Are Stereotypes About Career And Technical Education Crumbling?

The stereotypes, bias, and misunderstanding that have for many decades surrounded and isolated Career and Technical Education (CTE) may slowly be crumbling.  A recent report by the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education (NRCCTE) argues that traditional CTE typology -- the way in which CTE students are identified and classified -- is obsolete.  The distinctions between “CTE” students and “academic” students are no longer useful. Today, nearly all high school students, including the highest achieving academic-track students, enroll in some CTE courses.

Moreover, a significant number of students complete “high intensity” CTE courses as well as academic courses, in patterns that cross SES lines. In order to understand the contemporary high school experience, these researchers argue, we need a new typology based on the reality of today’s classroom, students, and curricula.

The October 2012 study, “A Typology for Understanding the Career and Technical Education Credit-taking Experience of High School Students," proposes a new, more nuanced classification system --  one the authors believe would more accurately capture the high school experience and needs of today’s students. The researchers argue that these long-overdue changes could alter experts’ views of what students actually study in high school, break down the obsolete conceptual barriers that currently divide CTE and academic curricula, and help educators work with students to devise the most appropriate pathways to academic and career success.

Today, states continue to use a typology with roots in the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917, which classified students as “vocational” or “academic” depending on their curriculum concentrations.   Needless to say, when the vocational/academic distinctions were established, the nation was very different, with a different economy and far different needs. Students were divided according to their ”evident and probable” destinies, the study notes. At that time, most students were headed for the farm, factory, homemaking, and other such occupations. Very few went on to post-secondary work and many didn’t complete high school at all.

With that in mind, educators created a 50-25-25 rule. Vocational education students spent 50 percent of their time in the shop, 25 percent of their time studying closely related topics, and 25 percent in academic subjects. Although the classifications were eventually broadened to include general students (neither vocational nor academic) and dual (both), the underlying concepts remained unchanged. Yet, over time, the need for post-high school training expanded. In light of the growing societal demand that kids be prepared for some form of post-high school training or education, federal and state policy increasingly emphasized academic course-taking. This focus on academics ultimately was incorporated into the Perkins Vocational Education Act of 1984, but the conceptual divide remained in place, even as voc.ed. evolved into ”career and technical education."

By placing students in obsolete categories, we get a very false, or at least incomplete, picture of their high school experience. States use “different criteria to define them” and researchers have been “inconsistent” in how they classify CTE students. The old typology just doesn’t fit.  Accordingly, the NRCCTE’s new classification method presents eight different categories of CTE credit takers, rooted in 21st century realities. Using their new template, the researchers estimate that 92 percent of public high school students take at least some CTE courses. Nearly 17 percent of high school students complete both high intensity CTE courses as well as academic requirements, fulfilling the credit requirements for an “occupational area”. Another 27 percent take three or more CTE credits without fulfilling an occupational requirement. The study also found that, while CTE historically has targeted low-income and special populations, higher income students and university-bound students also take significant numbers of CTE credits. Finally, the study revealed that CTE students do well in the academic classes they do take, including advanced math (especially) and advanced science.

What is the significance of these new course-taking patterns? What are the results for students? What implications should this have for education reform?

Bottom line? We don’t yet know the answers to these questions, nor much about why students make the course choices that they do, or what they do with the skills and knowledge they obtain through those courses. We don’t know because we have been trapped in outmoded ways of thinking about the relationship between working and learning, and about the value of curriculum content that is imparted in an occupational context. Thoughtful research, such as this study, and innovative programs, such as High Schools that Work and the Pathways to Prosperity Network, represent a real opportunity to break down the walls separating college and career, academic and vocational. As this study documents, today’s students -- from all walks of life -- are way out ahead of us on this one.

- Randall Garton


I was a HS CTE teacher for 7 years and couldn't agree more with this trend of different types of students enrolling in CTE courses. CTE teachers have the joy and challenge of teaching diverse students of mixed grades and ability levels. We also have an “ace in the hole” with cross-industry student organizations that extend rich learning experiences beyond the physical and time boundaries of schools.

In no other content area do I see more cross-curricular infusion of math and literacy skills combined with a focus on college AND career readiness.

I hope CTE programs remain strong and expand in the years to come as they provide the relevance ALL students need to be academically engaged and successful. Here's my blog about this related topic:…