The Benefits of Career and Technical Education Programs for High Schoolers

The “vocational education” of years ago has evolved from wood shop and home economics into a powerful educational reform tool. Some 8.3 million high school students participated in what are now called career and technology education, or CTE, pathways in 2020-2021, up from 7.5 million the previous year, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

With courses that range from landscape design to culinary arts, CTE is part of a robust national approach to boosting high school graduation rates and preparing students for well-paying jobs. Many districts even partner with industry to align their course offerings with labor market needs.

“This is a reconceptualization of what CTE looks like,” says Shaun Dougherty, professor of educational leadership and policy at Boston College. “Rather than a place where there are less demanding classes, there is a tighter link between education and workforce needs.”

Eleven years after Rashid Davis opened P-TECH Brooklyn, a public STEM-based career and technical high school, 44% of college graduates from the first class had been hired to work for the school’s industry partner, IBM.

The school’s two academic pathways are computer systems technology and electromechanical engineering technology – both of which hone the types of skills employers like IBM look for in hiring. A type of early college high school (also called a “9-14” school because it covers grades 9 through “14”), P-TECH Brooklyn integrates college courses into its curricula and offers both a high school diploma and a free two-year associate degree.

Since that first school opened in Brooklyn in 2011, P-TECH, which stands for Pathways in Technology Early College High School, has expanded to a network of more than 200 high schools throughout the United States, offering career pathways including health, education, advertising, television and energy technology.

“Our model is not just about job placement with industry partners,” Davis says. “It’s about taking advantage of the skills given to you. Some students don’t leave with an (associate) degree and choose to do college later, but they’re still better off in terms of preparedness than the traditional student.”

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Meeting a Need for Skilled Labor

States use a variety of federal, state and local funds to pay for CTE programs, and the arguments for bigger investments in CTE programming are supported by research. High school students who complete at least two course credits in a career pathway have about a 95% graduation rate, according to federal data — roughly 10% higher than the national average. A 2019 study found that students who completed a CTE pathway scored significantly higher on the ACT composite math, science, English, reading and writing assessments than those who did not participate in one.

Investing in high-quality training programs is key to addressing labor shortages for skilled jobs, says Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University‘s Center on Education and the Workforce. Unlike many European countries, the U.S. doesn’t have federally backed training programs, but the time may have come, he says.

“We’re facing more and more labor shortages,” says Carnevale. “COVID has really helped that argument. There is also evidence that we’ll have shortages going forward because of low birth rates.”

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More Options for Students

While a college degree tends to lead to higher earnings, the number of high school graduates attending college has declined steadily over the past decade. Combined with the growing demand for skilled workers, the astronomically rising cost of college may be driving declining college attendance.

What many experts call for is better school counseling and connections between high school, college and training programs so that it’s easier for students to understand all their post-high school options. It’s essential, they say, to engage industry and business in course approvals to make sure that students are learning the skills necessary for good jobs in their communities.

“The pendulum has swung towards ‘college for all’ and ‘high expectations for all,’ which we should have,” says Rebecca Wallace, assistant superintendent for secondary education and pathway preparation at the Washington State Department of Education. “What we also want to see is multiple pathways for all students.”

Wallace says that attending college does not preclude opportunities for students to take career-focused courses and do apprenticeships. The problem, she says, is that high school counselors don’t always let students know about these opportunities.

“If I’m a kid, I want to know all my options to get from point A to point B,” she says. “How many students are counseled about apprenticeships? Not many.”

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In Washington, industry advisory committees approve courses at the school district level and are responsible for making sure that courses align with local labor market needs. In Seattle, public high school students have access to courses in hospitality management, environmental design and systems medical health science. In other parts of the state, courses include agricultural entrepreneurship, advanced manufacturing and fabrication. The annual cost of CTE is an average of $1,000 per student above other per-pupil expenses, Wallace says.

Washington state is behind the national average for college attendance. In 2018, almost 54% of Washington high school graduates enrolled in college right after graduating, compared to about 64% nationwide. But that same year, about 80% of Washington students who had participated in a CTE pathway were employed or enrolled in college within six months of graduating. In 2021, the graduation rate for Washington high school seniors overall was 82.5%, but it was 92.4% for those who had participated in a CTE pathway, according to Wallace.

Providing Coherence and Focus

Rather than limiting a student’s options, well-designed CTE pathways help get kids ready for college or a career by weaving together the skills needed for both, says Gary Hoachlander, president of ConnectED: The National Center for College and Career in Berkeley, California. ConnectED uses a “linked learning” model to help districts integrate career and college readiness into course pathways. Students choose a pathway in ninth grade and stay in it all the way until graduation.

Founded in 2006, ConnectED is now a national organization that coaches teachers and administrators within a course pathway to answer the question, “Why do I need to know this?” by connecting their curriculum to real-world applications. In the schools that use the linked learning model, the core academic courses in a pathway are aligned with the theme.

“The purpose of an industry theme is not to force kids to choose what they want to do ,” says Hoachlander, “but to provide the coherence and focus that allows students and teachers to make meaning of career and technical content.”

Students may go into a completely different field, he says, but they’ve had the experience of going deeply into a broad subject and mastering academic and technical content, which gives them more options after high school, he says.

Dougherty sees potential in this approach to help high school students make more informed decisions.

“We need to let our 16-year-olds know, these are the top employers in your community and the jobs pay this amount,” he says. “And this is the training you need and where you can go get it.”

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