In my work as President of ConnectED, I meet with a lot of teachers, district leaders, superintendents, and community members. There’s something we all agree on: every child in this country deserves the right to a good education—and we’re failing to provide that opportunity to far too many students. In our sector, we see many different approaches move through the revolving door of policies and trends aimed at fixing this, catching the attention of policymakers, educational pundits, funders and others.
Career and technical education (CTE) is one such example that’s enjoying a recent resurgence. Long the stepchild of America’s education system, CTE is supported by business leaders as a way to prepare students for work, and by many in the educational reform movement, especially those who don’t necessarily support the “college for all” rhetoric. Inspired by John Dewey’s work a century ago, I have long believed that “education through occupations” offers one of the best strategies for making learning relevant, real, deep, and lasting—not just for some students but for all.
But CTE alone is not enough: it must be woven into a student’s larger secondary (and postsecondary) experience.
At a recent meeting on CTE at the American Enterprise Institute, Nat Malkus summarized findings from an analysis of high school transcripts from 1990 to 2013 from across the country. It showed that the percentage of students “concentrating” in CTE—i.e., taking three or more courses in a single program area—had declined dramatically from about 33 percent in 1990 to about 20 percent in 2013. Clearly, CTE is vanishing from the high school curriculum.
We will not stem, let alone reverse, this trend if CTE and the larger policy world continue to talk about CTE in isolation from the rest of the curriculum, longing for a return to a time when CTE was a more robust part of high school.
I’m not sure I believe that nostalgic perspective, but I have always fondly remembered hearing many years ago from Roy Peters, then Oklahoma’s State Director for Vocational Education: “It’s impossible to roll up your sleeves when you’re wringing your hands!” We need to stop wringing our hands over an outdated view of CTE and begin to craft a new strategy for making it a rigorous, integrated component of students’ programs of study.
To be sure, this means strengthening CTE offerings and encouraging students to take more courses. But it also means leveraging the potential of an integrated approach to infuse more real-world application into the core academics students are taking.
The simple truth is: no matter how strong we might make the three or four CTE courses students take in high school, if we don’t do something to revitalize the other twenty or so academic courses students are required to take, large numbers of students are going to continue to drop out, and too many of those who do earn a degree are going to continue to be ill-equipped for lasting success in further education and career.
From my perspective, Linked Learning—or an approach centered on college and career pathways—offers one of the most promising strategies not only for improving and expanding CTE, but also for fundamentally changing the way we engage students in math, English, science, social studies, world language, and the arts. Working in isolation, both CTE and traditional academics will continue to wilt. Together and repurposed, they could emerge as powerful transformation of learning and teaching.
Here’s an example. In Linked Learning, taking a page from CTE, we like to celebrate students’ demonstrating performance. A few years ago, at one of our year-end exhibitions of student work—involving students, teachers, parents, and employers—a group of four students from a Linked Learning Digital Media Arts Pathway were sharing their year-long senior project. Their assignment was to create and produce a two-minute video trailer that they could use to pitch a full-length documentary to studio executives.
This group of four students, working collaboratively, chose to produce a documentary on the history of racial segregation in Los Angeles. In their English class, they wrote and re-wrote the script for their video, and they also read Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man. In their social studies class, they read and discussed Brown vs. Board of Education, as well as the Kerner Commission Report on Civil Disorders. In their math class, they learned how to use means, standard deviations, and confidence intervals to assess the probability of whether differences in outcomes by race were significant or not. In their physics class, they studied properties of light and how lenses work. And in their videography class, they learned how to create a story board, use a video camera, mix sound on a sound board, edit digital recordings, and produce a final two-minute video. They were playing the video on a monitor at their table, and it was superb.
I asked them: “To whom did you get to pitch your video?”
They answered: “Oh, we got to pitch it to the Vice-President of MTV.”
“Wow!” I said. “What was the most important thing he had to tell you?”
They didn’t miss a beat. They said to me: “He told us: ‘Spelling matters!’”
Their teachers, sitting nearby, laughed. “We tell them that all the time; but until they heard that from the VP of MTV, they didn’t really believe us!”
Spelling does matter. And so does the knowledge and skill to produce a video that reflects understanding of the important voices of our time, landmark historical and social events, the appropriate use of statistics, and appreciation for the related science.
CTE alone cannot engage and inspire young people to master the knowledge and skill needed to succeed in further education, career, and life today. Nor can conventional academics. But purposely reimagined, joined in ways that complement and reinforce one another, working together to exploit the power of and, CTE and core academics can create a learning world in which all students experience the challenge and the joy of succeeding in an economy, indeed a world, that demands their very best.