CTE’s central role in the common core

Earlier this month I had the pleasure of speaking with Oklahoma educators at the state’s summer Career and Technical Education (CTE) conference.  I was asked to be part of a panel addressing the question, how to implement the common core into CTE.  My message was simple: the question is backwards because the common core cannot be implemented well without CTE.

Here’s why. The aim of the common core standards is college and career-readiness, not college or careers.  We’ve actually been doing the latter for a long time. Traditionally, high school students elected to either prepare for one path or the other. But as many studies have pointed out (including CPE’s Defining a 21st Century Education) in order to be successful after high school all new graduates need high-level knowledge like that formerly reserved for college-intending students even if they are more interested in jumpstarting their careers than attending a four-year college.

We also know that for most new jobs, a high school diploma alone will not be sufficient; rather they will demand some kind of postsecondary training or certification. In addition, individuals who don’t immediately seek more education after high school will likely need to get back into the system at some point during their working life, as various occupations disappear.  So we need to make sure graduates are prepared for an uncertain future and can continue education and training as they need it.

But college preparation is just one side of the college-career equation. Students who enroll in four-year colleges and universities will work someday.  All young people need to develop the skills valued in the workplace, for example, the ability to apply what they learn, connect information from across disciplines to solve problems, and read and interpret complex informational texts and documents.  Students and employers can’t assume that traditional academic study will teach these abilities.

The common core standards recognize that there is a lot of overlap between the knowledge and skills needed for college and those needed for good jobs. For many students, this likely means higher expectations in terms of academic content. But the common core also differs from subject matter as usual where the CTE field has a head start.  This is especially so in the emphasis on mathematical practices; more data, probability & statistics than in traditional college prep math; reading and writing informational texts; and specific reading and writing standards for science and technical subjects.

These are all innovations that aren’t seen in current state standards, but ones that I applaud.  I’m not alone.  David Conley and his team at the University of Oregon surveyed close to 2,000 postsecondary instructors about the relevance of the common core standards. About half of the respondents taught CTE courses in two-year institutions. The vast majority of instructors rated ELA for non-literary reading and writing very high. A large majority of the CTE group gave mathematical practices the highest importance rating.

These skill-based standards command different, more hands-on instructional approaches. CTE educators have a real advantage in this area compared to their core subject area peers. CTE programs are by definition applied. In this way, they have a lot to contribute to the combined efforts of high school faculty to negotiate the shift to new instruction.

Make no mistake, the common core standards cannot be the sole responsibility of math and English teachers. That’s too much of a burden on two disciplines. It won’t be done well. And it would ignore the valuable resources in other subject areas that should be brought to the table, including CTE.

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