Tom Fields/Oklahoma Department of Career and Technology Education A student at Oklahoma’s Ardmore High School works on an assignment for his Biotechnical program.
SAN DIEGO – Career and technical education has come a long way since the days when students could be steered from academics into hairstyling, auto repairs or carpentry. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to sell the concept of having all students take courses in CTE, as it is known.
Take what happened this March in La Jolla. Parents rose in protest after the San Diego Unified School District proposed new high school graduation requirements mandating two years of career and technical education courses – or two to four courses. The district would have been the first in the nation to have such a mandate, experts believe. Parents circulated an online protest petition, and school officials spent hours in a meeting to assure hundreds of parents that courses like computerized accounting, child development and website design could be in the best interest of all students.
But afterwards, when parent leaders asked the crowd who favored the requirement, every single parent at the meeting voted against it.
Help us do more.
District officials were unprepared for the backlash in the affluent neighborhoods north of Interstate 8, the unofficial boundary between the haves and have-nots of the district. Just two years earlier, the school system passed a mandate – supported by the community – to make all students complete a set of courses required for entry to one of the state’s university systems.
They viewed career and technical education courses as a logical extension of their goal to get all students “college and career ready,” said Sid Salazar, the district’s assistant superintendent for instructional support services. Attending college was once the sole way students could prepare for some professions, but opportunities now exist in high school under an expanded definition of career and technical education.
The parents, though, argued that college-bound students wouldn’t be helped by taking career and technical education classes. As one parent wrote on an online petition that garnered 1,326 signatures in 21 days: “If you force the children of … highly intelligent and very academic parents to take less-rigorous VoTech coursework, you will hurt their chances of admission to undergrad and grad school.”
As San Diego demonstrated, despite more than a decade of efforts to revamp its image, technical education still battles a negative reputation. While college-prep graduation requirements are spreading rapidly in California, many affluent parents, and low-income parents who fear their child is being sold short, balk at technical education and assume it won’t lead to college.
Advocates are trying to convince people it’s not an either-or situation. They argue that although many career and technical fields do not require more than a certificate or an associate’s degree, career and technical education courses can be useful even to those on the four-year university path, including students preparing for professions like teaching and engineering.
Advocates also point to data from the U.S. Department of Education demonstrating that those who concentrate in career and technical education classes in high school are more likely to graduate from high school: 90 percent earned their diploma in the 2007-2008 school year, compared with about 75 percent over all. And nearly 80 percent of those students enroll in post-secondary education within two years of high school graduation.
“There’s always been a saying in the field that public attitude toward career and technical education – and I think this is accurate – [is] it’s great but for someone else’s kids,” said Kenneth Gray, an emeritus professor of education at Penn State who has written extensively about the role of career and technical courses in high school. “I’m convinced that for a whole lot of people, they would much rather have their kid go to Yale and turn out to be a bum than go into career and technical education and be successful.”
Gray added, however, that mandating it for all was not a solution. “To say everyone has to take it is as ridiculous in my view as saying everyone has to take calculus,” he said.
Last year, the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium hired an outside communications firm and launched its second major PR move in as many decades. The new publicity campaign aims to demonstrate career and technical education’s links to college and the workforce. But when Kimberly Green, the consortium’s executive director, performs her personal litmus test – chatting with people on airplanes about her job – she still gets a similar response: “I’m so glad people have a place to go that’s not … college.”
“I wouldn’t say the tide has turned,” she said. “The label is still a barrier.”
It’s not the only issue. Many San Diego parents worried about the limited amount of time in the school day, a problem even the staunchest technical education proponents recognize.
“It’s not that we were against the career technical courses themselves, we were against making them a requirement,” said Fran Shrimp, a parent leader in San Diego who organized the petition against mandating the courses. “Getting accepted into a good college is so competitive that students need to pack their schedules with the most challenging courses available just to be in the running.”
Vocational education – as it used to be called – was a means of tracking students who were not going to college. A generation ago, that education enabled grads to enter the middle class with just a high school diploma. In the 1970s and ‘80s, the economy began requiring more skilled workers and middle-class America became more convinced of the importance of college, said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. By the mid-1980s, the arguments against tracking flourished and the calls of “college for all” began.
About 10 years ago, responding to the changing economy and attempting to shed its bad reputation, vocational education became career and technical education. But advocates are still trying to cement the name change into the American lexicon. “Career and technical education meant something different than vocational education,” Green said. “It’s academics plus technical instruction.”
The quality and availability of the programs vary. At the top end, students in medical courses might spend time at a hospital, learning key vocabulary and technical skills like drawing blood. Students can learn engineering design programs on computers or spend time taking apart electronics to learn how they work. Students in cosmetology programs might study the chemistry behind hair dye.
Information technology, marketing and business management all fall under technical education’s new wide umbrella, as do professions like engineering and architecture. Even the old standards, like auto shop, require a level of academics not needed in the past to keep up with increasingly computerized car engines, Green said.
At Patrick Henry High School in San Diego, if students pass all three pre-engineering courses offered, they’ll be automatically admitted into San Diego State’s engineering program. At the high school’s teaching academy, students work with nursery school children and graduate with just two community college credits shy of earning a preschool teacher’s license.
San Diego district officials held up programs like these as examples and argued that more than 90 percent of students were already taking at least one of the 158 technical education courses the district offered. And 60 of them were approved by the state university systems to count toward college admission.
The parents were not swayed, concerned about having time in their children’s schedules for electives and Advanced Placement courses. “If the program is successful on its own, why change it?” Shrimp said. She also noted that the same set of career and technical education courses are not offered at each high school, meaning students might be relegated to classes that don't interest them.
Within a month of meeting with parents in La Jolla, the San Diego Board of Education voted to rescind the requirements.
Scott Himelstein, director of the University of San Diego’s Center for Education Policy and Law and former deputy secretary of Education for California, viewed the vote as a “major setback.” Policymakers need to gather the political courage to start promoting career and technical education, given that only a quarter of high schoolers in the state will go on to get a four-year degree, he said. Nationally, more than 30 percent of adults have at least a bachelor’s degree, according to census figures.
One compromise, according to Himelstein, is to approve more career and technical courses to count towards the University of California and California State University systems’ so-called “a-g” entry requirements. This list of courses, which San Diego and several other districts have adopted as graduation requirements, spell out what courses students must complete in high school to be eligible for admittance to the universities, including core subjects like math and English, as well as a certain number of electives.
The university systems approve courses on an individual basis, meaning each district’s biology or calculus course must get a separate approval. Ten years ago, no career and technical classes were approved for a-g, according to Gary Hoachlander, president of ConnectEd, a California group that works with nine districts to create career-oriented high school and college trajectories for students. Now, there are some 10,000 a-g courses across all the state’s districts.
The vast majority count as electives. Often career and technical science classes, such as environmental science or agricultural science, won’t count as an a-g science credit. “That’s where I think there’s still a lot of work to do,” Hoachlander said.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.