Commentary: Policymakers must save career, technical education

Issue Date: June 11, 2014
By Nicole Rice and Jeremy Smith
High school agriculture students rallied outside the state Capitol in March in favor of agricultural education funding. Lack of dedicated funding threatens a variety of Career Technical Education programs. cutline
Photo/Matt Salvo

Imagine if California schools had reduced student access to science instruction by eliminating 1,500 courses, resulting in 50,000 fewer enrollments in science—all in just a single year. This would have triggered outrage by the media, the public and our elected lawmakers.

Well, this is what happened to middle and high school Career Technical Education programs and students over the course of just one year, after years of steady decline. These statistics were reported by the California Department of Education, which compiled enrollment data for the most recent school year available, 2012-13; it found that school districts reported 1,366 fewer Career Technical Education courses, resulting in an alarming reduction of 50,000 in course enrollments in CTE.

Since giving districts flexibility in spending for programs that included CTE under the Schwarzenegger administration in 2008-09, followed by the Brown administration's Local Control Funding Formula that began this year, we have witnessed the wholesale diversion of CTE resources away from their vocational purposes. And with the loss of those dedicated dollars, we have seen precipitous drops in course offerings, student enrollment and even the retention of CTE-trained instructors.

At this rate, these inspiring and life-directing programs will soon be only a memory at most California schools. And once these programs and teachers disappear, they'll never be reopened or replaced. To put it bluntly: CTE in California is in a death spiral.

We call upon California policymakers to recognize the crisis facing not only CTE programs, but the long-term health and vitality of our state's economy. It is time for them to lead in rebuilding a productive educational system that values the interests and aspirations of all students.

As a state, we should celebrate and encourage all careers and professional contributions to our diverse economy, and we should respect and provide access to a wide variety of educational experiences for every student. For many in our workforce of today, their pathway to a rewarding career began with their experiences in a Career Technical Education program that provided them hands-on, relevant exposure to industry skills and insights. For some, such training began a journey that eventuated in a college degree, while others had their eyes opened to technical careers that rival, and often exceed, the earnings of graduates of advanced degrees—and without the commensurate student debt.

The rebuilding of CTE should begin with exploratory courses in middle schools that give youth an opportunity to explore the wealth of opportunities that lie before them. Upon entering high school, students should have access to high-quality, foundational courses in a particular career pathway—for example, health, business, construction, automotive, agricultural, manufacturing, etc.—that builds and enriches their skill level and understanding. By their junior and senior years, students should be able to enroll in capstone courses that have close working partnerships with local manufacturers and building trades councils, many of which are willing to donate their expertise and tools of the trade to help build genuine pipelines into their various industry sectors.

Most 21st century career pathways will necessarily wind their way into postsecondary education and training, including apprenticeships, trade schools, community colleges and the like. Others may require four-year or even postgraduate-level education and training. But schooling at all levels should be more closely tied to the real world beyond the classroom, rather than stripped of its practical relevance.

Far more high school students drop out due to the irrelevance of the theoretical, academic-centric nature of today's course offerings than because of an inability to perform. And even the college-bound pupils lack a genuine understanding and application of their studies, mastering the memorization/regurgitation approach to earning straight A's, without an opportunity to apply what they learn in a practical or economically meaningful way.

Given the statewide importance of workforce development, state policymakers should create incentives for districts to provide such enriching CTE programs to all their students. But left to themselves, most districts will continue their focus on high-stakes testing curricula, college admissions criteria and course mandates, none of which prioritizes CTE. Proven incentive grant approaches such as state Partnership Academies and federal Perkins Grants should be used as models to drive curricular innovation and ensure industry relevance.

Preparing all high school students to enter our four-year colleges and universities is a laudable goal, but the fact is that fewer than 30 percent of our students achieve four-year degrees. We must take better care of the 70 percent who do not achieve that goal.

Nobody is well served in an environment in which a diverse variety of career pathways are devalued by Sacramento policies and budgetary priorities that continue to direct schools away from CTE. For the sake of our kids and economy, California policymakers need to address this issue now, beginning with the budget deliberations that are in full swing in our state Capitol.

(Nicole Rice is policy director of the California Manufacturers and Technology Association. Jeremy Smith serves as deputy legislative director for the State Building & Construction Trades Council of California. The organizations co-chair the Get REAL ["Relevance in Education & Learning"] Coalition.)

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