May 11, 2011

Why Career & Technical Education Should Be a Priority

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Bob Regan is the Director of Worldwide Primary and Secondary Education at Adobe Systems. Bob works closely with educators, students, and school administrators to ensure that Adobe strategies and solutions align with the most pressing challenges and opportunities facing schools today.

For today’s students, the experience of going to school can feel like flying in an airplane, minus the excitement of travel. Students enter a world cut off from their own where they are asked to turn off all electronic devices. They can feel trapped, simply staring straight ahead for hours. Without a clear sense of where they are going, many U.S. students simply opt to get off the plane.

In his 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama said, “… If we want to win the future — if we want innovation to produce jobs in America and not overseas — then we also have to win the race to educate our kids.” However, the United States now graduates less than 75% of its students. Worse, in sixteen of the biggest cities, the graduation rate is less than 50%.

To win the future, the United States needs a well-educated workforce that will drive tomorrow’s innovation. We need students who graduate ready to take skilled positions in high-growth sectors of the economy. At all levels, businesses need employees that are more creative, more technical, and more connected than ever. This means that technical literacy is no longer “nice to have,” but a requirement for success.

Unfortunately, the high-skilled labor required to drive economic innovation remains elusive. The U.S. unemployment rate is currently at 8.7%, nationally. At the same time, a recent study found that 14% of employers in the U.S. reported having difficulty finding employees to fill high-skill positions, including jobs like technicians, sales people, office support, and skilled tradespeople.

While education and educators have made many tremendous strides over the years, it’s also clear that what we are still doing is not working. In political discussions, No Child Left Behind was intended to increase accountability — to ensure every child has a great teacher and has access to college. But the reality in many of our schools is quite different.

By placing so much emphasis on testing, the curriculum became centered around those tests. Since students’ day-to-day lives are vastly different from what they see on standardized tests, they have little context for the content they are asked to learn. The result: 21st century skills involving creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, and communication are devalued or absent from classrooms.

Our students deserve better, and our schools are capable of more. The ways to keep students engaged in school don’t need to come from far-flung theories. Instead, we need to look at our schools and recognize the programs that are working.

Career and Technical Education

Today’s vocational programs, often referred to as “Career and Technical Education” or CTE, have seen significant gains. The programs start with a specific career focus, such as health sciences, business, or technology. CTE programs provide students with preparation to take careers in specific fields or to continue advanced study in post-secondary programs. The courses are often project-based with outcomes aligning to skills needed for the workplace, not a multiple choice test. Students still memorize content, and they often take college preparatory courses. However, the rationale for this material is connected to the context of their courses.

A notable CTE example is the Career and Professional Education (CAPE) Academies in Florida. Implemented in 2006, the goal of the program was to address a statewide graduation rate of only 71%. The CAPE academies are small schools, often schools within schools, with a specific career focus. They are required to have an explicit industry partnership and provide industry certification, along with a college preparatory curriculum. Students in these programs earn credentials as nursing assistants, Adobe Certified Associates, or law enforcement trainees.

Disclosure: The author is employed by Adobe.

Too often, vocational programs have been thought of as alternatives to college. However, Florida has shown that CTE programs can open the door to further education. After only five years, the graduation rate is 88.3% among students enrolled in CAPE academies (and 97.4% for those graduating with technical certifications). At the same time, these students graduate with a significantly higher GPA. While the average GPA in Florida is 2.5, the average among CAPE students earning industry certification is 3.0.

The contrast between programs focused on testing and others like CTE that bring a more solid context to learning is clear. In many cases, program content is similar. However, immersing students in a specific career provides a stronger context for learning. Students can connect the rationale for learning new content to a career skill or objective. Instead of being viewed as a distraction, technology becomes a critical tool to give students 21st Century skills in creativity, critical thinking, and communications.

The Obama administration has been vocal in its support of CTE programs. In February of 2011, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that “CTE has an enormous, if often overlooked impact on students, school systems, and our ability to prosper as a nation.” He called for educators to focus on preparing all students for college and career. However, as part of the 2011 budget, the primary vehicle for funding CTE in the United States was cut by $138 million, or roughly 12% — with more cuts pending. It highlights the disconnect between political rhetoric and reality.

For our students’ success and for the future of the U.S. economy, we need to retire outdated notions of vocational programs. Cutting CTE programs that keep students engaged in school, while providing vital 21st Century skills, isn’t sound financial planning for our schools, students, or our economy. CTE has proven successful at engaging students in learning by putting subject content into a real-world context — and we need to continue to fully fund these essential programs.


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