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The Role of Career and Technical Education in College and Career Readiness

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June 14, 2016 03:13 pm


In the present economic climate, pursuing a postsecondary degree has become a necessity, making the need for every student to graduate from high school college and career ready more important than it has ever been. Career and technical education (CTE) can play a critical role in providing high school students with this level of preparation. In high-quality CTE programs, students concurrently take rigorous courses, cultivate career skills, and can earn credit toward a postsecondary credential while in high school. Work-based learning opportunities and academic rigor are two essential characteristics of effective CTE pathways.

Unfortunately, when many people think of CTE, this is not the image they have in mind. CTE can carry a stigma because of its roots in factories and its association with tracking students from low-income households and students of color into less rigorous academic pathways. But just as the factory model of education is anachronistic, so too are such conceptions of career-oriented schooling. CTE has proven to be a fruitful pathway for student success.

CTE Outcomes

In Arkansas, where students must take six units of “career focused” course work to fulfill graduation requirements, high-quality CTE has demonstrated positive student outcomes. Eighty-nine percent of high school students took at least one CTE course to fulfill the “career focused” course requirement, according to a report published by the Fordham Institute.

More importantly, nearly 30 percent of high school students in Arkansas chose to “concentrate” their CTE course work, meaning they took a sequence of three or more CTE classes in a career-targeted program of study (e.g., business). The Fordham study finds that students who concentrated on a specific CTE pathway were 21 percentage points more likely to graduate from high school and 1.3 percentage points more likely to be enrolled in a two-year college. Furthermore, students from low-income households who concentrated their CTE course work were 25 percentage points more likely to graduate from high school than similar students who did not concentrate. These findings indicate the importance for high school students not only to be exposed to CTE courses, but to focus on a career-targeted program of study to prepare them for postsecondary education success.

Linked Learning is another example of a high-quality innovative approach that transforms traditional high school experiences by integrating rigorous academics, high-quality CTE, work-based learning, and comprehensive support services. Linked Learning, which has been implemented in California, directly engages state and local businesses and the higher education system to increase the relevance of high school education experiences for students. Research shows that students in certified Linked Learning pathways have higher graduation rates than students enrolled in traditional high school pathways.

NAF, another CTE derivation, offers a “school within a school” approach that allows students to focus on one of five distinct career academies—finance, hospitality and tourism, information technology, engineering, or health sciences. Students who enroll in NAF pathways can undergo rigorous certification evaluation to qualify for NAFTrack Certified Hiring, which gives students special consideration for employment by leading corporations. Data shows that 98 percent of students enrolled in NAF academies graduate from high school—16 percentage points higher than the national average.

Emerging CTE: Apprenticeship Carolina

The apprenticeship model is another CTE pathway that provides students with direct work-based experience and the opportunity for rigorous academic course work. In a recent article published by the Association for Career and Technical Education, CTE experts describe the apprenticeship model as “the oldest and most successful form” of work-based learning. Apprenticeships are expanding into new fields that require different types of skills and have shown the capacity to bridge secondary and postsecondary education by allowing more students the option of dual enrollment, where students earn high school and college credit simultaneously.

Apprenticeship Carolina, which has served over 15,000 apprentices in South Carolina since its inception in 2008, is one example. Through the program youth apprentices, who are registered with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Apprenticeship, work, earn a wage, and have the option to dual enroll in the South Carolina Technical College System.[1] According to a report from the Center for American Progress, businesses in South Carolina recruit from the state’s technical colleges[2] because of the system’s sound reputation for preparing students for work. As a result, South Carolina has created a pipeline for students to transition from high school to college and from college to the workplace while adding value to the local economy.

Federal Support for Expanding CTE Opportunities

The U.S. Senate has shown bipartisan efforts to incentivize businesses to offer apprenticeships. The Leveraging and Energizing America’s Apprenticeship Programs (LEAP) Act (S.574), introduced by Senators Tim Scott (R-SC) and Cory Booker (D-NJ), would provide a tax credit of $1,500 to businesses that hire an apprentice under the age of twenty-five or $1,000 for an apprentice over the age of twenty-five.

Both chambers of Congress also are developing bipartisan bills to reauthorize the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, the main source of federal funding for CTE. U.S. Senators Tim Kaine (D-VA), Rob Portman (R-OH), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), and Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) also have introduced the CTE Excellence and Equity Act (S. 2718). This proposed legislation would provide federal grants to partnerships between school districts, employers, and institutions of higher education that help students earn industry-recognized credentials or credit toward a postsecondary degree and understand the relevance of their courses in the context of their future careers.

The ability for states and districts to implement high-quality CTE programs also will become easier under the new federal education law the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). ESSA, which replaces No Child Left Behind, hands much authority to states, maintaining a limited, yet critical role for the federal government. To support CTE, ESSA explicitly allows states to use federal professional development funds to develop and implement instructional practices that support dual-enrollment programs and the integration of rigorous academics with CTE and work-based learning.

In addition, ESSA allows states to use up to 3 percent of their Title I funds for “direct student services,” including CTE course work aligned with challenging state academic standards and that leads to an industry-recognized credential. This funding and flexibility in the new law is an opportunity for states to reconsider how their secondary education systems align not only to college- and career-ready standards, but to local business and industry needs.

Between dual-enrollment options, expansion to high-demand industry sectors, and tangible work-based learning, CTE is a prudent path to student success. As ESSA increases local control, states and districts must provide students with rigorous CTE opportunities. These efforts can be supported by local businesses (like those in South Carolina and California), who must actively build partnerships with schools to raise student awareness of the demands for employment in a competitive labor market. Such measures will allow CTE to play a critical role in propelling students to high school graduation prepared for college, a career, and life.

Sean Bradley is a policy and advocacy intern at the Alliance.

[1] South Carolina apprentices can receive instruction from a noncredit training program or earn an associate’s degree depending on the needs of the company for which they work.

[2] In South Carolina, 58 percent of postsecondary education students attend one of the state’s sixteen technical colleges.

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