Gone are the days when a mechanic can pop the hood of a car, take a look around and figure out what to do. Today’s auto shop graduates use diagnostic software to determine a vehicle’s problem, and then must explain the solution coherently, in a way that all customers will understand.
Vocational education used to be considered low-tech and non-academic—more about wrenches and grease than calculus and coding. Not anymore. Career and technical education now requires nearly as much ELA and math as any other degree.
The lines are blurring, and for good reason.
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“Fixing a car cannot be done by your backyard mechanic anymore” says Stephanie Simon, director of instructional design and development at Moore Norman Technology Center in Norman, Oklahoma.
Mechanics aren’t the only ones who must master advanced technology. Manufacturing plants are highly technical, laden with robotics. The culinary arts require a scientific understanding of environmental sustainability. Healthcare technicians must handle remote heart monitors and other advanced devices.
As technology spreads deeper into trades, the whole notion of “vocational” is becoming a thing of the past. High schools must develop programs to ensure graduates have the solid STEM and communication skills to keep up with the needs and expectations of employers.
Don’t hide the geometry
The state of Oklahoma funds career technology schools that operate independently from the traditional public K12 system. Feedback from industry partners has steered the schools toward a rigorous focus on literacy as well as STEM, says Jeanette Capshaw, deputy superintendent at Moore Norman Technology Center.
The center’s instructors often have backgrounds in the fields they teach, rather than in traditional education. Instructional coaches, who are certified English and math teachers, help infuse academic curriculum into technical courses, which lets students make connections between CTE and what they are learning in their academic classes.
For example, automotive students learn to write competently because their notes often appear on customer invoices.
“And in carpentry there is a lot of geometry” Simon says. “Instructors tell students what an obtuse triangle is so they can go back to the classroom and tie it all together with the right words. In the past, the theory was to not let the students know they were learning math because that would scare them away.”
Educators can sneak all the pillars of learning into most CTE lessons, says Gary Daniels, a former career-tech educator and current consultant for the educational products company Amtek. Math, science and ELA were all part of a rocket-building class he taught at his former school.
“Rocket-building, with its angles and dimensions, teaches science and math” he says. “But students were also required to research the history of rockets and create a brochure, bringing ELA skills to the fore.”
Academic STEM skills are essential for CTE graduates because many will go on to some type of postsecondary education, adds Stephen DeWitt, deputy executive director of the Association for Career and Technical Education.
The top three CTE fields require education beyond high school, but less than a four-year college degree, DeWitt says, citing research from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. By 2024 the top three CTE positions will be wind turbine service technician, occupational therapy assistant and physical therapy assistant, the bureau says.
Kindergarten to careers
Many districts no longer wait until high school to focus on career pathways that tie CTE professions with STEM academics, says Chris King, CTE director at Cumberland County School District in Tennessee. At Cumberland, 56 percent of the students graduate in a CTE concentration, such as welding, culinary arts, construction, criminal justice and health.
“We’ve blurred the lines so everyone is going from kindergarten to a job” he says. Cumberland’s elementary teachers play a key role in getting the students in that mindset, King says.
All students in third through fifth grade rotate through agriculture, STEM and human services units. Then, all seventh-graders are given an occupational assessment to see where their aptitude and interests lie. From there, they can try out classes in their fields of interest.
Eighth-graders attend a career fair with representatives from local businesses and tour their high schools to get an idea of career programs they can join.
“Of course, some change their minds, others expand their horizons and some students consider two or three different careers” King says.
The idea is to have students thinking not just about careers, but about the education needed to get there—and as early as possible.
For example, King says, future scientists will need a higher level of English skills so they can write funding proposals for experiments. Aspiring construction workers should understand geometry, but may not need pre-calculus.
But only 22 to 23 percent of occupations call for a four-year degree, while 75 percent require something else, such as a two-year degree or a post-high school apprenticeship, King says.
The local business community played a big role in building Cumberland’s CTE program. Many members of the community participate in a business advisory council that meets twice per year to give its recommendations on what’s needed in the local workforce.
For example, the district implemented EMT and pre-nursing classes after the council indicated persistent shortages in those fields.
“There are 6 million jobs in the skills area that are not filled and have a starting salary of $62,000 a year” King says. “You can make a great living doing something that doesn’t require a college degree.”
Pave a pathway
Students at Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District in North Carolina also begin CTE journeys in middle school, where they experience multiple career sectors. As they move into high school, their CTE choice becomes a four-year pathway that includes work-based programs, job shadowing and internships.
Core academic classes are still required, but the CTE program shapes students’ class load.
Ultimately, students graduate with certifications that have value to employers, says Akeshia Craven-Howell, associate superintendent for student assignment and school choice.
“We want students to see a pathway that goes directly to a two-year degree program” she says. “There are a lot of ‘middle jobs’ that don’t require a college degree, but do require some education beyond high school.”
The district urges students to complete their chosen four-year CTE pathway, even if they decide not to go into that field. For employers, there is a lot of value in employees who have been able to persist through a four-year program, Craven-Howell says.
“It shows teamwork, collaboration, communication” she says. “The students have industry credentials that, even if they’re not useful in the area they go into, is r©sum© building. It’s something that you’ve earned in addition to your diploma.”
While a pathway offers authentic skills needed in the workforce, each also contains transferable skills. If a student is on a welding career track, but later decides they prefer healthcare, their core education in math, science and English will be sufficient for them to transfer.
The programs pay off in terms of higher-than-average graduation rates, Craven-Howell says. “People think of CTE as vocational, but that’s not where it is anymore” she says. “Very few economically sustainable pathways don’t require technology.”
Shawna De La