Leading for Recovery: Elevating Career and Technical Education

Wednesday, March 17, 2021
Heather Justice
Senior Director

As I reflect on what we hope the Biden administration will accomplish and, more specifically, how I think the education agenda needs to be defined, there is one topic that receives a lot of airplay but is historically poor in analysis and outcome tracking: Career and Technical Education (CTE). We’ve come a long way from the days of begging for attention and claiming that CTE is a viable path that includes postsecondary education and is not a “less than” option, but there is still plenty of room to grow. CTE could tremendously benefit from leadership and signaling at the federal level. Perkins V started to signal the need for greater systems alignment and higher bars for definitions and metrics, but more is needed to truly raise the bar. Here are some thoughts from myself as well as recommendations from my colleague, Emily Passias, two former state CTE directors, on where the administration should focus efforts for CTE.

Make Equity a Priority

We cannot shy away from CTE’s long and challenging history of vocational education deeply rooted in tracking low-income students and students of color into dead-end pathways. We must confront and be honest about it – and then work with practitioners and researchers to identify evidence-based practices to enhance equitable access to and engagement in CTE pathways. The Biden administration can play a leading role in advancing this work by providing funding to identify, evaluate, and scale equity strategies within CTE. Equity-focused initiatives, such as Rhode Island’s equity grants or Ohio’s equity labs and ambassadors, can be elevated as examples to be scaled in other places across the country with additional available resources. The federal government should also lead the way in equitable data reporting best practices by requiring the reporting of metrics that demonstrate gaps in access, persistence, and completion of programs of study that align with high-wage and high-demand occupations. Reporting on gaps for student populations is an important transparency and accountability measure necessary for progress. 

Focus on Credentials of Value

We know that not all credentials are created equal, and there are many that do not hold value in the labor market. Ignoring this concept can further actualize CTE’s past of leading underserved students into low-wage, dead-end jobs, as ESG found in our analysis of career pathway offerings in Baltimore City Schools. The Biden administration should consider extending financial aid for Non-Degree Credentials with demonstrated labor market value — and require that eligible credentials both have demand and be linked to high-wage jobs. The administration can also support states in the design of pathways with true stackability and connect this work to investment in linking K-12 and postsecondary education. 

Incentivize Linking K-12 and Postsecondary CTE Programs 

There are a few places in which secondary education and postsecondary education “collaborate” in relation to CTE. We think this is woefully inadequate and want to see true coordination and shared outcomes between the sectors. There should be seamless connections between CTE programming in K-12 and CTE programming at community colleges. It is critical to prioritize alignment with four-year institutions as well. To meet this goal, the Biden administration can provide needed resources via grants or performance-based funding for programs that connect secondary CTE to postsecondary CTE through the attainment of high-quality stackable credentials and guaranteed credit transfer. 

Invest in CTE Research. 

As the economy shifts and recovers post-pandemic, there is a prime opportunity for the Biden administration to support research that concretely demonstrates the value of CTE. The Department should use its funding and policy levers to set a CTE research agenda. Included in this agenda should be a prioritization of longitudinal impact and outcomes of CTE programs, paying specific attention to the differences in programs of study and the value of credentials. Furthermore, the administration should expand research and data gathering efforts on the impact and effectiveness of Career and Technical Student Organizations, with a focus on how these organizations are being supported and implemented within the classroom curriculum and how they are providing equitable access to all students. This is a huge area in CTE where we overly rely on anecdotes and stories about a few successful students. We need to know more about the impact of the organizations on the students in the classroom, including the impact on social capital, postsecondary enrollment, persistence, and completion, and links to workforce placement and earnings. This lens would allow state CTE directors to have a clearer argument for continued funding and support. 

Perkins V provided much-needed improvement in definitions, disaggregation of data, and better outcome aligned performance measures. The Biden administration can maximize the opportunities that Perkins V affords by incentivizing states to aim higher and explicitly connecting secondary and postsecondary systems. The administration has already signaled an interest in career pathways; now is the right time to capitalize on economic recovery momentum to drive coordinated CTE advancements forward.