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The United States Capitol. A House bill to revamp the Higher Education Act has moved out of committee for debate, while the Senate is still discussing reform ideas in committee.
Some states are waiting for Congressional reauthorization of legislation on career and technical education. Credit: Kathleen Kordek for The Hechinger Report

Inspired by demand from families, students and businesses, career and technical education is experiencing a resurgence in states across the nation.

In their plans under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), 36 states have included college and career accountability indicators, with 29 of those states identifying industry-recognized credentials (earned predominantly through career-education programs) as an indicator.

Although some state policymakers seem content to look to ESSA plans and await reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act to spur improvements, states already hold the keys to strengthening their career-education programs.

Related: Revamped and rigorous, career and technical education is ready to be taken seriously

These states can’t afford to miss this critical opportunity to take advantage of ESSA — and momentum — to build bridges to successful careers.

“The resurgence in career and technical education is both auspicious and welcome.”

Despite the gridlock in Congress, there is broad agreement on the substance of the Perkins Act, which can help support programs preparing students for entry into the workforce.

Add in the many new local and regional initiatives to develop authentic pathways for high school students, and it’s clear there are numerous reasons to celebrate.

Related: Are apprenticeships the new on-ramp to good jobs?

One topic that deserves more attention is state programs that build the underlying framework for developing, financing and sustaining secondary and postsecondary career pathways.

Unfortunately, too many state programs are not fulfilling the promise of improving students’ career readiness, expanding their access to postsecondary credentials or providing opportunities for long-term advancement and success in the workforce.

How so? First, consider how it is largely assumed that these programs are high-quality in terms of rigor and expectations, and are aligned to state and regional business demands.

Related: Workers are climbing wind turbines to the middle class

Yet spanning 16 “career clusters” and scores of individual pathways within them, most state-level programs resemble a convoluted buffet of options rather than a focused set of progressive courses and experiences leading to in-demand middle- and higher-wage jobs. The same state-level programs that support high-value advanced manufacturing or cybersecurity pathways also subsidize niche career options such as floral design and food services that lead to low-wage jobs and little hope for postsecondary credential attainment.

States can and should do better, particularly because most are spending tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in state funds to support career and technical education (aside and apart from federal and local dollars.)

Related: Out of poverty, into the middle class

One critical step states can take is to set clear goals for program outcomes and funding. Based on the work of several states with leading programs in career and technical education, ExcelinEd has identified a set of eight criteria, or “non-negotiables,” that can help ensure program quality:

1. All programs align with state and/or regional industry and labor market data.

2. Programs incorporate experiential learning and capstone experiences valued by industry.

3. Secondary-school programs of study vertically align with postsecondary programs.

4. Courses are sequential and progressive in a given program of study.

5. Secondary programs of study incorporate courses and exams eligible for postsecondary credit or hours where appropriate.

6. Course standards are robust and accurately represent the academic, technical and employability skills that learners must master.

7. Educators receive ongoing, progressive training and professional development to ensure their instruction is reflective of course standards and current industry work environments.

8. Federal, state and local funding are used to leverage and drive programmatic changes, with the goal of implementing vertically aligned education-to-career learning pathways for students.

Establishing such non-negotiables provides states a clear guide for evaluating and strengthening programs.

Related: What does it take to make it to today’s middle class?

In most cases, no additional legislation or authority is needed to engage in comprehensive improvement.

More than anything, improving these key pathways for our students merely requires planning and the political will to act on real-world data about existing outcomes, labor-market demand and wage earnings.

It also requires reaching out to state and regional business and industry leaders to understand exactly what they need — as well as partnering more closely with postsecondary institutions to ensure seamless transitions to credential attainment for students pursuing specific career pathways.

Related: Teachers want to prepare students for jobs of the future, but feel stymied

Not all program changes will be welcome. States will need to shelve, or stop funding, underperforming or misaligned programs, some of which have been firmly entrenched in local district and school offerings for decades.

At the same time, states will identify opportunities to develop new, more innovative pathways that will better prepare students for long-term advancement and success in the jobs of today and tomorrow.

The resurgence in career and technical education is both auspicious and welcome. Its ascendency depends on states’ willingness to put the practices to work for student success.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Quentin Suffren is Managing Director of Innovation Policy at ExcelinEd and co-author of the report “Putting CTE to Work for Students: A Playbook for State Policymakers.”

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