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June 1, 2010
Vol. 65
No. 9

The Promise of Career/Tech

Career and technical education prepares students for both college and work while giving them hands-on experiences that teach them to think in real-world terms.

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Ron is a high school junior who spends half of every school day at a career and technical education (CTE) center studying Natural Resources and Agricultural Technology. He chose this program because of his experience working on a family farm. In his traditional high school classes, he carries a 3.3 GPA, but he believes he could do better if he were more interested in the material.
At the CTE center, he is heavily involved. In addition to working at the 160-acre farm, forest, and natural resource lab, he also serves on the executive board of Future Farmers of America (FFA) and has earned three state titles in the past three years at FFA competitions. He greatly values the dedication and passion of his two program managers (instructors) and the way his CTE program has challenged him and made him think far more than his traditional high school ever did.
He has applied to a large state university and hopes to work in the law or business administration fields. Yet, if not for his CTE center, Ron might not have acquired the confidence and skills that have led him to continue his education.

The Misconceptions About CTE

As long as there have been trades, careers, and working professionals, there have been programs specifically designed for grooming apprentices in these fields. In U.S. high schools, shop class, vocational education, and career education have had, at best, an inconsistent place in the curriculum. At worst, Career and Technical Education has been disrespected and underfunded. With the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, the federal government has sidelined CTE programs in favor of college-prep courses in English, math, and science.
CTE has been easily sidelined because so many people believe that CTE does not prepare students for college, that it forces students into a lower "track," and that it is primarily a refuge for students with behavior problems who might otherwise drop out. Research challenges these assumptions and reveals that CTE can play a strong part in the larger secondary school reform effort.

An Alternate Path to College

A 2005 study by Gaunt and Palmer found that 82.4 percent of CTE students and 51 percent of non-CTE students believed that enrolling at a CTE center was appropriate for students who plan to go to college. The same study also reported that two of the factors that most influenced students to enroll in CTE programs were an opportunity to bypass some of the traditional academic curriculum and the change to earn early college credit.
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Additional studies show that many students participating in a half-day CTE program had applied for or were already accepted into college majors related to their CTE course (Gentry, Hu, Peters, & Rizza, in press; Gentry, Peters, & Mann, 2008; Gentry, Rizza, Peters, & Hu, 2005). Instead of seeing CTE as luring students away from higher education, we should see it as an alternate road to the same goal.

The Right Track for Some Learners

CTE is often caught up in the whirlpool of U.S. antitracking efforts. In the past, some students who were not having their needs met, and therefore were not performing well, in the traditional academic areas found solace in CTE programs. This led to the stereotype that CTE was a lower track intended for students who could not succeed in the college-prep program.
We know now that some students, especially those with visual-spatial strengths, underachieve in the traditional academic areas because their abilities do not match the way traditional high school courses are taught (Gohm, Humphreys, & Yao, 1998). When these students move to CTE courses with a hands-on, applied focus, they excel.

Dropout Prevention

Perhaps the most exciting implication of CTE is its potential as a solution to the high school dropout phenomenon. Plank (2001) found that students who balance academic coursework with CTE coursework in a ratio of two to one credits have the lowest risk of dropping out of school when compared to full-time college-prep or full-time CTE students.
Bridgeland, DiIulio, and Morison (2005) found that 81 percent of dropouts reported that they may have stayed in school if there had been more real-world learning. Freedom to choose the course and to self-regulate the pace and content of the curriculum have both been found to be major points of preference for students when they compared their CTE programs to their traditional academic courses (Gentry, Peters, & Mann, 2008). CTE offers opportunities for choice and real-world applications that can motivate many students to stay in school.

