The New Reality of Career and Technical Education
Overcoming tired stereotypes to promote business and industry programs in advanced fields
BY KIMBERLY GREEN/School Administrator, August 2018

Kimberly Green
About five years ago, a small group of businesses approached the staff at a suburban high school in central Tennessee with an unusual request: Would they consider launching a program of study in mechatronics, a multidisciplinary field of science combining electronics with various engineering disciplines?

It’s a subject one would not expect to encounter in a secondary school curriculum, so Oakland High School, located in Murfreesboro, convened an advisory group of industry representatives and education leaders. They explored the intriguing prospect of building into a high school education a talent pipeline of qualified employees in an in-demand sector.

In fall 2013, the program was ready for launch. Oakland students could take courses in their home high school while working on advanced machines and robots in a world-class laboratory backed by investments from area businesses. Those completing the mechatronics program were promised a leg up on their college admissions, along with course credits that would qualify them for advanced postsecondary coursework early on as college students.

The graduates also would earn a globally recognized Siemens Level 1 certification, positioning them for employment as mechatronic engineers in a robust industry right in their backyards.

The program’s developers encountered only one problem: Students weren’t enrolling.

Beyond Stereotypes
What they first bumped into were decades of old stereotypes. When you think of high schoolers preparing for careers, what should come to mind is career technical education. CTE today serves more than 11 million high school and college students, providing learners with the academic, technical and employability skills, knowledge and training to succeed in careers of their choosing. CTE programs prepare students for postsecondary education and the world of work by combining rigorous academic coursework with real-world skill building and subject-matter mastery.

Despite a lot of hard work in elevating the quality of CTE programs, along with efforts to rebrand this field of study, many parents and students still view CTE as an educational option for “those other kids,” a lesser track for students with few aspirations beyond high school. In addition, there are long-held but often inaccurate beliefs that CTE prepares students only for careers that are dirty and low-skilled and offer limited growth potential.

This couldn’t be further from reality. CTE prepares students for a full spectrum of options in the world of work. Students involved in CTE have a lower dropout rate and enroll in postsecondary education at a rate on par with non-CTE students, according to a recent report, “Linking the Timing of Career and Technical Education Coursetaking With High School Dropout and College-Going Behavior.” Despite these strong outcomes, the enrollment rate has remained relatively flat despite the soaring demand for employees in information technology, health care and manufacturing.

To address this perception gap, Advance CTE, with support from the Siemens Foundation, commissioned a national survey to explore the attitudes of parents and students currently involved in career and technical education, as well as prospective CTE parents and students. We wanted to better understand how to communicate the many benefits of CTE.

The findings are exciting, and they can help us all better understand what motivates students to enroll in CTE programs and what is keeping them from choosing CTE as an option for their education. What many believed anecdotally — that CTE works for students and their parents — now is backed up by national data. In fact, students enrolled in CTE programs are more than twice as likely to report they are satisfied with their education as compared to those not involved in CTE, as highlighted in our organization’s 2017 report “The Value and Promise of Career Technical Education: Results from a National Survey of Parents and Students.” They’re more satisfied with nearly every indicator we tested, including students’ opportunities to learn real-world skills and the quality of their instructors and classes.

Students in the mechatronics program of study at Oakland High School in Murfreesboro, Tenn., teach a robot to palletize.

This research also highlighted that students and their parents not involved in CTE want more of the opportunities that CTE has to offer. Eighty-six percent of parents say they want their child to learn more real-world skills in high school, while 82 percent of those enrolled in CTE report being satisfied with their ability to learn those skills, compared to only 52 percent of non-CTE students.

So if CTE works for students, and students and their parents want more of what CTE offers in high school, how do we better communicate the value and promise of CTE?

Talking Points
Some of our best advocates, from employers to school counselors to policymakers, talk about career and technical education in a way that doesn’t resonate with parents or students. Too often, CTE is pitted against college, touted as an alternative pathway for those without postsecondary aspirations. However, this research found that college is overwhelmingly a post-high school goal for students in CTE and their parents. Eighty-five percent think that getting a college degree is important.

With two-thirds of jobs now requiring some postsecondary education, CTE must not be marketed as a terminal program that lands jobs for students right out of high school as an alternative to college. The notion that CTE leads to both college and careers is critically important.

A somewhat surprising finding from the research is that passion trumps paycheck when considering future careers. Ninety-three percent of parents and students said that finding a career that the student feels passionate about was important, while 87 percent lent importance to holding a job that pays well. CTE has the unique ability to help students find out what they love and are good at before graduating high school.

Along with finding their purpose, students and parents alike were swayed by CTE’s ability to provide real-world skills. When reading more about CTE, they honed in on the specifics: CTE’s hands-on experiences, practical knowledge, internships, networking, leadership opportunities, career exploration and confidence building. These were major selling points.

Key Messengers
Students and parents identified school counselors, teachers and fellow CTE students and alumni as the most trusted sources of information about CTE. Students and parents were particularly interested in how CTE works and what it looks like within their school systems and communities, and those closest to CTE programs are the ones they trust the most. Still, all who advocate on CTE’s behalf should be knowledgeable about how best to communicate with students and parents.

At Oakland High School in Murfreesboro, Tenn., the mechatronics program serves as a model of arming advocates with the right information to promote student enrollment in CTE. The Oakland educators had the daunting task of persuading parents and students that their view of manufacturing was outdated and that today’s programs equip students with the unique skills that will serve them throughout their career.

By partnering with business and industry, the program’s leaders took the initiative to break down stereotypes. Students and parents gained insights into what a career in mechatronics looks like, along with the tangible benefits of traveling down the path the school had built for them.

As a result, all students have graduated during the last three years with an industry-recognized credential. Meanwhile, Oakland’s mechatronics program cannot keep up with demand. Five years since launching, the school has a long waiting list of students eagerly awaiting a spot.

KIMBERLY GREEN is executive director of Advance CTE in Silver Spring, Md. Twitter: @KimGreenCTE

Additional Resources
Advance CTE has worked with four states in 2017 (Indiana, Maryland, New Jersey and Washington) and four in 2018 (Colorado, Idaho, North Dakota and New Hampshire) to pilot its research findings related to increasing understanding among parents and students of the benefits of career and technical education.

They’ve done this through a series of onsite and virtual recruitment and communications strategies.

Education leaders can find out how to use this research in their own communities at