CTE Skeptics Need Schooling

Words mean something – especially the words we use in education. For example, during the mid-20th century, the word “vocational” was used for high schools and programs that were focused on providing non-college bound students with an opportunity to learn trades (i.e. auto mechanics, carpentry, plumbing, electrical, welding) and then quickly seek related employment. But that thinking changed – like the American economy and society, it evolved. In fact, the language has also changed.  We no longer use the word “vocational” but rather “career and technical education” (CTE).

Why this change in language?  Because it had to – for a few reasons. Sadly, in the minds of many educators “vocational” education devolved from educating people for gainful employment into a mindset of a school where “those kids” (i.e. tin-knockers, motor heads, likely drop outs, and the unteachable) went to avoid real education that would land them in college. Hence the notion of “vocational” education was denigrated. Most importantly, the American education system redefined – and continues to redefine – what CTE means.

What do CTE high schools actually offer?  Pathways – and many of them. The traditional trades are still relevant and desired fields of study, but even the Bureau of National Labor Statistics identifies non-traditional trades as modern career and technical education studies.  When people accuse CTE high schools as “losing focus” on our mission and purpose, I quickly remind them that many current CTE programs require college or post-secondary studies after high school.  Hence, more and more CTE high schools produce college-bound graduates.  Graduates who are not only prepared to attend college, but also enter post-secondary studies with a skill or certification – they are employable.

So why are some people still critical of Career and Technical Education (CTE) high schools?  CTE has a long history in the United States.  Some believe that CTE high schools have lost their focus.  That’s an implication that CTE schools, despite the long-term projections, should only focus on  preparing mechanics, plumbers, electricians, welders, and builders.  I can only attribute this thinking to disinformation – or worse.

Take a look at the table below from ACTE.  How many of these career and technical education fields would you expect students to seek gainful employment without post-secondary studies?

The 16 Career Clusters were validated through a national effort managed by the National Association of  State Directors of CTE Consortium (NASDCTEc)
The 16 Career Clusters were validated through a national effort managed by the National Association of State Directors of CTE Consortium (NASDCTEc)
Students in CTE programs spend more time in their CTE courses and earn college or certification credits through articulation agreements.  In fact, in order for a school to begin a CTE program, a stringent process must be employed.

Modern “vocational” education is a bonafide approach to high school design.  Prior to offering criticism, perhaps a bit more reading and actually researching CTE outcomes would be in order.

Author: Michael Parent, Ed.D

Father, husband, school administrator in NJ. "Education cures poverty".

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