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CTE and Beyond: Informing Student Choice Through Career-Connected Learning

Posted February 20, 2020

Tag Iconcareer and technical education, college and career readiness


February is Career and Technical Education month – our annual chance to celebrate how CTE programs are helping students explore career options while preparing a next-generation workforce. To commemorate, we talked with FourPoint Partner Rudy Ruiz – who previously built career-connected readiness systems in Milwaukee and Baltimore City public schools and is helping other cities and districts do the same – about his thoughts on CTE options, opportunities, and considerations.

It seems like CTE conversations have been gaining steam in recent years, replacing a seemingly singular focus on college readiness – are you seeing that? If so, what’s fueling it?

That’s definitely the case, and it’s really being driven by the needs and interests of students and the demands of today’s economy. Career and technical education programs – and career-connected learning systems more broadly – are really about helping students find their purpose and passion so that they can enter the job market able to earn a family-supporting salary. For a lot of students, college has become a very expensive form of career exploration. While students are saddling more and more college debt, for the first time in decades, we’re seeing unemployment rates for new graduates outpacing the nation’s average and the wage gap between high school graduates and the lowest-earning college graduates shrink.[1] To combat this, we want to help students think about potential pathways earlier and in ways that attend to their different interests, then to think through what experiences they want to have in high school that might be helpful to that process.

What’s different about CTE options today? How do they compare to previous vocational technical education programs of the past? Is this a new way of saying college or career?

There really isn’t a college versus career track anymore.  As we’re thinking about what the future workforce and future of work looks like, there’s an assumption that to earn a family sustaining wage, young people will need some level of college education. Even vocational training now takes place largely on college campuses. The earlier we can get students to check their options out, the better able they will be to make smart choices that make sense for them. Career and Technical Education supports students in exploring 16 of these paths, and gives them experiences in and outside of school that help them make choices that will set them up for success right after graduation.

There’s also an opportunity to be more inclusive when it comes to how we talk and think about college for all. When people think of dual enrollment, for example, they think about students who have taken all their Advanced Placement courses and need to be admitted to college early to continue their growth. Dual enrollment should also be an option for students in CTE programs so that they can get a head start on college-level requirements and start having experiences on college campuses. Advanced options should be available to everyone because everyone’s going to need them. 

What do you think more districts might want to consider to improve students’ career readiness?

I’m really excited about some work we’re going to be supporting in Philadelphia, which is pursuing a new career-connected learning system to fuel its talent engine and drive economic growth. For places ready to really adopt career-connected learning as an economic driver and educational approach, we get to apply best practices from CTE programs at scale to give all kids exposure to great career options and help them figure out what’s important to them, what inspires them, and what makes sense as a post-high school pathway.

In middle school, this means having opportunities to connect with professionals in the community. For older students, we want to be thinking about internships, job shadows, and career visits, where – like in college visits – students get a real sense of their options and what they might like – or not – about them. We want kids to see manufacturing facilities and all of the high-tech jobs there. We want students to see that in an operating room, yes, you can be a doctor, but there are also seven other people in the room with family-sustaining careers.  And those might be good options, too. In the end, it all boils down to thinking about a broader set of experiences and supports around high school students. What do students really need to really thrive after graduation? How can we make sure those happen across systems for all kids?

[1] Alexandre Tanzi and Katia Dmitrieva. In Hot U.S. Jobs Market, Half of College Grads are Missing Out. Bloomberg. Feb 14, 2020.

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