to begin with—only further such disparities surrounding college and career readiness and future-ready learning

Partnerships and initiatives directly related to addressing racial equity gaps in CTE are already making a difference across the county. One such example is Denver Public Schools’ CareerConnect, which has an overarching aim of ensuring CTE programs are accessible for every student who is interested in taking part. The program maintains a special focus on historically underrepresented populations, facilitating students’ access to top-notch course content and allowing them to interact with teachers and peers. Additionally, Denver’s CareerConnect builds bridges between CTE students and employers from industries that show high promise when it comes to economic and educational mobility, including IT, business, and finance.

Creating diverse academic tracks that keep varying students’ needs in mind can prove tough. Download our “8 priorities for 2023” ebook to learn more about how to prep students for real-world challenges.

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