Let’s Commit to Giving CTE Students the Opportunity They Demand and Deserve

Career and technical education (CTE) has changed a lot from the “old vocational education” that many of us know from our school days. For the better part of this century, States and local communities have worked steadily to build high-quality CTE programs that are academically rigorous and aligned with labor market demands. The whole idea of the artificial separation between academic and technical pathways is passé. Most professions and careers in the 2016 and future economies require strong academic foundation skills, considerable technical knowledge and skills, and well-developed employability skills and attributes. There is nothing about CTE today that is not rigorous, relevant, and worth it.

And, CTE programs work. Recent research shows that secondary CTE students are more likely to graduate from high school compared to non-CTE students. CTE graduates land great jobs that pay well for both men and women in all kinds of careers, including emerging fields like cybersecurity and advanced manufacturing. Perhaps most importantly, CTE puts students on a direct path to the middle class by giving them the academic, technical, and employability skills they need to enter and advance in the world of work.

If students want to learn cutting-edge skills and prepare for successful careers, a four-year university isn’t their only choice. CTE is also an excellent option because students can get all the professional skills they need for a good job in a high-demand field, and they can do it at a fraction of the time and cost of a four-year school.

    – First Lady Michele Obama

In a sure sign that CTE has become a rigorous, viable pathway, students and employers have begun to demand it. All across the country, there are reports of too few CTE slots for the number of students who want to enroll. Just last month, an article ran in the Philadelphia Tribune indicating that Philadelphia had received 11,000 applications from its 35,000 high school students, but only had room and resources for 2,500. In spring 2014, Massachusetts released the finding of a wait list survey and found that about 4,600 youth wanted to get into CTE but couldn’t. And, that number underreported the problem, as only half of all schools responded to the survey. Clearly, students and employers understand the college and career potential of high-quality CTE programs. And, one only has to do a quick Google search to find dozens of examples of States—from New Jersey to Oregon—whose employers are experiencing shortages of qualified workers and are seeking the skills that CTE offers. As one reporter put it: “[These] schools’ wait lists are a drag on the economy.”

It is not just a problem that so many students are waiting for an opportunity that may or may not be there before they leave high school but who these students are. Massachusetts found that schools receiving the least funding had longer waiting lists. Those schools served communities with large most at-risk populations. The take away is that in communities where the need is greatest, access to good programs is a real problem. No access, no skills, no good jobs. These wait lists are constraining opportunity.

It is obvious that the demand for this “new CTE” is growing across the country. What is unfortunate is that there isn’t comparable supply to match that demand. Underfunding of schools preventing them from adding space is mentioned as the primary cause. This represents a lot of “missed opportunities” to put students on a path to college and careers.

Our country can—and must—do better to prepare all students for success. The first step is to create equal access to good programs. As Acting Secretary of Education John King says: “We must make 2016 the year that we recommit to ensuring that every child in America—regardless of background or circumstance—has access to a high-quality education.”

Certainly, no one entity can tackle this alone and we are beginning to see some great examples at all levels of government and in both the public and private sectors of resources and collaborations directed toward building more high-quality CTE programs. At the Federal level, we are stepping up our efforts to reauthorize the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, which provides just over one billion dollars annually to improve CTE. And, just this week, the Administration released its FY 2017 budget proposal that includes a seventy-five million dollar innovation fund, the American Technical Training Fund.

States are responding, as well. There are some great examples in both the public and the private sectors that are beginning to address this CTE opportunity gap. The California Legislature recently authorized an additional $250 million in a California Career Pathways Trust to competitively fund partnerships among schools, community colleges, and employers to create career pathways aligned to high-need and high-growth sectors. Maryland just announced a $10 million initiative to launch a local version of a national program for students blending high school curriculum, college courses and work experience in four high schools in the state, including two in Baltimore. The Governor of Massachusetts proposed an additional $83.5 million for CTE, including a $75 million five-year capital program in a jobs bill set and an additional $8.5 million in his proposed annual budget for 2017.

National associations and the private sector are also stepping up to the plate. The AFT launched a $500,000 multi-city CTE initiative called Promising Pathways that will bring together local AFT affiliates, educators, school districts, community colleges, city governments and business partners in 4 cities—Peoria, Ill, ; Pittsburgh; San Francisco; and Miami—to expand CTE opportunities in line with employer demand. The Lilly Endowment, an Indiana foundation, pledged a $50 million gift to the United Negro College Fund to strengthen career pathways for students at historically black colleges and universities and others with large African American enrollment. And, JP Morgan Chase just launched a $75 million New Skills for Youth initiative to encourage states to develop more demand-driven CTE programs.

We need more of these efforts. As we enter CTE Month, let’s declare 2016 the year where we step up our efforts in working together at the federal, state, local, and tribal levels and across public and private sectors to ensure that students who seek access to high-quality CTE get just what they want and need.

Johan E. Uvin is the Deputy Assistant Secretary (delegated the authority of the Assistant Secretary) in the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education.

Lul Tesfai is the Director of Policy in the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education.

Sharon Miller is the Director of the Division of Academic and Technical Education in the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education.

Photo of Johan Uvin
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Deputy Assistant Secretary, OCTAE
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Director of Policy, OCTAE
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Director, Division of Academic and Technical Education, OCTAE