College & Workforce Readiness

How Career Prep Programs Went From ‘Dumping Ground’ to Top Priority

By Libby Stanford — April 10, 2023 8 min read
Students in the auto technology class work on a vehicle at the Regional Occupational Center.
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High school students in Rhode Island will soon be hard at work on a novel project: developing their own food truck businesses.

Starting in the fall, students in 13 Ocean State districts will develop business plans, design menus, create graphics, learn culinary skills, and enter an October competition to compete for the prize of best business. It’s all a part of a $1.6 million program called Menu for Success that will send food trucks to those 13 districts for students to work on. The initiative, which aims to equip students with skills they’ll need in the restaurant business, stems from the state’s new commitment to career and technical education programs.

Rhode Island in recent years has worked to realign its curriculum standards so schools have a greater incentive to adopt career and technical education, or CTE, or beef up existing programs. A state law passed in 2021 allows students to enroll in CTE programs in another district if they can’t access the same quality program in their home district.

“This is where we’re going,” said Angélica Infante-Green, Rhode Island’s commissioner of education. “All of our students are expected to have this type of [CTE] experience throughout the state.”

Infante-Green isn’t alone in her views about CTE.

Showing how it’s become a near-universal priority, 42 states have signed the Common Career Technical Core, a commitment to expand CTE programs and make them more rigorous, according to AdvanceCTE, a nonprofit advocacy group. And CTE programs have earned more bipartisan support over the past decade.

Meanwhile, more Americans now think it’s more important for schools to prepare students for careers than for college, a change that’s become particularly pronounced in just the last few years. Plus, the nation has recorded its steepest slide on record in college enrollment since 2018, as many young adults have chosen a different path.

The movement reflects a shift in prioritization from using CTE as a “dumping ground” for students who don’t have the academic record or financial resources to attend college, to making it a pathway for students to gain both the technical skills and academic preparation needed to succeed in both college and careers.

“It’s no secret that we for decades trapped certain students into certain pathways,” said Kate Kreamer, deputy executive director of AdvanceCTE. “Marginalized populations, Black students, Latinx students, students from low income families and communities were largely put in terminal programs and told, ‘some students are college bound and some students are not college bound.’ That is inequitable.”

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From ‘vocational education’ to career and technical education

CTE, once known as vocational education, has been embedded in federal law since 1917, when Congress passed the Smith-Hughes Act.

The law established federal funding to support research and curriculum development for vocational education, but the first law that actually provided funding to help schools develop and expand vocational education programs was the Vocational Education Act of 1963.

The laws supported programs that taught students technical and trade skills. But the focus shifted in the 1990s, as former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton pressured schools to compete with the rest of the world. The idea was that American students weren’t learning to be critical thinkers and high school degrees weren’t enough to prepare them for the workforce.

“As more and more jobs were starting to demand college degrees, high schools in many ways became college preparatory,” said Walt Ecton, an education professor at Florida State University. “Most states aligned high school graduation requirements with college entry requirements and there was a real decline in interest in vocational education.”

The No Child Left Behind Act in the early 2000s and a continued emphasis on standardized testing cemented this shift in priorities. That ultimately led to an inequitable system, where career and technical education became a backup option for students who struggled with academics, Ecton said.

“In the past, CTE was really used as what is sometimes referred to as a ‘dumping ground’—an offensive phrase that existed at the time—for students who folks didn’t think were going to go on to college and didn’t think were going to go on to have some of these more high status, high-earning career paths,” Ecton said. “In particular, that was Black students, that was women, that was students with disabilities.”

The onset of Career Clusters in the mid-2000s was a step toward changing this mentality. It provided schools with a new framework for developing CTE programs based on specific industries and career paths, shifting the focus away from traditional “vocational” programs such as cosmetology, automotive mechanics, and agriculture, to programs across a wide range of industries, Kreamer said. Those programs often lead to college degrees.

