A Rebirth for Career and Technical Education

High school career and technical education (CTE) programs are gaining in popularity and support as they focus on a new set of the 3 R’s: Rigor, Relevance and Relationships.

by Kipp Bentley / January 26, 2017

I’ve often said that if I had to do high school over again — scary thought that it is — I’d take every shop class I could. In my high school years, shop classes weren’t encouraged for those of us on the “college prep” track. But as a result of missing out on shop, I’ve had to pick up any power tool expertise and practical homeowner skills by trial, error and YouTube.

And since I graduated, my former high school, like most others across the country, has disbanded its old-school shop and home economics programs altogether — and the business courses too. My school now partners with a nearby career and technical school that serves several counties. Students attend for half-day programs, and take the remainder of their academic courses at their home high schools. I’ve not visited, but from browsing the school’s website, it looks promising.   

The main cause for the demise of many high school shop and home-ec classes — and also for their stunted growth during an initial reconstitution as vocational-technical (vo-tech) programs — was the repudiation of tracking. For years, lower-achieving students were shunted into vo-tech programs that had little academic rigor. And though the vo-tech students hopefully gained some job-applicable trade skills, many didn’t acquire the necessary reading, writing and math proficiency to ensure their success.       

But vo-tech, now reframed as career and technical education (CTE), is making a strong comeback. And that's mostly due to public demand that districts offer more than just one-size-fits-all high school programs as the single choice solution for students.

Preparing all students to be college and career-ready remains a worthy goal for high schools. And if CTE programs are able to effectively ensure students gain the old 3 R skills, coupled with CTE’s aspirational new 3 R’s — Rigor, Relevance and Relationships — they should be a success.

Research conducted by the Fordham Institute in 2016 showed that Arkansas students who had a quality CTE experience were more likely to graduate high school, attend a two- or four-year college, and earn higher wages. And this proved especially important for students from low-economic families. Reports like this are helping refuel CTE programs across the country. But what constitutes a quality CTE program?  

For several years, while working in Denver Public Schools, my central department was housed in the district’s highly regarded Career Education Center (CEC) and Early College, providing me an insider’s view of how a good CTE program can work.

Like other successful CTE schools, the Career Education Center’s offerings have stayed current and aligned with the interests of students and the needs of the marketplace. And to ensure relevancy, the school hires CTE instructors with extensive workplace experiences in their fields. Colorado, like many states, offers alternative teacher certifications that help schools on-board these non-traditional teachers.

Denver’s CEC has also worked to better integrate academics into all of its courses. For example, construction trade classes focus on math as it pertains to all aspects of building a garage from scratch. And students enrolled in culinary arts must read and write recipes, calculate needed supplies, and work with restaurant budgets. All CEC students’ academic progress is a key part of their grades. Additionally, the school offers industry certifications, helps arrange student internships, and has a partnership program with a nearby community college.   

Statewide, Colorado’s enrollment in CTE programs is at a record high, as described in a recent Denver Post article. After completing a CTE program, Colorado students are able to leave high school with college credits in hand, or with the necessary skills to go into a job market that needs them. And the success of these programs is attracting greater interest — and not just from potential students and employers, but also from state lawmakers who have increased CTE funding to schools.    

And on the national level, the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act is currently up for reauthorization in Congress. For many years, Perkins money has been the main federal funding support for state’s CTE programs, but its levels have been in decline since 2010. How the Trump administration supports — if at all — the reauthorizing of Perkins funding will be a telling view into this new administration’s educational priorities. And it will be consequential for CTE programs nationwide.          

But what of the dismay I expressed earlier over my own missed shop class opportunities — what’s being done about that today? How can schools provide students, for whom CTE programs aren’t the right fit, with opportunities to learn to use tools and work with their hands? Maker Labs are cropping up in some schools as an interesting way to address this need. It’s a topic I’ll pick up in a forthcoming post.   

Kipp Bentley
Kipp Bentley is a senior fellow with the Center for Digital Education. He has been a classroom teacher, librarian and ed tech director and currently consults, writes and weaves in Santa Fe, N.M.