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College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Four Hard Questions That Will Dictate the Future of Career and Technical Education

By Rick Hess — September 13, 2018 4 min read
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I’ve been friends with Tony Bennett, the former state superintendent of Indiana and Florida, for many years. In that time, I’ve always found him to be a challenging, inconvenient thinker. This summer, Tony joined a bunch of us policy wonks at AEI for a dinner discussion about career and technical education (CTE). After all, before becoming a superintendent and then a state chief, Tony’s experience included serving as the principal of Prosser School of Technology, the largest career center in Indiana. As a bunch of us policy types cheerfully burbled about the wonders of CTE, Tony posed a series of hard questions that left us askew. Afterwards, I asked him if he’d mind putting some of those questions on paper, as I thought them worth sharing more broadly. Here’s what he sent me.

Dear Rick,

After more than three decades as an educator, I’ve been fascinated watching policymakers rediscover the virtues of career and technical education (CTE). Now, look, don’t get me wrong: As someone who cut his teeth on CTE, I think it’s about time. But I worry that, unless things change, this newfound infatuation is going to prove no more serious or sensible than was yesterday’s abandonment of CTE.

With that in mind, there are several practical questions we need to address in order to gauge whether today’s embrace of CTE is serious. After all, CTE is currently one big hugfest. Everybody likes it—Republicans and Democrats, teachers’ unions and school choice advocates. I fear that the appeal is widespread only because many don’t fully understand what we’re talking about. For CTE to amount to more than the flavor-of-the-month, we need to settle on answers to four important questions.

Will we accept that CTE often entails “voucher schools”? There is no better example of market-driven education than CTE. Upon being hired as the principal of Prosser School of Technology (the largest career center in Indiana) almost 20 years ago, I recall the superintendent of New Albany-Floyd County Schools, Dr. Dennis Cahill, referring to Prosser as an example of a “voucher school” (this was many years before school vouchers were passed into law in Indiana). Why? Well, it’s just not feasible to set up a rigorous, full-fledged career program at every high school. Serious programs often require a regional campus. Schools and districts that send students to such a campus pay for services (approximately one-half of the state tuition grant) in order to educate students in high skill/high wage preparation courses. This arrangement sounds amazingly similar to the “money following the student” mantra that’s embraced by school choice advocates. Is everybody really going to be okay with this, or will there be a push for half-hearted, Mickey Mouse-style CTE offerings at every high school instead?

Will we accept that expanding CTE may eliminate some existing teaching positions? As principal of Prosser, part of my job was visiting area high schools and recruiting kids to Prosser. Since our programs required students to attend our career center for one-half of the school day, we reduced the need for elective teachers in the students’ home high schools. If we double down on the need for CTE instruction and the value of national, state, or industry-based certifications, will we be okay with the impact on teacher jobs—and will unions feel compelled to push back? After all, even though charter schools create new teacher jobs, unions have pushed back when they took jobs from traditional public schools.

Will we accept that traditional teacher preparation is inadequate or unnecessary for CTE instructors? Few schools of education prepare people to teach skills-based occupations such as auto mechanic, welding, coding, or firefighting. To address this need, CTE programs have sometimes relied on special teacher certification processes that bypass schools of education and instead certify content specialists. The vast majority of the outstanding educators at Prosser (and most CTE centers) were not prepared by schools of education, but came directly from industry and taught immediately—even as they went through basic pedagogical training. I never heard the dean of the Indiana School of Education question this practice as vigorously as he questioned our proposal to allow math, history, and physics content specialists to be certified the same way. Will schools of education and their defenders accept expanded alternative certification as an element of vigorous CTE, or will they attempt to stymie these programs? I suspect that the watchdogs of teacher education have not paid much attention to CTE, and haven’t thought much about all this to date.

Will we accept CTE’s bedrock reliance on high-stakes testing? In many of these high skill/high wage programs, students must pass a national, state, or industry-based assessment to be certified in their chosen career paths. Students need to pass exams to become ASE certified in auto technology, or AWS certified in welding, and so on. Sound familiar? So, to all those practitioners and policymakers who have grabbed onto CTE as part of a move away from testing and accountability in schooling, why is testing okay for CTE—but not for reading, math, or an academic diploma? Do they envision CTE as some kind of feel-good group exercise and not realize that serious CTE includes obtaining certifications? (And I won’t even point out that many of these certifications are based on “national” standards and tests.)

As we answer these four questions, I have one plea. As an educator who worked with incredible CTE teachers, and as a principal who watched it launch students on rewarding careers, I hope we treat CTE as more than an amusement for those seeking a convenient new hobbyhorse.

That’s a challenge worth heeding. After all, I’m constantly struck that CTE today is as ill-defined and poorly understood as it is beloved. In any event, I’ll be interested to hear your answers, critiques, or reflections prompted by Tony’s questions.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.