Save career and technical education programs from their death spiral

Nicole Rice

Nicole Rice

Imagine if California schools had reduced student access to science instruction by eliminating 1,500 courses, resulting in 50,000 fewer enrollments in science … all in just a single year. This would have triggered outrage by the media, the public and our elected lawmakers.

Well, this is what happened to middle and high school Career Technical Education (CTE) programs and students over the course of just one year, after years of steady decline. These statistics were reported by the California Department of Education, which compiled enrollment data for the most recent school year available (2012-13); they found that school districts reported 1,366 fewer CTE courses, resulting in an alarming reduction of 50,000 in course enrollments in career technical education.

Since giving districts flexibility in spending for programs that included CTE under the Schwarzenegger administration in 2008-09, followed by the Brown administration’s Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) that began this year, we have witnessed the wholesale diversion of CTE resources away from their vocational purposes. And with the loss of those dedicated dollars, we have seen precipitous drops in course offerings, student enrollment and even the retention of CTE trained instructors.

At this rate, these inspiring and life-directing programs will soon be only a memory at most California schools. And once these programs and teachers disappear, they’ll never be reopened or replaced. To put it bluntly: CTE in California is in a death spiral.

Jeremy Smith

Jeremy Smith

We call upon California policymakers to recognize the crisis facing not only CTE programs, but the long-term health and vitality of our state’s economy. It is time for them to lead in rebuilding a productive educational system that values the interests and aspirations of all students.

As a state, we should celebrate and encourage all careers and professional contributions to our diverse economy, and we should respect and provide access to a wide variety of educational experiences for every student. For many in our workforce of today, their pathway to a rewarding career began with their experiences in a Career Technical Education program that provided them hands-on, relevant exposure to industry skills and insights. For some, such training began a journey that eventuated in a college degree, while others had their eyes opened to technical careers that rival, and often exceed, the earnings of graduates of advanced degrees – and without the commensurate student debt.

The rebuilding of CTE should begin with exploratory courses in middle schools that give youth an opportunity to explore the wealth of opportunities that lie before them. Upon entering high school, students should have access to high-quality foundational courses in a particular career pathway (e.g., health, business, construction, automotive, agricultural, manufacturing, etc.) that builds and enriches their skill level and understanding. By their junior and senior years, students should be able to enroll in capstone courses that have close working partnerships with local manufacturers and building trades councils, many of which are willing to donate their expertise and tools of the trade to help build genuine pipelines into their various industry sectors.

Most 21st century career pathways will necessarily wind their way into postsecondary education and training, including apprenticeships, trade schools, community colleges and the like. Others may require four-year or even post-graduate level education and training. But schooling at all levels should be more closely tied to the real world beyond the classroom, rather than stripped of its practical relevance.

Far more high school students drop out due to the irrelevance of the theoretical, academic-centric nature of today’s course offerings than because of an inability to perform. And even the college-bound pupils lack a genuine understanding and application of their studies, mastering the memorization/regurgitation approach to earning straight A’s, without an opportunity to apply what they learn in a practical or economically meaningful way.

Given the statewide importance of workforce development, state policymakers should create incentives for districts to provide such enriching CTE programs to all their students. But left to themselves, most districts will continue their focus on high-stakes testing curricula, college admissions criteria and course mandates, none of which prioritizes CTE. Proven incentive grant approaches such as state Partnership Academies and federal Perkins Grants should be used as models to drive curricular innovation and ensure industry relevance.

Preparing all high school students to enter our four-year colleges and universities is a laudable goal, but the fact is that fewer than 30 percent of our students achieve four-year degrees. We must take better care of the 70 percent who do not achieve that goal.

Nobody is well served in an environment in which a diverse variety of career pathways are devalued by Sacramento policies and budgetary priorities that continue to direct schools away from CTE. For the sake of our kids and economy, California policymakers need to address this issue now, beginning with the budget deliberations that are in full swing in our State Capitol.

 Jeremy Smith serves as deputy legislative director for the State Building & Construction Trades Council of California. Nicole Rice is the policy director of the California Manufacturers and Technology Association. Both organizations are the co-chairs of the the Get REAL (“Relevance in Education & Learning”) Coalition.

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Filed under: Career Preparation, College & Careers, Commentary, Local Control Funding Formula, School Finance

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11 Responses to “Save career and technical education programs from their death spiral”

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  1. Nancy Wagner on Jun 9, 2014 at 3:59 pm06/9/2014 3:59 pm

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    I was president of the California Association of Regional Occupational Centers and Programs in 2000 and worked with Senator McPherson and other legislators to shore up funding for CTE. Unfortunately, Fred is quite correct that things have gotten very ugly ever since the flexibility provisions were first enacted in 2009. Even the current Maintenance of Effort (which expires in June 2015) has done little to stop the erosion of CTE funding which is often used by school districts and county offices of education for non-CTE purposes. It is extremely discouraging that CTE has been pushed aside despite the fact that opinion polls show that parents and businesses want more CTE programs in their communities.


