Why CTE Matters for All Students

05/01/2015
By Beth TeGrotenhuis

The 2016 budget plan that President Obama proposed last month allocates funding for new programs that could advance career and technical education (CTE), including a $200 million CTE Innovation Fund and a $125 million competitive grant program to promote high school redesign. This is just the latest indicator that CTE education needs to be revamped to align with the 21st century workplace and future job demands, and that it’s increasingly a priority for education leaders at the highest level. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 10 of the 20 fastest growing occupations require an associate's degree or less, and of the 20 occupations with the largest numbers of new jobs projected for 2018, 13 require on-the-job training or an associate's degree.

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But what does that mean for school administrators today? To ensure students are college and career ready, schools and districts can expand their CTE curriculum to align with Common Core State Standards and meet their overall academic goals. There’s a growing body of research demonstrating the importance of CTE in preparing all students for post-school success. CTE is no longer relevant to just a small percentage of students, and shouldn’t be relegated to as supplementary. CTE can take a central focus in helping students determine their academic paths and a critical component of their overall middle and high school education.

It’s an opportune time to evaluate your CTE curriculum and begin investing in improvements and best practices so you’re ahead of the curve, and delivering on your promise to students and their parents to ensure they are ready to be productive contributors to society. Consider the following benefits of having robust, engaging CTE offerings:

1.    Combining CTE with core courses prepares more students for success beyond graduation. Eighty percent of students who take rigorous CTE courses along with their core courses are prepared for both college and a career, compared to just 63 percent of students who take only core courses alone, the Southern Regional Education Board concluded in its 2012 “High Schools That Work” assessment.

2.    CTE courses develop students’ noncognitive skills better than core courses alone. CTE students are significantly more likely than their non-CTE counterparts to report that they developed problem-solving, project completion, research, math, college application, work-related, communication, time management, and critical thinking skills during high school, according to Lekes et al in their 2007 study, "Career and Technical Education Pathway Programs, Academic Performance, and the Transition to College and Career.”

3.    Taking CTE courses prevents dropout because it offers practical applications of knowledge that can help students see the relevancy of their instruction. Students are more engaged in their lessons and can more fully grasp the content when they are able to answer the key question: Why does this matter? The 2005 study, "Dropping Out of High School and the Place of Career and Technical Education," by Plank et al, indicates that a ratio of one CTE class for every two academic classes minimizes the risk of students dropping out of high school. Furthermore, 81 percent of dropouts said that "more real-world learning" may have influenced them to stay in school, according to the 2005 report, “The Silent Epidemic,” by John Bridgeland, John Dilulio, Jr., and Karen Burke Morsion.

4.    CTE-related learning improves students’ overall academic motivation and performance. Based on the 2007 study, “Looking Inside the Black Box: The Value Added by Career and Technical Student Organizations to Students' High School Experience,” by Alfeld, et al, the more students participate in CTSO activities, the higher their academic motivation, academic engagement, grades, career self-efficacy and college aspirations.

Collectively, this research suggests that CTE can benefit all students, even those whose plans already include four-year college.

With these stellar advantages, it seems a no-brainer to implement an advanced CTE curriculum and broader range of courses into schools and districts across the country, but it can be an expensive, overwhelming process that can become haphazard if not well executed. Several districts have already begun broadening and overhauling their CTE programs, and they offer the following best practices to learn from:

•    Partner with a virtual provider. John Prchal, who has been the CTE program administrator at Harrell Accelerated Learning Center in Wichita Falls, Texas, for the past 29 years, his school’s curriculum and technology providers have helped him stay on the cutting edge of CTE trends and save costs. Moreover, the online learning environment is appealing to digital natives; there’s a refreshing eagerness about diving into the work. The trick is to pick the right partners, he says. When looking for a CTE partner, ask if the courses fit into career clusters that are important to your district, are diagnostic tools offered, what are the course customization capabilities, and is professional development support available?

•    Incorporate the local business and community. Prchal says that CTE courses should be adapted or tied to whatever region in which you teach. For example, in Wichita Falls, the oil and agriculture industries are key employers. So, having access to course clusters in Agriculture and STEM was extremely important to his students’ and their community’s futures. Other regions, such as Branson, Missouri might consider having a solid Hospitality & Tourism course cluster. Of course, no matter where you’re preparing students for the real world, there is always a need for IT, Business, Administration, Health Science and Human Services.

•    Blend CTE curriculum with core course offerings. This helps contextualize the learning for students, which has led to great success. Harrell Accelerated Learning Center science teacher Ali Marek created a whole series of unique courses that combines online CTE curriculum with core science subjects to appeal to a diverse range of students. In a class she calls “Life on the Farm,” Marek combines content from agriculture CTE courses with environmental science content from other sources. With this alignment of core science and CTE content, Marek’s students come to understand the practical applications of environmental science—while also developing career readiness skills.

The students love these courses, says Prchal: “They gain valuable career insight, stay on track to graduate, and have fun.”

•    Use CTE courses as part of the counseling program to help students identify and explore career interests. Sweet Home High School in Oregon has incorporated CTE courses into its counseling and planning process to help its teachers better assist and guide students on their career trajectories.

Credit-recovery teacher Eric Sutzer says that one of his students enrolled in one of the online CTE nursing courses the school offered after she was inspired to become a nurse from witnessing the work of Red Cross workers helping victims of a 2013 typhoon in the Philippines. Still, she was very confused about which discipline she wanted to pursue. Each lesson within the course focused on different types of nursing—flight nurses, hospice workers, trauma nurses, etc. Throughout the lessons, the student answered questions that put her in each nurse’s place, such as, “How would you use the nursing code of ethics to respond in this situation?” This individualized focus helped the student get a sense of what it would be like to work in each field and allowed her to better identify her passions and decide on her career path. She’s in college now, studying to be a labor and delivery nurse.

Over the next several months, there will be a lot of debate about President Obama’s education budget—and whether more spending for the programs he has outlined is necessary. Regardless of the outcome, the research is clear: CTE is worthy of expanded investment from the federal level on down to the district level to ensure all students in becoming college and career ready.

Beth TeGrotenhuis is the CEO of Odysseyware, which offers a modular, highly customizable online curriculum, including more than 60 CTE courses that support personalized instruction and adapt to each school district’s unique needs.
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