Career readiness. It is a phrase du jour in the education world and the impetus for conversations about 21st-century career and technical education programs.
What’s often missing from the conversation, however, is the sober acknowledgment that most programs are of sub-optimal quality and inadequately delivered.
Research suggests that simply taking a course or two in career and technical education for a few hours a week won’t do much for either job preparedness or academic achievement.
Merely adding more hours, though, isn’t the answer either, because more hours of poorly designed programs don’t add value.
Rather, the focus should be on ensuring that these programs are tightly integrated with real-world, commercial standards and generate job-ready or baseline skills upon which post-high-school work can build for all students.
The Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, where I serve as a research analyst, investigated the country’s strongest models — and lessons learned from abroad — and released a policy report late last month.
Here are our five key recommendations for building more meaningful, and more inclusive, programs in career and technical education:
1. Provide districts with incentives to exceed minimum standards. The creation of more robust programs requires districts to go above and beyond the minimum standards outlined in the Carl D. Perkins Act.
One way to achieve this is to award additional funds to districts that build industry partnerships, keep training relevant or offer programming consistent with local labor-market needs.
Doing so makes it more likely that participants are acquiring relevant, high-quality technical skills. Massachusetts offers a prime example of a state-based approach to high standards.
2. Ensure a seamless transition to post-secondary education. States and districts should reduce barriers for students who wish to complete their technical education training beyond high school.
We recommend two practical mechanisms.
The first is to develop formalized, comprehensive, statewide credit transfer policies between secondary and post-secondary institutions.
The second is the utilization of the early-college high-school framework, such as the P-Tech “9-14” model. The advantage here is that students ease into post-secondary coursework starting in high school, with all credits earned automatically transferred to the partnering post-secondary institution.
3. Intensive teacher training for instructors specific to career and technical education. Successful classroom leadership requires instructors specific to career and technical education to add classroom management and teaching strategies to their technical expertise.
Since most of these instructors do not come from traditional teacher-preparation programs, this often requires additional hours of intensive training. To expedite the process, districts can offer teacher training during the instructors’ first classroom year.
Additionally, instructors who are new to the field should receive mentorship from expert instructors who can provide guidance and support during the first classroom year.
4. Provide fee waivers for low-income students to take state certification exams. A credentialing exam fee should not be a barrier to work. Exam waivers and fee-reduction programs exist for the SAT, ACT, International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement exams, but similar programs for career and technical education are virtually non-existent.
It is true that federal statues limit the use of U.S. Education Department grants to academic credit assessments — but states can still partner with businesses and philanthropies to develop fee waivers for low-income students taking certification exams.
5. Reduce gender disparities in higher-wage pathways. Stereotypes and gender biases play an outsized role in the career pathways that students select. This often leads to female students’ clustering in lower-income pathways, such as cosmetology, as opposed to more lucrative, male-dominated ones, such as information technology, manufacturing and construction.
Such an imbalance limits women’s opportunity to earn higher salaries and further exacerbates gender wage gaps. To address this, states should provide financial incentives for districts to create mentorships and exploratory programs in such fields.
Furthermore, districts should create equity plans that encourage bias-free career exploration and work to reduce perceptions that may prevent women from enrolling in nontraditional, male-dominated pathways in career and technical education.
Taken together, these five recommendations can enhance the quality of programming in career and technical education, while also improving career and industry readiness for all students.
Al Passarella is a research and policy analyst with the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, with a current research focus on career and technical education and the development of alternative pathways to college and industry readiness.