College & Workforce Readiness

5 Ways Schools Can Make Career Prep Programs More Rigorous and Equitable

By Libby Stanford — April 12, 2023 5 min read
A student in Julia Todahl’s cosmetology class works on a haircut at the Regional Occupation Center.
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Career and technical education programs today are less often the traditional, vocational programs of decades past that enrolled students who weren’t on the college track. Today’s programs emphasize academic alongside vocational skills and prepare students for any number of post-secondary options, including college.

But it’s easy for CTE programs to fall into old habits of the traditional “vocational education” programs, which often trapped students in terminal careers, failed to emphasize academics, and didn’t serve students equitably.

If schools want to prepare students for post-secondary success, that means they need to be aware of the changing landscape surrounding career education, experts say.

Career education has cemented its position as a top priority, particularly in the last few years. A recent survey found that Americans now think it’s more important for K-12 schools to prepare students for future careers than college, and the nation has recorded its steepest drop in college enrollment since 2018. Plus, 42 states have signed onto a commitment to expand CTE programs and make them more rigorous.

At the same time, students no longer view CTE as a one-track option that leads to a career directly out of high school. Many CTE students still go on to earn two- or four-year degrees and express interest in multiple career pathways.

Schools can maximize CTE programs’ potential by ensuring they are balanced, prioritizing both career preparation and college readiness, said Kate Kreamer, deputy executive director of AdvanceCTE, an advocacy nonprofit.

“When you look at a lot of the research coming out of Gen Z, they really want purpose, they really want to contribute to communities and to society, and they’re really looking to their careers as a way to feed into that,” Kreamer said. “The conversation of ‘what do I want to do with my life’ is evolving.”

Here are five ways schools can make sure their CTE programs keep up with that evolution.

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Students in the auto technology class work on a vehicle at the Regional Occupational Center.
Students work on a vehicle in an auto technology class at the Regional Occupational Center in Bakersfield, Calif.
Morgan Lieberman for Education Week

1. Focus on balance

Students who receive a curriculum that is both focused on academic college preparation and CTE are in the best position for success, Kreamer said.

“CTE students are going to college,” she said. “There is this myth that it still is either-or. The vast majority of students that are completing a CTE pathway are going on to some post-secondary education and training.”

CTE programs and courses should embed academic skills like mathematics, science, writing, and reading. For example, students in robotics and mechanics classes can use geometry, chemistry, and calculus as they work on projects, while students pursuing entrepreneurial, visual arts, or journalism pathways can improve their reading and writing skills.

“All students need a basic understanding of math, all students need a good understanding of English and reading, so that needs to be a part of all CTE programs’ curriculum,” said Walter Ecton, an education professor at Florida State University. “We can’t make the assumption that, ‘oh this is a CTE class just for students who aren’t going to college’ because that’s not really setting students up for the economic landscape that we have right now.”

2. Be intentional about CTE courses

For a long time, CTE courses were relegated to trade fields, such as cosmetology, plumbing, and construction. In reality, CTE can involve courses from a wide range of industries.

The National Career Clusters Framework provides a guide to help schools develop CTE programs for careers in a wide range of industries. The framework is a good starting point for developing CTE programs, and schools can use it to match student interests, Kreamer said.

Students should start in courses that are broad in nature and grow more specific as students advance, she said.

“We’re not just putting kids’ day one in ninth grade [and saying], ‘Let’s train you to be a plumber,’” Kreamer said. “Let’s understand the different range of options, what the labor market says, and then allow the students to deepen and get more specific technical skills as they progress.”

Even in traditional CTE fields, students can expand their learning beyond the skills specific to their trade. For example, cosmetology students can work on building a business plan for a hair or makeup studio.

3. Incorporate work-based learning and dual credit opportunities

Strong CTE programs should always include “a work-based pathway anchored in a credentialed value,” Kreamer said.

That means students should be getting something out of CTE programs beyond high school course credit, whether it’s an industry credential, a two-year degree, or a four-year degree, rather than leaving high school with a set of skills and nothing to show for it.

Schools can partner with colleges to set up credentialed pathways for students, but those partnerships shouldn’t be limited to one institution, Kreamer said. They should be statewide, so students can apply credentials they earn in a CTE program to any state college of their choice, not just, for example, the local community college.

4. Use student demographic data to inform decisions

Perkins V, the federal law that establishes funding for CTE programs, requires states to collect extensive data on CTE enrollment in order to receive the funding.

States now know who is taking CTE courses, whether students are completing them, and whether they’re graduating. That can be helpful information as schools work to make CTE programs more equitable.

In a recent study, Ecton found that CTE programs overwhelmingly enroll White male students from the South. That indicates not all students are taking advantage of the opportunities CTE programs provide.

“We have to think very carefully about making sure that high-quality CTE programs are welcoming to all different groups of students,” Ecton said. “What are we doing to make sure that we’re not necessarily saying, ‘This is a program that’s just for women,’ or, ‘This is a program that is just for a particular group of students.’”

In a separate study, Ecton and Shaun Dougherty, a professor at Boston College, found that programs that led to the highest earnings and strongest career outcomes for students were also the programs that disproportionately enrolled male students.

“Schools and districts need to collect data to see who’s taking their specific programs and [if] they really have diverse populations within each of their different CTE pathways,” Ecton said. “If not, schools need to do a real soul searching to figure out, why are there certain groups that are not enrolling in our programs?”

5. Look for opportunities for exposure early on

There’s nothing that says CTE has to be limited to high school. Both Ecton and Kreamer recommend looking for ways to start career conversations in middle school.

That can be as simple as having career days to expose middle schoolers to different options or creating hands-on projects that connect to different career options.

“If you go to a really high-quality CTE classroom, they’re doing project-based learning,” Ecton said. “They’re exploring a lot of academic topics with really hands-on activities and working in teams. Those are just good instructional strategies, regardless of the class.”

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