“The neglected stepchild of education reform,” Career Technical Education, must be reinvented, said Education Secretary Arne Duncan at the announcement of the Harvard Pathways to Prosperity report. For all the talk about college and career readiness, educating students for careers has been an “afterthought,” Duncan conceded.
Duncan’s vision CTE 2.0 looks a lot like “college for all.” He assumes that all students should take college-prep classes, whether they want to earn a bachelor’s degree or a vocational certificate in a trade.
Students need the same set of skills for both college and the workplace, particularly in reading and math. And it’s the job of the K-12 system to prepare them for both options. In our globally-competitive, knowledge-based economy, all Americans are likely to face the challenge of a lifetime of continued learning. And all need a common core of skills.
Does the “common core of skills” include writing a research paper, analyzing literature and mastering trigonometry? Duncan’s CTE 2.0 doesn’t seem to offer a less academically demanding path for less capable students.
Too often, vocational educational programs have perpetuated inequality. We all know that when there were two tracks, students of color and those growing up in poverty were far more likely to be pushed into the “work” track — and far less likely to get access to the college-ready track. Many programs were considered to be dumping grounds for students tracked with weaker academic skills.
Many 21st-century jobs will call for “middle-skill” workers with more than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor’s degree, Duncan said. The Education Department will focus CTE funding on high-demand, high-wage occupations.
Doing CTE right will require “a huge force field of information, encouragement, and guidance that will help disadvantaged kids get the same well-informed options, and have the same high expectations, as their peers with more social capital,” writes Catherine Gewertz on Curriculum Matters.
The risks of getting it wrong are real: CTE could be a shiny new name for a low-level, go-nowhere track for low achievers. But we do need to offer realistic pathways to adulthood for average and below-average students.
Edutopia’s Schools That Work report on Career Technical Education shows how several California schools are merging career tech with college prep.