The Hallmarks of Successful CTE Programs

A review of the empirical research yields a few distinct and reoccurring themes that explain why CTE programs can be so helpful. Primarily, high-quality CTE programs have a literal connection to the field being studied. The instructor usually has had direct experience in the field, still works in the field, or maintains some kind of mentorship or field experience program as part of the course. For example, part-time police officers might teach criminal science, former nurses might teach medical technology, or an auto mechanics teacher might rotate students through several shop experiences. In such classes, there is often very little difference between the class material and the world of work. Students are learning to think like real professionals in their fields of interest.
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A second common theme involves the flexibility afforded students in their chosen program. For example, students in auto-diesel might choose to work on either brake systems or drive train systems depending on the day and their area of interest. Students in medical technology could focus on dentistry or nursing. If the specific order of the activities or assignments does not negatively affect the curriculum, then students can choose to vary the order depending on their interests. Even if a topic is not especially interesting, the ability to control the timing and placement of such a topic within a larger curriculum can help motivate students by fostering a sense of autonomy.
Finally, content is a major theme in a high-quality CTE program. Program offerings can be flexible and open to new and developing student interests. One midwestern high school accomplishes this task through its independent study and mentorship program, which invites volunteers from the community to guide students through their field of interest. Such a program provides individual differentiation by creating a mentorship program for a single student, adds very little to the classroom teacher's workload, and can be done with almost no dedicated budget.
On a larger scale, school personnel must be willing to be flexible with programming. Programs in health fields, criminal justice, education, and automotive industries have been and continue to be very popular, as are programs in forensics, certified network administration, and natural resources. Schools with successful CTE programs remain alert to student interests and industry trends so that they can develop courses that students will want to take and that will be relevant to their lives after high school.

What Schools Can Do

School administrators, school counselors, and classroom teachers can learn valuable lessons from successful CTE programs. First, administrators need to support appropriate CTE programs. This involves embracing the fact that different students can reach the same goals through different high school coursework. To this end, schools may need to establish a policy for students who wish to deviate from the school's mandated courses. When school or district policies will simply not allow for this kind of deviation, schools can still offer CTE courses as electives to supplement required coursework and allow for greater involvement in areas of student interest.
Second, school counselors and other advisory personnel, including parents, can encourage students to explore CTE topics as possible career options or as ways to apply their traditional academic curriculum in a more hands-on environment. Too often, high-ability students are counseled away from CTE when they have interest and ability in those areas (Greenan, Wu, & Broering, 1995).
Finally, general high school teachers can help by connecting their own academic coursework to that in the CTE areas and the world of work. For example, topics such as physics, chemistry, and history can easily be applied in an auto class, and English and mathematics content could be connected to almost any CTE course. Individual classes do not exist in isolation, and teachers have great potential to help students see the many ways they can expand their learning through CTE.

Fulfilling Needs for the Future

As the requirements of the workforce change, there will be a need for individuals to fill emerging positions. As Kenneth Gray (2004) eloquently explained,
A final, and perhaps largely unrealized contribution of CTE is its potential to provide all high school students with a hands-on, contextually rich environment to verify tentative career choices. This helps students make more effective postsecondary plans, such as choosing a college major, thereby increasing the probability that they will succeed. (p. 133)
When CTE is given a consistent place in the curriculum, it has the potential to help all students prepare for life after high school—whether or not it includes college. The opportunity to explore a topic of interest, experience hands-on learning, and see connections to the world of work can motivate students to stay in school and show them how to think like professionals in their chosen fields.

Bridgeland, J. M., DiIulio, J. J., & Morison, K. B. (2005). The silent epidemic: Perspectives of high school dropouts. Washington, DC: Civic Enterprises. Available: www.gatesfoundation.org/nr/downloads/ed/TheSilentEpidemic3-06FINAL.pdf

Gaunt, D., & Palmer, L. B. (2005, December). Positive attitudes toward CTE. Techniques, 44–47.

Gentry, M., Hu, S., Peters, S., & Rizza, M. (in press). Talented students in an exemplary career and technical education school: A qualitative inquiry. Gifted Child Quarterly.

Gentry, M., Peters, S., & Mann, R. (2008). Differences between general and talented students' perceptions of their career and technical education experiences compared to their traditional high school experiences. Journal of Advanced Academics, 18, 372–399.

Gentry, M., Rizza, M., Peters, S., & Hu, S. (2005). Professionalism, sense of community and reason to learn: Lessons from an exemplary career technical education center. Career and Technical Education Research, 30(1), 47–85.

Gohm, C. L., Humphreys, L. G., & Yao, G. (1998). Underachievement among spatially gifted students. American Educational Research Journal, 35, 515–531.

Gray, K. (2004). Is high school career and technical education obsolete? Phi Delta Kappan, 85(2), 128–134.

Greenan, J., Wu, M., & Broering, K. (1995). Talented students in career, vocational, and technical education programs. The Educational Forum, 59, 409–421.

Plank, S. (2001). A question of balance: CTE, academic courses, high school persistence, and student achievement. Journal of Vocational Education Research, 26(3), 279–327.

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