Career and technical education must be integrated with academic coursework

Gary Hoachlander and Christopher J. SteinhauserNovember 24, 2015Gary Hoachlander, ConnectEd presidentYoung people growing up in California will face stiff competition for jobs when they enter the workforce. Lasting success in the rapidly changing world of work requires ever increasing levels of proficiency with technical knowledge and skills. And the future prosperity of our state depends on a highly skilled workforce able to compete with the rest of the world.
Fortunately, career and technical education – once called vocational education – is enjoying a resurgence of interest and support in California, with an additional $900 million included in this year’s state budget. Just two weeks ago, the superintendent of public instruction gave school districts until Nov. 30, 2015 to apply for grants to develop and enhance high-quality career technical education programs.
This is good news. But this infusion of funds into CTE also presents us with an important choice. Will we perpetuate old approaches to CTE – programs largely focused on acquiring narrow, entry-level occupational skills isolated from the rest of students’ educational experience? Or will we commit to making CTE integral to the larger secondary and postsecondary education systems in California – connecting CTE courses to core academic courses in math, science, English, social studies, the arts and world languages, and stressing real-world application and problem-solving throughout the curriculum?
Chris Steinhauser, Long Beach Unified superintendentThe case for a narrow approach to CTE, separate from an academic curriculum, is often based on the premise that “not everyone goes to college.” Therefore, the argument goes, we need an educational alternative for the students who, by desire or by necessity, go directly to work after high school graduation. But advocating for CTE as an alternative to academic courses targeted only for the non-college bound does a grave disservice to those who don’t go to college, as well as to those who do.
Lasting success in today’s evolving economy increasingly depends on higher levels of academic proficiency, regardless of whether one intends to pursue education after high school. The ability to problem-solve, think critically, communicate, collaborate, design and innovate is essential in our globalized economy. Neither CTE nor traditional academic coursework alone can deliver these outcomes.
We need a new approach that joins together CTE and core academics. That approach would encourage teachers of career and technical courses and those teaching academic courses to work together to align their coursework and jointly teach cross-disciplinary projects that tackle real-world problems. Both CTE and academic teachers would embrace workplace learning opportunities in partnership with employers, to help young people understand the breadth and depth of career opportunities in California’s economy. Students would learn what working professionals actually do, and how they apply their knowledge and skills every day.
One of the most promising approaches to achieving this integration is Linked Learning, an approach being used in more than 40 communities throughout California. Linked Learning engages students by making education relevant and rigorous. It brings together strong academics, career-based classroom learning, real-world workplace experience and personalized student support. Linked Learning connects coursework and technical training to career pathways such as digital media arts, engineering, green energy, health sciences, and law and justice.
Linked Learning recognizes that whatever students’ postsecondary and career aspirations happen to be, they will benefit from a program of study that promotes academic proficiency, mastery of technical knowledge and skill, and opportunities to connect and apply the two. An aspiring architect will be a better designer with exposure to carpentry and electrical systems; an aspiring carpenter or contractor will be a better builder with some understanding of engineering and principles of design.
Californians can create a new vision for learning and teaching in California’s schools and postsecondary institutions. We can choose to end the isolation of CTE from academics and create a new approach that integrates the two, leveraging the best of both worlds and making each mutually reinforcing of the other.
Unfortunately, the new money available for CTE neither encourages nor requires integration. District superintendents need to make sure that their applications for Career Technical Education Incentive Grants maximize the integration of CTE and academic courses. Never before has it been more important that our schools deliver the knowledge and skills needed for career success. Our young people deserve from us the same kind of innovation and critical thinking that we ask of them.
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Gary Hoachlander is President of ConnectEd: The California Center for College and Career, based in Berkeley. Christopher J. Steinhauser is Superintendent of Long Beach Unified School District.
The opinions expressed in this commentary represent those of the authors. EdSource welcomes commentaries representing diverse points of view. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.
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