The president recently signed into law the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act. This bill updates the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006, the primary federal law governing career and technical education, and provide more than $1 billion to fund school-based technical training programs.
Unfortunately, states are ill-positioned to maximize the potential of this law to train the next generation of the American workforce.
High-quality, modern career and technical education, or CTE, programs are the premiere college- and career-readiness programs, providing both technical training and hands-on learning experiences for students to practice and develop cross-cutting skills that all employers value. Given their importance, completing CTE courses in high school should be a requirement for every student.
Yet too often, CTE is considered an after-thought rather than a critical piece of a high-quality K-12 education. For example, participating in CTE programs is optional in all but five states to receive a high school diploma, according to our analysis. This way of thinking reinforces the unnatural separation of college-readiness from career-readiness (and valuing one over the other).
The concept of college- and career-readiness is too often abstract; let’s put this concept in context from the student’s perspective: An entry-level dental assistant, for example, would need to know advanced human biology to qualify for her job. And, it is hard to imagine her being successful at work if she is not also able to put patients at ease when they sit in the dental chair. To do so, she needs cross-cutting skills like communication, problem-solving and empathy.
Or, imagine a college freshman tasked with leading a group project successfully keeping the group on task without knowing the course concepts and how to advocate, collaborate and manage deadlines.
Therefore, college- and career-readiness encompasses both the knowledge and skills that qualify students for the next step and the knowledge and skills that ensure they will complete their chosen pathway to a career where they can advance and support themselves.
This preparation for both college and a career is more critical now than ever. While in the past a high school diploma might have led to a middle-class job with strong worker protections, today workers with just a high school diploma often only qualify for minimum wage, on which they can afford to live in only one of 12 U.S. counties. By 2020, 65 percent of jobs require some sort of education beyond just a high school diploma, so advanced training beyond a secondary education is a necessity, not a luxury.
College- and career-readiness is also a matter of equity. Data from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics show that workers earning minimum wage are disproportionately young women working in the restaurant industry in the South.
Yet, our 50-state review of state high school graduation policies finds that students in most states can complete their education without ever having to take a CTE course. Only four states require students to take even a single CTE class. Only one state requires students to take three CTE courses. Fourteen states make CTE courses optional. A few states offer students the option to earn a career pathway diploma and these require students to take several CTE courses in the same field.
This lack of emphasis on CTE for the vast majority of students flies in the face of the evidence. Research shows that students who take three or more courses in CTE are more likely than their peers to graduate and are prepared for the type of further study that leads to an industry-valued certification. These students also achieve the same, or higher, life outcomes as college-goers.
Studies also show that students who take a rigorous 15-credit college-ready course sequence in high school that includes advanced math, lab science, English composition, U.S. and world history, and foreign language, have better life outcomes regardless of college enrollment.
That’s why states should move beyond the false choice of either college preparation or career readiness. Schools should prepare all students for both options through an 18-credit college- and career-ready course sequence that leads to a meaningful high school diploma.
Of course, the purpose of school is more than training the future workforce. It should also be the pathway through which students learn the knowledge and skills to reach their full potential as informed, engaged citizens. To get there, students must be exposed to a wide variety of possibilities and a well-rounded education that allows them to identify potential career pathways and then receive training through high-quality CTE programs that are adequately funded.
Providing states adequate resources for high-quality CTE is a start. While the federal investment in CTE pales in comparison to its cost, the investment reflects a down payment on the future. States must leverage this investment by ensuring that career and technical education is an integral part of the high school experience for all students. Only then will every student truly be empowered to choose the future that they want for themselves.