Writing in the New York Times, Dana Goldstein tells the story of a boost to career and technical education in the state of West Virginia, which is, if not the poorest state, one of the poorest.
Career and technical education, or CTE for short, has received a bit of attention in the media, thanks to the designation “college- and career-ready” many states have applied to their adoption of the Common Core State Standards in math and English language arts. Unfortunately for students who aren’t college-bound, the “career-ready” part of that designation has been swept under the carpet a little. Schools have largely focused on saying things like “100 percent of our students are going to college.”
In West Virginia, a small group of teachers at a workshop reportedly huddled over a model of boiler like one that might be in a power plant, trying different ways of producing electricity by using coal, solar power, or other power sources. The idea is that they’ll take this professional development back to their schools and improve their CTE programs.
CTE prepares students who aren’t necessarily college-bound, at least not to a four-year college that might grant them a bachelor’s degree, for careers that don’t really require a college degree. These include a great deal of factory work, sure, but many careers in the medical field don’t really need a bachelor’s degree either.
Plenty of jobs in diverse fields, honestly, don’t require a college degree, just a solid high school education, training in the specific skills required for that career, and maybe an apprenticeship, which is often part of a vibrant CTE program in high school.
West Virginia has even set up simulated workplaces in the high schools, at which students punch in on a time clock, plan for vacation days (many of which might occur during hunting season), submit to random drug screenings, and so on.
The schools have reassigned math, English, and a few other teachers to the technical high schools, in an effort to ensure students still receive that solid high school education, but their goal isn’t college; it’s career.
President Donald Trump has emphasized the career-ready track, perhaps more than the college-ready track, having signed an executive order in June that redirects federal job training funds toward apprenticeships, in which students learn skills at actual work sites. And Democrats like CTE, too, having included support for “technical education that leads to a good job” in an “agenda” they released last month.
The actual federal budget may be lacking in terms of those funds, but the motivation is there for CTE, and states or local school districts can pick up the missing pieces. Perhaps because of the lack of federal financial support for CTE programs, the US is far behind other countries in enrolling high school students in career-prep courses: only 6 percent of US high school students were enrolled, according to US Department of Education stats, compared to, say, 59 percent in Germany and 42 percent in the UK.
And don’t get me wrong: Many CTE students eventually go on to get college degrees, simply because they’re good at what they do and need more advanced math, physics, biology, or engineering than they can get from the CTE teachers or on the job to advance in their careers. Employers who have hired graduates say they’re typically more focused on advancing in their careers than the average employee, evidenced by such things as punctuality and work quality.
But when they do go to college, if that’s in their plans, they will do so because they want to learn. They’ll want to learn because high school will have taught them that learning is something useful to them. Learning about car repair isn’t useful to me for instance, because I know a good mechanic. Likewise, knowing about gene editing or endothermic reactions isn’t useful to a car mechanic, at least if he knows a good biologist or chemist.
So why we push kids to learn algebra 2 or to write a five-paragraph essay, and then hold schools accountable for it, when it isn’t likely to be useful for the lives of the vast majority of those students, has always eluded me.