Equity Must Be Center Stage in ‘New’ Career & Technical Education

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We need to understand the role of career and technical education (CTE) programs in creating transformative solutions around education, equity and poverty with the July 25 congressional passage of the Perkins act, the federal law that provides direction and standards for CTE.

CTE includes a range of activities that help secondary and postsecondary students gain the technical and career readiness skills required to succeed in the labor market. Participation in CTE can give students access to career exploration, internships and work-based learning opportunities like apprenticeships. Funded through a mix of federal, state and local resources, these programs can be a strategic part of addressing poverty and providing pathways to postsecondary education and the workforce.

CTE: Kisha Bird (headshot), director of youth policy at Center for Law and Social Policy, project director for Campaign for Youth, smiling woman with long braids, dark outfit.

Kisha Bird

This is the promise of these programs. However, CTE has a complicated and dangerous history for black and brown students, as well as girls, young women and low-income students. Formerly known as voc(ational) ed(ducation), these programs were historically low quality, with little academic rigor and mainly aimed at preparing students for low-wage jobs. Even more egregious was the legacy these programs had of being where low-income students and students of color were tracked, where “race and class, as opposed to measured achievement through test scores, determined the tracks into which students were sorted.”

In recent years, CTE has been experiencing a renaissance. It is becoming a top education policy priority for governors and legislators as they seek to better understand jobs of today and tomorrow and become more competitive places for business. For example, there are 30 million good jobs across the nation that don’t require a BA, but do require some postsecondary education. These jobs are both traditional blue-collar jobs and financial services and health care jobs.

New legislation better, but has gaps

States are conducting education campaigns aimed at rebranding particular career paths, and a number of business leaders are touting the benefits of CTE. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard in meetings around the country with practitioners, educators and advocates that “this is not your mom and dad’s CTE.” What exactly does that mean? And does that mean the “new” CTE adequately serves low-income students and students of color?

The previous Perkins law had limited accountability requirements around quality and equity, beyond addressing gender, to adequately assess equity gaps that consider race. The newly reauthorized bill has improvements. It provides policy levers that includes data transparency, requiring outcome data disaggregation by racial, ethnic, gender and other groups defined in the Every Student Succeeds Act and requires states to support programs for “special populations,” such as low-income youth and adults, English learners and youth in foster care. States are also required to support improvement in career and technical education for people who are incarcerated, including youth in juvenile justice facilities.

State and local leaders should address these gaps and must ask themselves critical questions. In the spring, I had the opportunity at Advance CTE’s Spring Meeting to share my perspectives. I discussed the many steps leaders can take to remove the discriminatory legacy of CTE programs and ensure students of color and low-income students reap the benefits of the “new” CTE. Here are a few of my thoughts:

  1. Equity is not a process, it is an outcome. It’s not a special initiative or special box that you check off but a set of values that should be embedded in the institutional culture of public agencies, schools, nonprofit and private-sector partners and that is manifested in the policies and practices of those organizations.
  2. Data tells the story. Is data available that can tell the story of who is engaged in high-quality CTE programs in states and school districts? Are the CTE programs focused on high-demand industries with embedded career pathways and high wages serving students in high-poverty communities and districts? Students of color? Girls and young women of color?
  3. Policy should dismantle, not create barriers. Stakeholders and leaders must continuously ask themselves: Does this policy create barriers for students to access to high-quality CTE programming or is the policy dismantling them? For example:
    • Is public funding being targeted to schools and districts with the most needs in the state?
    • Are funding formulas equitable?
    • How is student eligibility being implemented for high-quality programs? Are students screened out or screened in because of GPA, discipline issues and/or absenteeism?

Sorting students by race and income is entrenched in the American public school system and increasingly is manifested by neighborhood or ZIP code. CTE can play an important role in changing this dynamic and writing a new story. The promise of CTE is to be a real option for low-income students and students of color — not in place of college preparatory high schools and programs or four-year institutions but including multiple pathways for CTE. To do so, federal and state policymakers, educators and all CTE stakeholders must place equity at the center.

Kisha Bird is director of youth policy at the Center for Law and Social Policy and project director for the Campaign for Youth, a national coalition chaired by CLASP. Focusing on local and federal policy solutions, she works to expand access to education, employment and support services for low-income and opportunity youth, with a focus on young men and women of color.


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