Career and Technical Education Is the Best Preparation for Graduation - ASCD
Skip to main content
ascd logo

June 11, 2020

Career and Technical Education Is the Best Preparation for Graduation

What do you want to be when you grow up? It's a question we start asking students at a young age, when they may dream of becoming scientists, doctors, astronauts, dancers, and firefighters. But are we really following through on pathways to help them get there during the grades when they need it the most?

I was 40 years old when I discovered my passion and finally grew up. Although I was in graphic arts as a career and technical education (CTE) student during high school and a member of the Vocational Industrial Clubs of America, the precursor career technical student organization to SkillsUSA, I never thought I would become a CTE teacher. I worked in social work and journalism before moving into the classroom. Many people, including myself, take the long road in finding their way or change jobs throughout their lives, and we don't talk with students often enough about how career paths (especially these days) are rarely linear.

That's where CTE can come in. According to a 2019 report by the U.S. Department of Education, almost all public school districts offer CTE programs of some kind to high school students, about three-quarters of which can earn students dual credit in postsecondary programs. Around 77 percent of public school students had participated in CTE by their junior year in 2013. Ben Schierman, an education specialist with the Alabama Department of Education in Workforce Development, is a former CTE teacher who now guides CTE at the state level. He knows the value of exploring CTE courses in secondary education—which commonly includes work training and classes in the arts, STEM fields, business management, and health-related fields—and the importance of making the transition to career or college a smooth one. He devoured every vocational class in his Wyoming high school, including welding, construction, drafting, and automotive courses. After he became a state champion in welding, he was offered a full scholarship to a community college.

"I was prepared not only for college, but [also for] walking straight into a welding career because my welding instructor made sure I knew what I was doing," he told me. "It changed my life."

But exposing students to skill-oriented courses in high school is just one part of the college and career prep journey, says Schierman. Students who go through good CTE programs with high-quality industry internships often end up having a better plan for college and career.

As a CTE teacher and SkillsUSA advisor, I was expected to not only teach the curriculum, but to also develop leadership and employability skills in my students. I have high expectations for my students' work ethic in the classroom, but it was essential they be prepared because we completed graphic design live work for the school and community—meaning the yearbook, sports program logos, ads, and billboard designs. I also coordinated students' schedules with the principal and counseling office to ensure there were opportunities for internships, which included graphic design work for the local TV station, a construction company, and a military distribution company.

It is extremely important that CTE teachers pay attention to the industry component. In 2016, I attended the Teach to Lead Baltimore Teacher Leadership Summit with my idea for "Classroom CEO," a program that partnered classroom teachers at my high school with industry leaders. In the two years the school implemented it, both CTE and academic teachers were partnered with the presidents of Gadsden State Community College and Stringfellow Hospital, a vice president from Alabama Power, the owner of Webb Concrete, and the city of Oxford. The exposure to business leaders in the classroom also helped strengthen our SkillsUSA chapter and our standing in in competitions. Every year, my CTE students placed at the state level in graphic design, broadcast news, web design, or 3D animation in SkillsUSA and the state technology fair. Two of my students became state SkillsUSA officers and attended the Washington Leadership Training Institute. In 2018, a student I had for four years, Caleb Lambert, won Alabama Career Technical Education student of the year. This happened not only because of students' work, but also because our school leadership supported CTE.

Flexibility in scheduling around these programs and opportunities that include apprenticeships or internships are essential to CTE course exposure for students. Chris Cox, the interim president of Lurleen B. Wallace Community College in Alabama, was my principal when I was a CTE teacher. He worked it out so that CTE fit into students' schedules. Students could either take CTE courses at the high school or attend community college, depending on the career cluster. At the high school, we offered advertising and graphic design, business management, education, engineering and technology, health science, and automotive tracts. At the local college, students could receive training in programs like welding and cosmetology. Because of the high school and community college partnerships, many students were able to graduate high school with credentials and could immediately enter the workforce or continue their education in postsecondary settings.

"It's not a competition in CTE between high school and community colleges," he told me. "It's getting kids connected so [that] they can explore and not flounder their way after high school."

CTE programs also need to be a collaborative effort with students, parents, and school counselors. When parents understand the opportunities CTE offers, they are more willing to support it. To assist students in discovering the best option that will lead to a living wage, deeper knowledge about CTE should be required for school counselors, says Advance CTE's communication and membership director Katie Fitzgerald.

"We have training for school counselors to grow deeper in CTE knowledge that ties to realistic careers in the community," she says. "There is a challenge with finding passion and not every pathway will lead to a living wage." Students can also take career inventory assessments to help them find their passion or career interest. In Alabama, schools use Kuder, and Advance CTE offers free student interest surveys that help students identify their top three career clusters based on how they respond to questions.

Even now, as an English language arts teacher, I incorporate the CTE mindset into my classroom. I might be teaching English skills, but we have to realize that all students, whether or not they are enrolled in CTE courses, are on a career path and need us to continually think about how we can support them on that journey.

Want to add your own highlights and notes for this article to access later?