Then, in 2018, former President Donald Trump signed the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act, otherwise known as Perkins V, a bipartisan law that provides over $1.4 billion in state grants to support CTE programs each year.

Perkins V, an expansion of the long-standing Perkins grant program, helped states expand CTE offerings but also required state education agencies to be much more intentional about their programs, Kreamer said. To receive Perkins funding, state now must look more at equity, analyzing where their CTE programs have racial and gender disparities.

Programs meet societal and economic demands

While interest in CTE has grown over the past decade, there’s been a noticeable shift in thinking since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Americans ranked preparing students for careers as the 6th highest priority for schools in 2022, according to the Purpose of Education Index, an annual survey of American views on education from the Massachusetts think tank Populace. That was up from the 27th highest priority in the same survey just three years earlier, in 2019.

Meanwhile, preparing students for college fell from the 10th highest priority in 2019 to the 47th out of 57 in the 2022 survey.

“In the last two years, with the pandemic, I’ve seen the narrative really start to shift,” said Kreamer, of AdvanceCTE. “It opened individuals’ eyes that a college degree was not a guarantee of financial security.”

The shift in thinking has been reflected at the federal level.

President Biden’s 2024 budget proposes investing $200 million in the U.S. Department of Education’s career-connected high schools initiative, which would provide grants to help high schools partner with local colleges and universities as well as employers to give students internship and dual credit experiences. And career and technical education has long been a priority for North Carolina Rep. Virginia Foxx, the Republican chair of the House’s education and workforce committee.

In Rhode Island, schools have worked to align CTE programs with career demands, Infante-Green said. For example, students at the Cranston Area Career and Technical Center in Cranston, R.I., can participate in an aquaculture program to learn how to farm fish, as the Atlantic Salmon is endangered, Infante-Green said. Other states have expanded programs to meet workforce demands, such as preparing students to work in cybersecurity, health care, robotics, and software engineering.

“There’s a lot of science, there’s a lot of math,” Infante-Green said. “Before people thought of [CTE] as cosmetology and things like that. We do have those programs, but what we’ve done with those is we’ve switched them so they have to write business plans so that it becomes really academic.”

A long way to go

Although views about CTE have shifted, there’s still a lot to be done to ensure all students have access to strong programs.

In his 2024 budget, Biden proposed a $43 million increase to the Perkins V program, in addition to the one-time, competitive $200 million career-connected high schools program.

CTE advocates worry that the funding isn’t enough. Funding for Perkins V is $320 million below 2004 levels when adjusted for inflation, according to AdvanceCTE.

“Doubling down on a competitive grant program—rather than this foundational investment—will lead to inequitable outcomes that direct resources to communities that already have the capacity to provide high-quality CTE opportunities for learners,” the nonprofit said in a statement in response to the budget. “While we appreciate the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to expanding career-focused education opportunities to more learners, we believe these should be systemic investments rather than one-time competitive grants.”

Plus, CTE programs often fail to serve all students equitably.

In a recent study, Ecton found that today’s CTE students are disproportionately white, male, and southern.

“Something we have to think very carefully about is, do we have equitable access within CTE programs?” he said. “Is it the case that certain groups of students are all going to the high-quality STEM programs and other groups of students are being sent to the less rigorous programs that aren’t preparing students for college or high-paying career paths?”

It’s also important for educators to think about how they can encourage students to seek out non-traditional pathways, Ecton said. For example, construction is a largely male-dominated field, but CTE programs can be a way to expose girls to construction and manufacturing jobs.

CTE programs should also focus on balance, Kreamer said. It’s important for schools to give students the tools to explore career pathways while also giving them the academic tools and resources to succeed in college.

“The best option is when students are getting a college prep curriculum in high school that’s also engaging in CTE,” Kreamer said. “Those students are in the best position wherever they go because they really do have both.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 26, 2023 edition of Education Week as How Career Prep Programs Went From ‘Dumping Ground’ to Top Priority

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