Career and  Technical Education Today

Hope for the Future or More of the Same?

03/31/2010  |  DR. WILLARD R. DAGGETT
career and technical education

America is faced with a myriad of economic challenges today. The greatest country in the world in the 20th century is losing the competitive edge. China and India are emerging economies projected to grow stronger over the next few years. Our students are consistently scoring lower than their Asian counterparts on global assessments. The American gross domestic product (GDP) is coming back slowly from the recent recession, but our imports continue to exceed our exports. We have lost the manufacturing industry that kept us in the lead of other global exporters. We have the highest unemployment rate since 1983. All of these statements lead us to ask ourselves, “Is there hope for the future?”

Many of us believe that Career and Technical Education (CTE) can put people back to work in high wage, high demand occupations. For CTE, it is the best of times in terms of opportunities, and yet it is the worst of times in terms of how the mental model of CTE continues to be that of non-rigorous academics and separate from a college preparatory curriculum.

This mental model of vocational education as preparation for a “trade” was created early in the history of this country. In spite of evidence to the contrary, the model still describes the perception of CTE by many students and adults. In 1992, Harold Stevenson and James Stigler completed a cross-cultural study of three Asian cities comparing them to three U.S. cities matched on a number of characteristics regarding education. The findings suggested that mental models make the difference in student performance. The mental model of Asian mothers regarding academic success of their children was effort or hard work, while American mothers believed it was ability that made the difference.

Efforts in the U.S. to change this belief of ability over effort have been non-existent. A name change does little to affect mental models. Over the past decade, we have changed names of programs to reflect more emphasis on science and technology just as we have changed the name from Vocational Education to CTE. In spite of name changes, we have continued to keep all of the major CTE areas isolated from each other and from academic education. The mindset that students who cannot succeed academically should be in CTE programs is perpetuated by policies and practices across the country. In short, nothing has changed, and yet, the world for which these programs prepare young people has changed dramatically.

In 2006, the U.S. Congress passed the Carl D. Perkins Career Technical Education Improvement Act. Probably, the best summary of the Act is an increased accountability for CTE student academic achievement. The emphasis of the Act was on more rigorous academics for students in a CTE program of studies. In spite of indications in the Act that all students should be in a career pathway or program of studies as they move through secondary to postsecondary education, the mental model of CTE as academically inferior remains fixed. Even in creating programs of study and career pathways, CTE and rigorous academics are as isolated from each other as they have always been. 

CTE has tried since 1995 to integrate academic content. True implementation of this has been elusive to CTE educators. The major issue contributing to this failure is the scope and sequence of CTE and academic content. Since the beginning of public education, the scope and sequence of academic education has remained unchanged, especially in the mathematics and science areas. A student in a rigorous mathematics sequence will take Algebra, Geometry, Algebra II, and then higher mathematics, such as Trigonometry and Calculus. Amazingly, in a drafting program in high school, a student may use trigonometric functions as early as the ninth or 10th grade. Students in the most rigorous academic path, will not take trigonometry until the 11th grade, at the earliest. What is more ironic is the students in the ninth or 10th grade drafting class probably are in the lowest sequence of mathematics courses and will never get trigonometry in high school.

The International Center for Leadership in Education has witnessed the success of efforts that eliminate mental models and teach for rigor through relevance. Schools successful in doing this have developed a shared vision of how people learn. That vision is consistent with what we know about how the brain functions. Through analysis of the nation’s highest performing and rapidly improving schools the International Center has learned that in these schools you cannot tell where CTE and academic education begin and end. The distinction between them is truly blurred. Caine and Caine (1991) declared that the brain processes information in an interconnected way. When convergence of academic and CTE is achieved, the brain retains that information in spatial memory because of the pathways for recall that develop during the process. These students will perform at higher levels on high stakes tests and will have recall of rigorous academic content to apply the highest level of knowledge to solve problems that have unpredictable outcomes.

The International Center and the Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE) have partnered to address the convergence of academics and CTE — different from integration of academic and CTE by virtue of blurring the distinction of CTE and academics. Through this partnership we hope to change mental models through identifying best practices and influencing federal, state, and local policy. It is critical to address and eliminate those practices and policies that prevent convergence of academics and CTE from occurring. Until this is accomplished; until an education is created that is not divided by obsolete courses and a scope and sequence that encourages elimination of relevance in education, we cannot hope to change the status of American students globally, nor can we retake our place as a serious competitor in the global marketplace.

Sponsored jointly by the International Center and ACTE, the Institute for 21st Century Leadership is seeking to influence educators, policy and practices. A nationally representative group of CTE leaders including state directors; district, consortium, and school CTE administrators; industry representatives; postsecondary instructors and chairpersons; CTE teacher training faculty; adult training leaders; and other CTE stakeholders met together in New Orleans in early 2010 to discuss ways to set a new direction for CTE in this millennium.

The idea exchange focused on the need to blur the distinction between academics and CTE. How will the Obama administration’s Economic Stimulus funding and the pending renewal of Elementary and Secondary Education (ESEA)/No Child Left Behind Act impact CTE? What do the new Common Core Standards for Career and College Readiness mean to CTE (which has been conspicuously excluded from the national standards and assessment dialogue)? If CTE is to continue as a viable option for students we must be able to answer these questions.

This convergence of academics and CTE is what education must strive for. We must provide for our students an education providing the skills and knowledge for success in a globally-driven and ever-changing hi-tech economy. All students need both academics (rigor) and CTE (relevance). If we fail to act soon, the U.S. will face elimination from the role of world leader. If there is to be hope for the future, we can no longer accept more of the same. Our children and grandchildren are depending on us.

Willard R. Daggett is CE Officer of the International Center for Leadership in Education ( Read more about the Institute for 21st Century Leadership at

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