Career and Technical Education: Quantity vs. quality

Career and Technical Education (CTE) has gained an overwhelming amount of support. Stan Litlow, the leader of the IBM foundation, is quoted saying that CTE “has broad support from business leaders, student organizations, not-for-profit organizations and educators.” In the political spectrum, people from President Donald Trump and Secretary Betsy Devos to Randi Weingarten have all praised CTE. So the question is, what does this idea that has brought together people that usually have opposing viewpoints actually look like in schools?

The terms career and technical education are very broad and can encompass many diverse types of classes, what are these classes and is this breadth of curriculum an asset or are we spreading ourselves too thin?

The Institute of Education Sciences (IES) published a report in 2016 which defined several types of CTE programs that exist in schools that are eligible for funding under the Perkin’s Act. First, there are career academies which are one of the most intensive CTE programs that exists in schools. Students are placed in a learning cohort for CTE where they are taught a “career- themed college prep curriculum.” The curriculum clearly illustrates the relevance of high school level academic material by directly applying it in the context of an industry. These programs are supported by local employers and college partners who contribute financial and learning materials to keep the program relevant and up to date.

Two other types of CTE programs are Linked Learning and Early College High Schools. These are less extensive than the career academies because students are not tracked into a CTE learning group for two years. There are four main components of Linked Learning including a sequence of technical classes that are required to complete the program. These include work-based learning experiences for high school students, and academic alignment with postsecondary schools to ensure skills and credits are easily transferred.

Early College High Schools primarily focus on the post-secondary alignment piece of CTE to increase college readiness for students. These programs are unique because they offer courses that are taught by college faculty so that students have the chance of graduating with a high school diploma and an associate’s degree, or a significant number of transferable college credits.

Schools that do not have one of these three CTE pathways usually incorporate some aspect of the “16 Career Clusters.”

CTE chart 2

Clearly, these clusters are very broad and encompass diverse types of careers with one possible downside — they risk emphasizing quantity over quality of programs. Many praise the prospect of CTE for preparing students to fill the current skill gaps in growing industries, but by including so many career pathways, there could be little alignment between local industry gaps and CTE curriculum. A report from Excellence in Education notes that this “broad scope of programs” is a challenge for maintaining a high quality CTE program.

With new flexibility over CTE programs that are created and funded with the passing of H.R. 2353 this past summer, states should use this opportunity to cast a critical eye at the current CTE programs in their schools. By doing this they have a chance to rethink the program’s priorities and decide if giving students exposure to a large number of careers, or focusing on a few that specifically align with labor market skill gaps are a better solution for their current and future students.