Assessment Opinion

CTE and STEM Education: Two Sides of the Same Vital Coin

June 18, 2015 6 min read

by guest blogger Vanessa Shadoian-Gersing

Much work remains to ensure a fully skilled STEM workforce to anchor the nation’s economic future. Yet as states, districts, and schools seek to operationalize STEM education, many are already offering innovative career and technical education (CTE) programs that impart critical academic and employability skills. Vanessa Shadoian-Gersing, international education consultant, explores.

The STEM Challenge
The general STEM skills imperative is well publicized. The Center on Education and the Workforce points to a gap in basic STEM competencies across the entire labor market. The Brookings Institution highlights the middle-level gap in the “hidden” STEM/CTE economy: half of the 26 million jobs requiring high-level knowledge in a STEM field do not require a four-year degree and offer salaries above the national median. A recent National Science Foundation report calls for building a strong, STEM-capable workforce, stressing that STEM knowledge and skills enable both individual opportunity and national competiveness.

While some current gaps can be attributed to lack of interest, foundational skills are a concern. US students performed well below the OECD average in math on PISA 2012, reporting low motivation in the subject. PISA scores also surfaced a troubling income-based achievement gap. Similarly, adults in the US scored below average in numeracy in the OECD Survey of Adult Skills.

The CTE/STEM Solution
CTE offers promising solutions both to strengthen STEM literacy and ignite interest in STEM-related careers among all students. High-quality CTE can provide a deeper understanding of STEM career pathways, build interest and skills in STEM by making content more relevant and tangible, and grow the STEM workforce pipeline by encouraging underrepresented groups to enter these fields. High-quality CTE can also help students master the types of transversal STEM competencies (e.g., inquiry and problem-solving) valued across most careers.

Experts are converging on global best practices in professional education and training systems (or CTE in the US). As the National Association of State Directors of CTE Consortium articulates, several elements of high-quality CTE make it a natural vehicle for STEM education. These common, mutually-enforcing aspects include:

Access for Typically Underrepresented Students
CTE programs—which are typically more diverse than general student populations—present an opportunity to engage more students in STEM. Since high-quality CTE is relevant and engaging, it can attract and retain students who might otherwise be marginalized in traditional settings. Urban agriculture and environmental science programs at Long Island’s Uniondale High School draw a diverse student population, which competes regularly in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.

Cleveland’s Lorain Community College (and associated Early College High School) and MC2 STEM High School offer unprecedented access to fabrication laboratories (fab labs), where students engage in hands-on science and engineering projects and are exposed to the process of innovation. The MC2 experiment already has helped raise math achievement at this inner-city school.

Added Relevance through Integration
High-quality CTE can strengthen all students’ understanding of STEM content and inspire them to learn. It creates compelling learning environments, where students with diverse learning styles “learn by doing” through practical applications of technical and academic content in the real-world context of a given field.

High-quality CTE instruction meaningfully integrates technical and academic knowledge and skills, an approach recognized by the OECD for basic skill-building. For example, the Math-in-CTE method enables strengthening content knowledge and skills explicitly within practical CTE contexts. High-quality CTE requires students to apply knowledge and skills from many content areas, fostering cross-disciplinary skills. In addition, innovative instructional strategies empower students to deepen their learning (e.g., by connecting new knowledge to what they already know). Career academies and ConnectEd’s Linked Learning model are leveraging CTE as an applied context for rigorous academic learning, with impressive results.

High-quality CTE entails project- and problem-based learning that illustrates the power of STEM to address real-world challenges. These experiential activities—such as skill-based competitions—support mastery of STEM competencies as well as 21st century skills. A robotics team competition (such as that of Virginia Beach Public Schools) might require students to use problem-solving, creativity, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and technical skills, in addition to geometry, physics, and measurement. Quality STEM programs involve student-centered, project-based learning, as well. Project Lead the Way implements hands-on courses designed to spark curiosity and interest in science, and provide early exposure to engineering and biomedical fields.

Secondary/Postsecondary Alignment
High-quality CTE incorporates well aligned secondary and postsecondary courses, provides opportunities for dual enrollment, is anchored in industry needs, integrates technical and academic knowledge and skills, and leads to a recognized credential or postsecondary degree or certificate. Such programs provide students direct pathways into postsecondary education, a critical goal of STEM education and the broader college- and career-ready agenda.

Early college models are also gaining traction. At Pathways in Technology (P-TECH) Early College High Schools, students earn an associate degree in applied science along with a high school diploma. The rigorous curriculum—co-developed with industry to integrate job skills—prepares students for further study and careers. Following early success with underserved groups, the P-TECH model is being replicated around the country. North Carolina’s Wake Early College of Health and Sciences—one of several schools created by local hospital, school, and CTE systems—boasts 100 percent postsecondary acceptance and is composed largely of first-generation college-goers.

Partnerships between Business and Education
At the nexus of education, business, and economic and workforce development, successful CTE is attuned to industry needs. Models for engaging business to support and keep CTE up-to-date range from business representatives sitting on advisory councils to providing work-based learning experiences and capstone projects. Similarly, STEM education should reflect needs of employers and the economy. To expand Virginia’s high-tech workforce the state partnered with schools, employers, and higher education to create career academies driven by local and state economic needs, combined with rigorous academics and opportunities for applied STEM learning.

Given their common stakeholders and mutually-enforcing elements and goals, CTE and STEM education should be better connected in policy and practice. The Michigan STEM partnership is one statewide effort to promote STEM and CTE education with industry. Ohio is even developing a STEM/CTE hybrid program in health informatics.

State and local leaders should work to identify and scale these promising CTE models to provide high-quality STEM education for their students, workforce, and local economy.


Follow Vanessa, Heather, and Asia Society on Twitter.

Image courtesy of the Tennessee STEM Innovation Network.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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