DA op-ed: Let’s lead in career education

In a time of historically low unemployment, it’s easy to lose sight of the urgency of preparing our students for a rapidly changing world. At San Antonio ISD, we are reinventing our approach to CTE, focusing on programs that lead to in-demand, high-wage careers.
By: | July 15, 2019
Pedro Martinez is the superintendent of the San Antonio Independent School District in Texas, and a member of Chiefs for Change.

America’s international competitors know that technology and automation are driving rapid changes in the global economy—and they’re preparing their children for increasingly sophisticated, continually evolving jobs.

In Germany, Switzerland, and Finland, for instance, the majority of high school students take a concentrated series of career and technical education (CTE) courses—without giving up rigorous academics. In contrast, only about 6 percent of American students enroll in a substantive, coherent series of CTE courses focused on a particular field. We must do better.

A report from Chiefs for Change, a bipartisan network of state and district education chiefs (of which I am proud to serve on the board) argues that we need to re-envision and strengthen CTE to prepare students for both college and careers. Otherwise, our students’ skills will be under-matched with the demands of tomorrow’s economy.

Our experience in San Antonio makes clear the need for a new movement to improve CTE and bolster the opportunities these programs can offer students.

Reinvention

In our district, where the median household income is about $30,000, students were setting off ill-prepared on their journeys after high school—some ending up in “low-skills” jobs with no clear career trajectory.

Others made their way to four-year colleges, but struggled financially and dropped out, left with a mountain of debt and no degree.

So, we are reinventing our approach to CTE, focusing on programs that lead more directly to in-demand, high-wage careers. We’re building on the understanding that as jobs change, students’ skills must be adaptable as well—and that all our young people can benefit from both rigorous academics and real-world career experiences.

We are reinventing our approach to CTE, focusing on programs that lead more directly to in-demand, high-wage careers.

We’ve adopted a view much more in keeping with how young people live their working lives now—one that sees on- and off-ramps between stints in education and work, as students come back to school to “skill up.” We’re providing greater opportunities for them while they are still in high school.

Hundreds of our students now take college-level coursework aligned with career paths in local industries, and we’ve embarked on building a set of career-focused schools and programs within our district, each specific to a particular field. At our CAST Tech High School in San Antonio, for example, industry partners also guarantee students internships and mentorships, while students can earn up to 30 college credits, and even the coveted “Red Hat Certification” in cybersecurity.

In addition, we’ve formed deeper relationships with local businesses and community colleges so that learning experiences will stay relevant to a rapidly changing working world. And we’ve built a curriculum with guidance from employers, including an emphasis on “soft skills” such as working well with a team, that can matter even more to students’ success than trade-specific skills.

I’m delighted that even in these early days, we’re seeing significant academic progress for our students.

Quality improvements

The Chiefs for Change report offers additional wisdom for school districts and states. It calls for improvements in the quality and relevance of CTE courses everywhere by engaging far more deeply with local business and industry, nonprofit, economic development, and colleges. It argues for schools and communities to provide much better advising for students and their families about education and career paths. And it calls for easing students’ transition from high school to college or work, particularly through dual-enrollment programs in which students earn college credit in high school.

The urgency of making these changes is rising. Already, our nation faces deep shortages of workers for “middle-skills” jobs that require more than high school but less than a college degree. And increasingly, automation will mean not the disappearance of jobs, but a shift in the nature of jobs, from doing rote tasks to running the robots that do them. Today, our workforce ranks ninth in the world in its readiness for that change, behind some of our competitors.

The mismatch between jobs and skills due to educational shortfalls hurts our economy. Worse, it hinders students—especially students from low-income communities like ours—in building the kind of careers that will give them stability and let them support a family. It’s a matter of justice and opportunity that’s fundamentally American to improve these opportunities for students.

It’s easy in a time of historically low unemployment to lose sight of the urgency of preparing our students for a rapidly changing world. History teaches that would be a mistake. In a global economy, jobs will follow education. For the sake of our children’s prosperity, let’s do what it takes to catch up and lead.

Pedro Martinez is the superintendent of the San Antonio Independent School District in Texas, and a member of Chiefs for Change.