What Career and Technical Education (CTE) Is, and What It Is Not

I was attending a meeting in the Board Room at the Kentucky Department of Education. This was prior to my time as Commissioner. I was serving on an accountability steering committee charged with providing suggestions and feedback on what would become Kentucky’s Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) Plan. The conversation centered on Career and Technical Education (CTE). Kentucky already had a history of valuing CTE programming and career readiness. The question being debated was how exactly career readiness/technical readiness would be measured and weighted in the state’s new accountability system.

A well-meaning school counselor spoke up in support of CTE programs in Kentucky’s public high schools. But the way she talked about CTE made it very clear to me that even among educators, CTE has an image and perception problem. In defending CTE programs she said, “All kids are not smart enough to make it into college. You have to have something for those kids.” She was absolutely right in asserting that all of our students will not be going on to four-year institutions. The problem with her statement, however, is that she relegated CTE programs to being options for kids who she deemed to not have the intellectual capacity to gain admission to and successfully compete a four-year degree. That perception of CTE is deeply flawed.

CTE programs prepare our students for the world of work, whether that work comes immediately after completing high school with a skill or credential, or after completing additional education or training at the postsecondary level. Today’s CTE students are preparing for diverse careers in areas including but not limited to computer science, culinary, engineering, automotive technology, advanced manufacturing, carpentry, business and technology, nursing, health and medicine, and the list goes on. Additionally, CTE programs of study are rigorous, requiring above average knowledge and skill, often both.

CTE programs are for students to choose, based on their interests, talents, and abilities. And we shouldn’t think it out of the ordinary for a student who has the ability to successfully complete a four-year degree in English, Chemistry, or Mathematics, to instead choose to complete a CTE program of study in high school and go on to earn a postsecondary credential or degree in a technical field at a community or technical college. The reality of the 21st Century American economy is that there are growing numbers of jobs, great paying jobs, that go unfilled year after year because there are not enough Americans earning the skills and credentials needed to fill the positions. As such, it’s not uncommon for health systems to bring in nurses and other skilled healthcare workers from other countries, or for computer and technology firms to contract with workers who remain in other countries, because there are not sufficient numbers of American workers who have the necessary knowledge, skills, and credentials.

As a classroom teacher, I would not have characterized myself as a CTE advocate. As a high school student, I had never heard of CTE. Like most of our educators, my schooling from elementary school onward was aimed at preparing me for success in bachelor’s degree program at a four-year college of university. My school experiences did just that. Frankly, it was the time I spent in Kentucky’s Workforce Cabinet that gave me different perspective on education and workforce development.

It is imperative that we work to change the the perceptions that so many educators, parents, and students have about CTE programs. These are not throw-away programs, or programs for students that can’t cut it anywhere else. Instead, these are rigorous programs that prepare students for careers in a wide variety of areas; careers that require both intellect and skill. We need many more of our young people to choose CTE programs, but to accomplish that, we need many more educators, parents, and community members to become CTE champions and encourage students to consider those programs.

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