Today’s students will face complex challenges when they enter the workforce. Knowing how to solve problems, work collaboratively, think critically and innovatively, and communicate effectively are essential skills. Career and technical education (CTE – formerly known as vocational education) is proving to be one of the most effective educational approaches to ensuring that students learn these 21st century skills alongside technical skills and academics.
The economic benefits of these programs—both for individuals and society—are compelling. Students in CTE programs graduate in much higher numbers than other high school students.[i] CTE offers a lower-cost option for students to acquire the skills they will need to fill the well-paying jobs that exist in high-demand sectors of our economy. And recent studies in Tennessee, Washington, and Wisconsin point to a high rate of return of CTE programs to state economies in the form of annual tax revenues.
CTE programs can also help meet community needs. At Westinghouse High School in Pittsburgh, the city, its police and fire departments, families, school staff, and the teachers union came together to launch a public safety CTE program last year.[ii] The program, with seed money from the AFT Innovation Fund, prepares students for careers in firefighting, emergency medical services and law enforcement. Students will progress toward good, civic-minded jobs, and the program will help diversify these workforces to better reflect the communities they serve.
High-quality programs focus on the needs of high-growth industries at both the national and local level, such as healthcare and Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields.[iii] Healthcare occupations are expected to make up 7 of the 20 fastest growing occupations, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The STEM CTE cluster prepares students for careers in engineering and computer science – critical areas for the economic future of our country. Traditional vocational education programs have been transformed into 21st century CTE programs. For example, agriculture has diversified its offerings over time so that students can now study aquaculture and plant pathology, while those interested in the business side can pursue sales and management.
One of the reasons CTE is so successful is that it employs project-based learning (PBL) as a method of instruction.[iv] This approach is more likely than traditional means of instruction to engage students because it gives a real-world context for learning, based on students’ own interests. Core content is presented through rigorous, relevant, hands-on learning. Projects tend to give students more choice when it comes to demonstrating what they know but they require that students work in teams to research problems, construct their own solutions and defend their choices. All these activities engage higher-order thinking skills.
[ii] AFT Innovation Fund, Collaborating to Expand CTE Offerings, https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/if_pft-cte_2017.pdf