CTE programs engage learners while incorporating strong general education requirements

High-quality CTE may help propel students to postsecondary education and prepare them for the flexibility the future will require.

cte manchester school of technology
Michelle Strout, Manchester School of Technology business teacher, teaches a freshman soft skills class. Photo by Sarah Gonser for The Hechinger Report

Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs like those at Manchester School of Technology (MST) are helping prepare students for college and career by weaving rigorous general education academics into industry-driven courses.

From Manchester Ink Link:

As traditional blue-collar industries decline across the country, the casualties of automation and offshoring, they are increasingly being replaced by skilled service jobs such as those in health care, information technology and finance, according to research by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. While good middle-class jobs are disappearing for people with only high-school diplomas, New Hampshire, with its workforce aging, is struggling to fill 17,000 jobs, many of them in skilled occupations.

And it’s only going to get worse. The state is losing its youth. Nearly 50 percent of New Hampshire’s college-going high school graduates are leaving the state. A significant factor is that college education in New Hampshire is the priciest in America. Those who leave seeking a more affordable education often do not return to the state to work, live and start families.

High-quality CTE, experts hope, will address many of these issues with retooled, up-to-date programs that help propel students to postsecondary education and, in the process, give them more in-state connections and prepare them not only for in-demand jobs but for the flexibility the future will require.

But career and technical education is in some ways still caught in the shadow of what experts call “grandpa’s vocational school.” Historically, such programs were limited to a handful of skilled trades that did not necessarily lead to well-paying jobs; students were separated into vocational and nonvocational categories early in their academic careers…

At MST, where students may study a wide range of sought-after careers, from game design and aeronautical engineering to HVAC and nursing, teachers and administrators are working overtime to innovate and prove the school’s worth, hoping to both increase and highlight the value of CTE in today’s job economy. Principal Karen Hannigan Machado travels annually to Washington to secure her school’s $650,000 allotment of Perkins funding (those funds are “just a drop in the bucket,” she said). Teachers and school counselors visit local middle schools to evangelize about MST’s college and career opportunities, and they organize open houses and special events to coax local businesses to provide internships for students.

“We need to make sure parents are educated about what we can offer,” said Hannigan Machado. They need to understand “that CTE is not for kids who are dummies, or don’t go to college. Every program here, we encourage kids to go to college or earn a certification.”

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MST had an impressive graduation rate of 94 percent last school year. In a pattern similar to other high schools in the city, 37 percent of its graduates entered four-year colleges, 15 percent enrolled in two-year colleges and certification programs and 21 percent went directly into jobs.

But its academic achievement appears weak by other standard measures. On last year’s SAT examination, just 21 percent of the school’s 11th-graders scored “proficient” or above in math, compared to 28 percent in the state; in science, 15 percent scored “proficient” or above, compared to 37 percent in the state. Hannigan Machado attributes these low scores to growing pains — the school only recently adopted federal rules for CTE performance indicators and just started to require SAT testing. “It is a difficult thing to meet all that is required federally while also trying to provide what is needed for students locally.”

Meanwhile, Hannigan Machado continues her big push to get academic and CTE teachers to collaborate closely in order to find new ways of engaging students, especially struggling learners. “We’re asking teachers more and more to work together on projects, so they can complement each other, provide more opportunities for students to connect with what’s being taught,” she said…

[The] approach of threading together technical and academic learning has allowed Hannigan Machado to get creative to keep students moving forward. For example, when 17-year-old Christian Lacoss repeatedly failed his MST biology class, instead of enrolling yet again in the same class, he is now among a group of students participating in a new ecology class taught by another fledgling teacher collaboration — this time between the landscaping and horticulture teacher and the biology teacher.

Just a few months into the school year, Lacoss ticks off projects he’s worked on so far: a monarch butterfly assignment; creating his own classroom wetland project based on observations from a real-life wetland; and a unit inspired by a field trip to a waste-water treatment plant. If he masters the content, this ecology class will earn Lacoss his biology credit. More importantly, the class has him engaged and reaching benchmarks.

“I was doing really poorly last year. I guess I just felt lazy and didn’t really know what to do about it,” he said. “But this year I’m doing so much better. Something just clicked for me. I love learning by doing stuff. I can’t sit still at a desk and read a book.”

Hannigan Machado acknowledges that schools such as MST are not for everyone, especially for students seeking a traditional high school experience. “The kids who come here come because they need something different. Sometimes they get here and say: ‘This isn’t for me, it’s too much work.’ Other kids thrive on it,” she said. “Often, it’s the kids who hated school and hated the traditional model of learning. They come here and they blossom.” (She is quick to add, though, that her students must meet high standards — a 3 on a scale of 1 to 4 — in order to pass a class and graduate.)

Nationally, there’s some evidence that the efforts of educators to refocus the career and technical model as a pathway to postsecondary education are working. All 50 states and the District of Columbia report higher graduation rates for CTE students than for other students. Still, critics caution that, as the job economy evolves to favor greater levels of education and training, workers need to be equipped with a level of elasticity — the ability to pivot, stay current with new job skills and retrain if necessary — that is not necessarily built into the CTE model.

“With CTE, there’s often this view that if we can just get them some skills, inject them into the job market, then everything’s going to be fine,” said Eric Hanushek, the Paul and Jean Hanna senior fellow in education at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. “But what we’re not taking into account is that these people will need to learn new things over time, as they age. To me, this means we cannot afford to avoid providing children with a very strong general education where people develop the cognitive skills and learning capacity that’s needed as people age in the workforce.”

Another concern: Some say that the pathways to careers as envisioned by CTE programs in states and school districts create a flawed model for preparing young people for future jobs. Many states, including New Hampshire, rely on a network of 16 career clusters that, cumulatively, represent 79 career pathways. Among the clusters are areas of study such as Agriculture, Food & Natural Resources; Transportation, Distribution & Logistics; and Architecture & Construction.

Instead of this one-size-fits-all list, critics say, states and regions should examine their strategic advantages — what their real labor market opportunities are — and work backward to ultimately prepare young people for in-demand jobs.

“It’s like any massive effort of this sort, by the time you get the information to print, it’s probably obsolete,” said James Stone, director of the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education, Southern Regional Education Board. “Ultimately, strong career pathways need to begin with the end in mind: How can we help every young person become a productive adult?”

In the trenches, Hannigan Machado says the need to meet local workforce demand is also a tricky balancing act with student interest and enrollment. Ensuring that MST is meeting Manchester’s future job needs is a process that is overseen by the Department of Education and by advisory boards made up of local industry and business stakeholders. For example, since the city does not have a thriving tourism industry, the school no longer offers a hospitality program. On the other hand, strong local manufacturing and health care job sectors recently led to new pathways at MST in manufacturing and health science.

For now, as every high school in the Manchester School District fights to keep up enrollment and funding, Hannigan Machado is laser-focused on preventing further teacher and program cuts at MST.

Source: With shortage of skilled workers, career and tech ed is ready to be taken seriously | Manchester Ink Link