In a recent commentary from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank, organization president Chester Finn opined that high school diplomas and four-year college credentials are not enough to equip students with the skills needed to land jobs and meet the needs of employers.
Our contribution to this discussion is below. Visit Fordham’s Web site to view the entire discussion and add to the conversation.
Finn wrote that “Somewhere between the dead-end of old-style vocational high schools and the fashionable but ill-advised ‘college for everyone’ campaign is a course of action that will actually equip young Americans for both successful citizenship and the real economy that they will inhabit.” We absolutely agree. However, what Finn does not mention is that education programs that balance those needs for employability skills and higher-level learning are in fact available in the United States through Career Technical Education (CTE).
Many CTE leaders across the nation have been spearheading the transformation of “old-style” vocational education into more rigorous, comprehensive CTE. Today, progressive CTE programs connect directly to postsecondary education and the workforce to meet industry demands and prepare students with high-level knowledge, skills, and credentials.
Finn’s notions of vocational education are formed by existing, but also well-expired, approaches to education and training. In the days of the industrial era, shop classes that prepared students for the assembly line served their purpose. However, since then, CTE leaders have been charging ahead with a new vision for CTE to meet current demands, and schools like Biotechnology High School (BTHS) in Freehold, New Jersey are leading the way.
BTHS focuses on teaching students knowledge and skills in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields through research, critical thinking, technology, and teamwork. The school partners with pharmaceutical companies across the state to provide students with internships that are directly related to their coursework. In addition to these work-based experiences, all junior and senior students receive rigorous academic preparation through International Baccalaureate (IB) classes. The demanding blend of academic and technical instruction works – every BTHS graduate from the class of 2011 entered a 4-year degree program and 85 percent are pursuing STEM majors. The school’s efforts were recognized nationally last year when Newsweek named BTHS one of the “Best High Schools in America.” In fact, a total of seven New Jersey CTE schools made that Newsweek list. CTE leaders are working to bring all CTE programs aligned and up to speed to meet our nation’s evolving needs.
Finn’s concerns about student preparation parallel those of employers across the country in industries such as advanced manufacturing and STEM. Employers in these fields lament that the kinds of workers they need to hire, knowledgeable workers with specific technical skills, are unavailable despite high unemployment rates. This is where CTE provides value. Many CTE school leaders partner with business and industry organizations to develop programs that teach students the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in the current, emerging, and projected market. CTE prepares students for high-demand fields such as health care, energy, and manufacturing by providing real-world experience guided by organizations that are active in the field.
And CTE is serving students entering all levels of higher education. As Finn noted, last year’s Pathways to Prosperity report showed that only 30 percent of jobs by 2018 will require a bachelor’s degree and fewer will demand only a high school diploma. CTE aligns high school and college programs so that students are ready for college – from two- or four-year programs to technical schools that lead to certifications and/or diplomas – and prepared to meet the demands of business and industry.
In the past, vocational education programs delivered mostly technical skills to students who often entered the workforce immediately after high school. Over the decades, however, it has become apparent that most students need more than a high school diploma to obtain a solid career and earn family-sustaining wages. There is certainly more work to be done, but it is important to note that the “bold makeover” of vocational education to rigorous CTE is taking place.