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Putting Career and Technical Education to Work for Student Success

• Quentin Suffren

High School age Asian male cutting wires in technical class

Preparing students for entry and advancement in today’s workforce has become a top priority – and a bipartisan one – in states across the nation. Indeed, it’s become almost commonplace to read about the “skills gap” in today’s workforce – as well as new initiatives to address it through secondary education. Whether via internships, industry-based certifications or career-focused high schools, these efforts seek to ensure that more and more high school students have opportunities to engage with business and industry partners and learn skills relevant to long-term workforce success.

Yet one under-reported aspect of these efforts is the underlying framework (and funding model) for career and workforce training in US high schools: Career and Technical Education (CTE).

Once dubbed Vocational Education, CTE celebrated its centennial anniversary in 2017. The federal Smith-Hughes National Vocational Education Act signed in 1917 marked the first nationwide investment in career training at the secondary level. That initial investment has continued and been reauthorized throughout the years (since renamed the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act), signaling that the importance of this framework has not dimmed over time. For their part, 40-plus states supplement the federal investment in CTE by spending millions each year to support school districts and high schools.

Unfortunately, too many state CTE programs are NOT fulfilling the promise of ensuring high school students are career ready through expanded access to meaningful postsecondary credentials or exposure to viable middle- and high-wage occupations leading to long-term success in the workforce. Sadly, there are state promoted programs that are simply “dead end” pathways for students and are no longer relevant to the demands of today’s (let alone tomorrow’s) workforce. Given the importance of CTE in preparing students for success in the 21st century, states must provide better guidance and set stronger expectations for program quality.

To assist states as they improve the quality of their CTE programs, ExcelinEd has published Putting Career and Technical Education to Work for Students: A Playbook for State Policymakers. In it, we examine some common challenges to CTE program quality and put forth a practical process states can undertake to ensure that their programs are aligned with regional and state labor data and industry demands and are of high-quality in terms of rigorous academic and technical skills preparation. The process assumes no additional funding and is one that most state education or workforce agencies can begin immediately, without legislative action.

CTE Program “Non-Negotiables”

To guide this process, the playbook puts forward a set of “non-negotiables” state policymakers should adopt (and commit to) when evaluating and revitalizing their CTE programs. These include:

  1. All promoted programs of study align with state and/or regional industry and labor market data.
  2. Programs of study incorporate experiential learning and capstone experiences valued by industry.
  3. Secondary programs of study vertically align with postsecondary programs.
  4. Courses are sequential and progressive in a given program of study.
  5. Secondary programs of study incorporate courses and exams eligible for postsecondary credit or hours where appropriate.
  6. Course standards are robust and accurately represent the academic, technical and employability skills learners must master.
  7. Educators receive ongoing, progressive training and professional development to ensure their instruction is reflective of course standards and current industry work environments.
  8. Federal, state and local funding are utilized to leverage and drive programmatic changes leading to the implementation of vertically aligned education-to-career learning pathways.

This publication is just the starting point of what we hope will be a deeper conversation and series of processes that states can engage in to strengthen their CTE programs. ExcelinEd will publish a series of resources over the next year that explore the steps to CTE program reform in greater depth. From CTE program audits to course evaluation, and from postsecondary program alignment to braided funding strategies, this series will provide states with additional tools and guidance to help ensure their state CTE programs prepare students for long-term career success, reflecting the needs of their state and regional economies.

We stand ready to work directly with states as they navigate this essential process to improve their CTE programs and provide students opportunities for lifelong advancement and 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.