Over the last decade and a half, American education reform has focused on improving traditional academic curricula, with performance measured by standardized exams and related modes of accountability for schools, teachers and students. That reform model has generated mixed results, and some have criticized the limitations of what seems to be a “one size fits all” approach to educational excellence. Furthermore, the emergence of the global knowledge economy has placed new and challenging demands on American education. In order to prepare American students for 21st century jobs in this knowledge economy, and to deepen their engagement in the rigorous classwork that is called for, an increasing number of educators argue, the emergence of high-quality Career and Technical Education is an important development.
This is no easy task. We must overcome the legacy of past vocational education programs, which too often tracked students from working families and students of color into low-wage, unskilled jobs bereft of opportunities for economic and social improvement. In this context, CTE must bring forward and update the most successful aspects of the vocational education tradition.
The evidence is strong that quality CTE can provide powerful motivation for students to graduate from high school and go on to post-secondary education. Across America, only 3 in every 4 students graduate high school on time, in four years. The numbers are significantly better, however, for students with a concentration in Career and Technical Education: 9 in every 10 graduate on time. Of students who graduate high school with a Career and Technical concentration, 7 in every 10 go on to enroll in post-secondary education. After two years, 4 in every 5 of these students have either completed their course of study and earned a certificate, or remain enrolled in a program. CTE can create a tangible connection to a desirable future, with meaningful work and good paying jobs. It transforms the classroom into an arena of accomplishment. Its focus on real world skills and successes can instill in students a sense of accomplishment and pride in their work that carries over to their studies. For students living in poverty and/or at risk for dropping out, CTE can provide a pathway to finishing one’s education, with all that means for their futures. Educators in all the states recognize the need to place increased emphasis on the sort of contextual education represented by the CTE approach.