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#AskExcelinEd: What challenges do states face in aligning CTE program offerings to business and industry needs?

• Quentin Suffren

A high-quality Career and Technical Education (CTE) program reflects the needs of business and industry and ensures students are well prepared to meet those needs. Too often, this statement is still the exception – and not the rule. Let’s take a closer look at the top three challenges states face in strengthening their CTE programs.

  1. The Broad Scope of CTE Program Offerings

Most state career and technical education programs encompass all business and industry sectors, regardless of specific state and regional needs. Organized under the National Career Cluster Framework, which includes 16 Career Clusters, CTE programs of study can offer a wide range of courses and pathways for students to explore. Each of the 16 clusters contains multiple pathways, resulting in hundreds of career pursuits and options across multiple sectors. While this multitude of options may seem enticing, it can dilute and/or obscure states’ real needs and opportunities.

Too many CTE pathways can resemble a convoluted buffet of options, rather than a focused set of progressive courses aligned to industry needs and workforce opportunities. In general, only a few states provide strong guidance or data-driven information to educators and students as to which program offerings reflect regional and statewide workforce demand. This scattershot approach to course offerings can prevent students and parents from fully understanding where real market demands lie in their communities and, by extension, which pathways best match both students’ interests and employers’ needs.

  1. The K-12 and Business Sector Divide

Despite their common interest in career preparation, education and business sectors often speak different languages and prioritize different skills. While perennially advocated for, strong education-business partnerships are not easy to cultivate. Despite some progress, most districts and schools still select their CTE program offerings without meaningful and ongoing input from local and regional industry representatives or labor data analyses. As a result, too often K-12 administrators end up defining the career preparation their students access and experience based on what has been offered historically, what staff expertise they currently have and which courses are popular with students. It is not unusual to see school districts invest thousands of dollars in a program based on these factors, regardless of market demand or projected earnings for students who complete the pathways. While these investments may seem impressive to the eye (e.g., comprehensive cosmetology facilities, gleaming kitchens full of students in “chef’s whites”), the real-world outcomes for long-term career advancement and wages earned in these pathways are less so.

  1. The Legacy of “Vocational Education”

Even today, too many policymakers, advocates, educators and parents still view CTE as an alternative to rigorous academic study and postsecondary attainment. For many years, CTE was “Vocational Education” and too often a pathway reserved for students who were not deemed “college material.” In practice, this meant that students were offered trade-related coursework instead of – and not in concert with – classes, counseling and experiences that could also open doors to postsecondary study and credential attainment. Graduates were consigned to low-level job opportunities without the preparation or skills they needed to advance or adapt as technology and globalization transformed the economy and eliminated many of the positions available to them.

Yes, times have changed and progress has been made, but the legacy of vocational education persists. Consider the advising or counseling that students receive in high school. Based on existing certification and training requirements, guidance counselors often lack a deep understanding of CTE pathways or the advanced coursework needed at the secondary and postsecondary levels to ensure long-term success across pathway career options. For instance, individuals entering an advanced manufacturing program will need deep understanding of math and computer science to manage computer automated systems. Yet in some cases, districts place students in “alternatives” to math and science courses that are less rigorous than core academic courses. Conversely, they may also assume that CTE students do not need or will not benefit from college-going courses like Advanced Placement. Wittingly or unwittingly, adult and system biases too often determine a student’s interests and course options, either expanding or limiting that student’s options down the road.

These three challenges are unfortunately not the only ones states face. Other challenges include, but are not limited to:

  • A lack of qualified instructors in the classroom, particularly in new or innovative career pathways.
  • Inadequate funding for essential equipment to make or maintain necessary program changes.
  • Too few opportunities for students to engage in work-based learning programs (i.e., internships, apprenticeships).

States can address these challenges immediately by looking closely at their existing programs to guarantee they are: closely aligned to regional and state labor data and industry demands AND of high-quality in terms of rigorous academic and technical skills preparation. Courses and pathways that do not meet one or both guarantees should be paused until they are aligned and high quality – or phased out in favor of courses and pathways that allow students to achieve long-term success.

About the author

Quentin Suffren

As Innovation Policy Managing Director, Quentin oversees Personalized Learning, College and Career Pathways and Course Access policies at ExcelinEd. Previously, Quentin served as executive director of the college, career, and military preparation at the Texas Education Agency. He also held leadership positions with Amplify Education, an education consulting and technology firm, TNTP, and The Learning Institute. Quentin began his career as a high school English teacher. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Memphis.