In the fall my 13-year-old daughter began high school, where she is enrolled in a career and technical education program -- or a CTE program, formerly known as vocational education or voc-ed. She is interested in the sciences and loves mysteries. Her program has projects that blend forensics, chemistry, physics and biology. If all goes as planned, she will graduate from high school with a certification as a laboratory technician and some college credit from dual-enrollment courses, as well as her high school diploma.
When she graduates, Layla will immediately be able to earn about $40,000 a year as a lab technician. She will be positioned to join the labor market, complete an associate’s degree or pursue a four-year degree. She will require fewer courses (less cash out of my pockets) and will be able to compete with other college students for coveted lab or research opportunities. Not a bad deal.
As an African American, first-generation college graduate, I have slowly come to recognize the competitive advantage that a lab tech CTE program will provide my daughter. I had my reservations, based on the history of African Americans and vocational education, but could not argue with the outcomes or options. I believe the time has come for black students and college administrators to reconsider the value of CTE as a viable career pathway and untapped source of diverse students, respectively.
Many minority communities are leery of vocational education and the pathways message -- and for good reason. Vocational education was once used as an instrument for tracking by “ability.” It was considered the dumping ground for students that were believed to be unsuited for academic course work. It should come as no surprise, that men, black youth, youth of color and immigrant youth were overrepresented in voc-ed. In many respects, this stigmatized perception is also held by many of my higher education colleagues. If the negative perception of CTE does not change, both parents of minority youth and college administrators could be missing out on an amazing opportunity.
Here are four points that I would like to share with faculty members and colleges that are concerned with increasing the representation of minorities, particularly African Americans in STEM majors:
- CTE is an underutilized tool by parents and four-year colleges to promote diversity in the STEM fields. There is need for greater engagement of four-year colleges in planning career pathway options.
- The dichotomy of CTE versus a more liberal arts education is deeply rooted in the post-enslavement quest for equality. Due to changes in technology and the labor market, this division is becoming increasingly artificial and arguably a barrier to career readiness.
- CTE programs may offer a viable recruitment opportunity for underrepresented minorities, particularly in STEM fields.
- CTE programs present a distinct opportunity to support faculty research and faculty-student collaboration.
The framing of college versus high school agricultural and technical education has a long history in the black community directly connected both to racism and the struggle for equality. Two prominent black intellectuals were at odds regarding which type of education would lead to the civil and equal treatment of the formerly enslaved people and their descendants.
Booker T. Washington was born into slavery and emerged as a prominent American voice after enslaved African Americans were freed. (My grandfather and uncle were named after him.) Washington believed that black people would gain white acceptance through industry, self-reliance and entrepreneurship. With the help of philanthropists, Washington established the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. The institute educated students in basic reading and math, farming techniques, and the trades. After graduation, students would return to their hometowns, primarily in the rural South, and work as teachers in the trades and agriculture.
By contrast, William E. B. Du Bois embraced a strategic approach to address racism. He argued that black equality would require a liberal arts education that focused on critical thinking to develop a black leadership class: the “Talented Tenth.” This elite group of black American men would use their intellectual acumen to strategize for integration and social equality.
A Sea Change in Education
A recent study of CTE graduates in Arkansas found three key results. First, completion of high school CTE courses was associated with higher two-year college admission, lower unemployment and higher salaries. Second, graduates of CTE programs were just as likely to attend four-year colleges as traditional high school graduates. Last and definitely not least, the students that benefited most from CTE belong to groups that are often described as those at risk for poor academic outcomes: men and low-income students. Ironically, however, many of the communities that are taking advantage of vocational opportunities are not members of low-income underrepresented minority groups, but rather white and middle class.
Part of the historical misunderstanding over technical and liberal arts education is that they don’t mix. That is an artificial barrier that will become even more artificial as the nature of work evolves. Reading, writing and math will remain important, but at the same time, other skills like problem solving, communication, collaboration and emotional intelligence will become more crucial.
Further, career and technical education and traditional classroom teaching practices are converging across the K-16 landscape. Problem-based learning, work-based learning and apprenticeships are built upon the idea that, with such experience, young people learn by doing, taking risks and applying knowledge in safe, supportive environments. Both CTE and the traditional college classroom are actively engaged in making the learning experience more student centered.
Educators, at all levels, need to be able to clearly demonstrate how CTE pathways open up opportunities for minorities to participate in career fields in which they are traditionally underrepresented. Information on how CTE concentrations are aligned with two- or four-year postsecondary degree programs and the labor market can also help.
Part of the challenge is that many minority youth do not have access to the social networks that can make STEM career possibilities and pathways clear. This is where CTE educators and college administrators can support a decision-making and planning process. Youth and families will appreciate knowing that, with an industry certification like the one I hope my daughter earns, their children will be able to earn a living and go on to a four-year degree should they want to.
Career and technical education has experienced a renewal. This ain’t your grandparents’ vocational ed. There is an emphasis on growth industries, such as health care and software development, beyond the traditional trades, like plumbing and carpentry. Course offerings are aligned with the jobs that are in demand. And many CTE programs provide opportunities to take dual-enrollment, AP or college courses. Parents should see this as an opportunity to complete postsecondary or certificate-aligned course work for free.
Meanwhile, colleges should see this as an opportunity to enrich their student bodies with a diverse pool of career-ready individuals who are able to meaningfully contribute to the learning environment. With theoretical knowledge, applied experience and industry certifications, CTE students represent a pool of students that possess valuable skills that can enrich both the college learning experiences and faculty research. For example, Layla plans to attend a four-year college after completing her CTE program. As a certified lab technician, Layla will bring a different level of value and capacity to faculty research than a traditional undergraduate student.
To be clear, a four-year college is not the only path to land a job with strong middle-class earning potential. That does not mean, however, that CTE and traditional four-year college programs must be at odds. Rather, college administrators need to develop and communicate clear on-ramps for CTE graduates to matriculate through their degree programs. That will not happen in isolation. Consequently, colleges must be at the table with state and local educational leaders as educational programs are developed. If the table does not currently exist, faculty members and administrators must create it.
Given the research and realities of pathways, I think CTE is poised to serve as a viable path to diversifying STEM fields. But I also recognize that how black youth leverage this opportunity largely depends on the leaders of our educational systems and their willingness to understand the history and reimagine the future of CTE education. The value and linkages of CTE across secondary and postsecondary institutions must be strategic and clear. That will require leadership and authentic communication. May we all be courageous for our children’s sake.