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Lesson from Hawaii: How CTE can develop a talented workforce to meet future economic priorities

• Danielle Mezera, Ph.D.

ExcelinEd and Dr. Danielle Mezera have supported Hawaii’s efforts to align state career and technical education programs with state economic priorities.

When Congress reauthorized Perkins V in 2018, they presented states with a valuable opportunity to ensure career and technical education (CTE) systems support high-quality career pathways that prepare students for success in mid/high-wage, mid/high-skill, in-demand careers in their communities.

Nearly two years later, we can see just how states are doing at this herculean task. And it looks as though Hawaii is on the verge of becoming a CTE powerhouse.

Aligning Education and Economic Goals

Recently, Hawaii has taken control of its future by creating a cutting-edge approach to CTE and aligning education-to-workforce approaches to meet the state’s economic priorities.

Hawaii’s K-12 system is unique. It is the only state that operates a unitary system, which means the state has a single school district. The Hawaii State Department of Education (HIDOE) handles state education matters while also operating and overseeing the state’s sole school district.

When it comes to CTE, this structure has been both a blessing and a curse: a blessing in that funding and directives can seamlessly flow down to all secondary schools, but a curse in that innovation and meaningful readiness have often been stymied by an overly prescriptive approach to CTE.

Like many states, Hawaii has set statewide education goals intended to support economic prosperity and future growth. The state is working to:

  • By 2025, increase its postsecondary attainment rate from the current 48.3% to 55%;
  • By 2030, increase economic opportunities and support an entrepreneurial ecosystem that strengthens Hawaii’s natural environment, culture and community; and
  • By 2045, eliminate dependence on fossil fuel and fully rely on sustainable energy sources.

On the surface, these goals may not seem closely related, but they are interconnected and speak to a prevailing state focus on self-sufficiency. These ambitious scopes have also placed a spotlight on the state’s current education-to-workforce system, its priorities and approaches, and its ability to attain these goals.

For example, to date the K-12 and postsecondary education systems have taken a very limited role in preparing the next generation of Hawaiians to advance occupational fields that lead to the state meeting its sustainable energy goal. This goal alone presents a high-profile opportunity for the state’s CTE system to lead in the development of the qualified research, installation, maintenance and management of professionals needed to support this transformation over the next 25 years.

This and other economic goals have not been lost on Hawaii’s leaders. And with the advent of the state’s Perkins V state plan and its WIOA state plan, state and local educators are realizing that the current CTE system cannot meet Hawaii’s current and projected future economic priorities. Hawaii recognizes that the time is now to transform CTE to drive future economic and workforce innovation.

To that end, the Perkins V steering committee has taken essential first steps to build out the state’s CTE program to:

  1. Fully align CTE programs with Hawaii’s current and projected high-skill, high-wage/in-demand careers and economic priorities, and
  2. Strengthen CTE program quality to drive better learner outcomes across the state’s secondary and postsecondary systems.

Adopting a New K-12 Framework to Align CTE

In recent months, Hawaii’s state CTE leaders, department of education and critical partners have adopted a multi-year, K-12 framework to address existing program misalignments and put the state CTE program on track with the state’s education and economic goals.

Consider the core components being undertaken by the state in support of K-12 CTE.

Core Components of Hawaii’s K-12 CTE Transformation

 Statewide Guiding QuestionsNew Non-Negotiables
Labor Market AlignmentDo CTE career pathways (i.e., career clusters) align with high-skill, high-wage, in-demand careers in Hawaii? All HIDOE-promoted CTE programs must demonstrate alignment with high-skill, high-wage, in-demand occupations.
Career PathwaysBased on projected growth for high-skill, high-demand and high/mid-wage occupations, what career pathways reflect the state’s priorities and should be pursued?All HIDOE-promoted career pathways must fully reflect the state’s economic and workforce priorities— current and projected.
Programs of StudyDo CTE programs of study represent high-quality, sequential and progressive learning pathways? What experiences should be included in all programs of study so students are truly career ready?All HIDOE-promoted CTE programs of study should progress a learner through a holistic learning experience that reflects robust academic, technical and employability learning as well as the embedded presence of early postsecondary, work-based learning and industry-recognized credential opportunities as appropriate.
Course StandardsDo the CTE courses currently promoted possess standards and curriculum that are rigorous and reflect the state’s industries’ needs?All HIDOE-promoted CTE courses must possess standards that promote robust academic, technical and employability learning and skills development that are fully aligned with industry needs.
Teacher Professional
With the move to more rigorous, appropriate CTE course standards, do existing CTE educator training and professional development programs need to be revised to better support teachers?HIDOE CTE educator training and professional development should provide opportunities to build valued, enriched experiences that support teacher development, while supporting a cyclical process for ongoing, systemic development.
Work-Based LearningIs a continuum of progressive, K-12 work-based learning experiences embedded in CTE curriculum?Work-based learning is an essential component of a robust, high-quality state CTE program. Given this, HIDOE should ensure that all K-12 students are exposed to progressive work-based learning experiences that are embedded and reflective of meaningful learning.

What’s Next?

For Hawaii, this transformational process is also about marshaling and leveraging existing resources and stakeholders to build a more cohesive, cross-agency approach necessary to drive the attainment of their state education and economic goals.

Though Hawaii is just starting its journey, it encapsulates how states can reimagine their state CTE programs to fully align with current and projected state economic and workforce priorities. In doing so, states can effectively promote learning experiences that are true in their advertising to learners and employers.

About the author

Danielle Mezera, Ph.D.

Danielle Mezera is a Senior Policy Fellow for ExcelinEd focusing on innovation policies. Dr. Mezera is also principal consultant with DCM Consulting where she regularly works with clients at the national, state and local levels on career and technical education (CTE) and on K-16 education-to-career learning models. She previously served five years as the Assistant Commissioner for College, Career and Technical Education with the Tennessee Department of Education and led a systemwide overhaul of the state’s CTE program to develop and implement rigorous, aligned programs of study. Dr. Mezera also served five years as Director of Children and Youth with Nashville’s Office of the Mayor and Tennessee’s Davidson County. Before entering public service, she served as a director at the Vanderbilt University Institute for Public Policy Studies. Dr. Mezera holds a Master of Education degree and Doctor of Philosophy in education.