May 1, 2014

Connecting Classroom and Career

More schools are turning to career and technical education as a way of preparing students to succeed in a changing economy.

As the U.S. economy increasingly demands workers with a combination of academic, technical, and critical thinking skills, a growing number of high schools are looking toward career and technical education (CTE) in an effort to better prepare students to succeed postgraduation.

CTE electives in such areas as marketing, finance, technology, and media have long been part of the American high school landscape. And yet, despite high enrollment—in 2009, about 88 percent of U.S. high school students earned at least one credit in a CTE area—these courses have often been seen as less important and less rigorous than traditional academics.

But this perspective is changing as educators and policymakers realize that a high school degree isn’t enough to prepare students for success beyond graduation. Some high schools have even been restructured around a “career academy” model, where small cohorts of students are taught by combined teams of academic and CTE teachers.

EDC’s Ilene Kantrov is an expert on integrating academic and career education. She and her team recently surveyed more than 800 CTE educators across the country and interviewed 11 state CTE leaders to better understand the evolution of CTE programs—and the support they need.

Q: Is career and technical education just another way of saying vo-tech?

Ilene KantrovKantrov: It’s not. Modern CTE is very different from what was offered in the past. CTE has always had close connections with business and industry, but now many programs deliberately focus on the industries that are driving economic growth in their regions. So programs that prepare students for fields like health care, sustainable development, and green building are expanding. And when economic development is aligned with educational opportunities, you improve the chances of achieving community prosperity and enabling young people to share in that prosperity.

Q. How are schools embracing CTE? 

Kantrov: There is a lot of momentum. Schools are creating innovative bridges between academics and careers, often working with local industry partners. And our study showed that CTE educators believe the advent of the Common Core State Standards has helped highlight the need for students to develop skills such as communication and mathematical reasoning across a variety of real-world contexts, since these skills are key for whatever path the student chooses to take after graduation. CTE is increasingly seen as a positive, upward path for many students.

Q: Who benefits from CTE programs?

Kantrov: Beyond the fact that CTE has been shown to improve high school graduation rates, all students can benefit from an earlier connection between school and career. The best high school programs give students the full range of knowledge and skills they need to be successful, preparing them for postsecondary education or training. Many even help students acquire industry certifications. This is important because such credentials allow students to gain employment within their chosen field and also put them on a track where they can advance through the field if they continue their education.

Q: What’s an example of a job area that is strongly aligned with CTE?

Kantrov: Health care is a big area of growth. You see a lot of need for medical and nursing assistants, physical and occupational therapy assistants, and sonographers and other technicians. These jobs pay well, and they require excellent literacy and math skills in addition to the technical skills needed to do the job well.

Q: If students emerge from high school with basic math and literacy skills, shouldn’t that be enough for them to land a job?

Kantrov: That’s a start, but it takes a lot more to be prepared for today’s jobs and careers. CTE programs not only teach academic knowledge and skills and technical skills relevant to particular careers, they also help students develop employability skills like oral and written communications, leadership, reliability, and collaboration, which are essential in all fields. A long-time colleague of mine at Ford Motor Company Fund has said, “These might not be the skills that get you hired, but the lack of them will get you fired.” CTE programs teach these skills well because they are embedded within authentic problems and real work.

Q: Do you know of a high school that has successfully blended academic achievement and career training?

Kantrov: Volusia County, Florida, provides an example of what good career and technical education can look like. As of 2013, 22 percent of high school students there have been enrolled in career academies, and despite budget constraints, enrollment in academies is expected to continue to expand. These career academies don’t push kids into a specific field; they help them understand what it takes to succeed in school and beyond. Experiencing academics through the lens of a specific career motivates students. It helps keep them engaged in school because they can see the relevance of what they are learning.

An interdisciplinary team of teachers at the Academy of Information Technology and Robotics in Volusia County has done a particularly outstanding job of providing instruction that combines academic standards, employability skills, and technical knowledge. Students there are learning as they engage in real-world projects, and the academy has achieved a 100 percent graduation rate (compared to a districtwide average of 78%). In preparing young people for both college and careers, the combination of high academic expectations, relevance to careers, and robust community engagement is a recipe for success.