    • Ava on Jun 30, 2014 at 12:51 pm06/30/2014 12:51 pm

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      Nancy…I could truly articulate for you what ‘ugly’ really means. Our business education program blossomed…even this year’s valedictorian had significant success in TWO CC/CVE opportunities (on her way to UCLA) -not to my credit. Good to “see you” here commenting. I hope things get better for CTE somewhere down the line…but, I should be moving on now.

  2. bruce mcpherson on Jun 7, 2014 at 9:16 am06/7/2014 9:16 am

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    As the author of The California Career Technical Education Model Curriculum Standards (Senate Bill 1934 signed in 2002 and adopted by the State Board of Education in 2005), I applaud your for efforts to “save” Career Technical Education i(CTE) in California. As you write, it’s a “laudable goal” to prepare all of our students to go to college…. but only 30 percent of them will get a 4-year degree. Do the math: It doesn’t make sense to “drop off” any educational opportunities for the other 70 percent who — with adequate with course offerings – will be productive members of our society. Thank you for making Career Technical Education part of the the ongoing budget discussions. — bruce mcpherson


    • Fred Jones on Jun 7, 2014 at 1:21 pm06/7/2014 1:21 pm

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      We miss you up in Sacto, Bruce! Things have gotten ugly for CTE since your departure. Whether causation or merely correlation, we always appreciated your strong support of CTE.

  3. Jane Scott Jones on Jun 6, 2014 at 12:35 pm06/6/2014 12:35 pm

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    I have been a CTE teacher for the last 17 years. I am credentialed to teach both multiple subjects and CTE courses to k-12 and adults. I am at the cutting edge of technology and have created classes in Computer applications, photography, video production. I have worked with both high school students and adults.

    I have worked for the county office of education on a high school campus. My courses are the most popular ones on campus. I have been told that the county will no longer support my salary, so I am now being hired at the high school for less money, less hours and I will lose my Willy Brown for retirement.

    How can this happen to an excellent teacher, who gave up tenure so I could teach something real and valuable.

    I should have taught math.


    • Ava on Jun 30, 2014 at 12:47 pm06/30/2014 12:47 pm

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      “Jane” I’m so sorry to hear your story. I’m NOT a single-subjects credentialed teacher, and I have gone from ROP/CTE program-to-program…not realizing how treacherously I could be dealt with as a ‘professional’ instructor. There are mean-spirited administrators, and colleagues who are so desperate about their job security that the well-being of the students is a mere afterthought. After this last “non-renewal of contract” it is clear that I need to move on -as far away from the CTE ‘death spiral’ as I can. This past semester is the 3rd successful program I have sought to build within the last four years, and with positive feedback from ALL of my students -I still fell victim to my principal’s warped idea of what is “The district’s standard of a positive learning environment.” A totally concocted, trumped-up, and baseless charge -an excuse (that he doesn’t even need) to discontinue my services I have retained endless evidence to the contrary, but because of the ‘at will’ nature of the CTE/ROP contract by which teachers work, we are at the mercy of a variety of whims, biases, and power-plays of our ‘evaluators’. Overall, it’s been an egregious experience from a career standpoint -except for the rewarding, and fulfillment of being an integral part of the student outcomes -which successful futures have been sparked…being a part of the CTE programs would have been a total disappointment. (I have referenced a website students build reflecting some of our successes -I could say so much more here…it’s probably best I don’t.)

  4. el on Jun 6, 2014 at 9:34 am06/6/2014 9:34 am

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    I’m a fan of CTE for all students – giving them a chance to apply academic learning to real world applications.

    I think it’s important to note that the issue is not just “flexibility” given to schools who then preferred to spend it other ways – money for these programs actively went away or was part of a ‘Hold Harmless’ pool that had a changed list of responsibilities. For example, in my county, much CTE was supported by the county office of education via a consortium agreement. But now, the money that once went for that is actively obligated for other services, and the schools themselves are in Hold Harmless so they’re not getting those funds replaced either.

    The state is allocating ~$215 per high school student for CTE last I checked. That’s $1.19 per school day for extra supplies.


    • Fred Jones on Jun 6, 2014 at 9:39 am06/6/2014 9:39 am

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      That 9-12 grade-span adjustment isn’t specifically earmarked to CTE, therefore districts can spend that money on anything. And from what I am hearing out in the field, that is exactly what has been happening.

      • el on Jun 9, 2014 at 1:17 pm06/9/2014 1:17 pm

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        I’m aware of that, but even if it were, it’s not enough money to cover realistic needs of CTE programs for all the kids who should be able to access them. Many of these classes need to be on the smaller side to be safe and effective, plus the need for specialized equipment and consumable materials.

  5. Fred Jones on Jun 6, 2014 at 8:55 am06/6/2014 8:55 am

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    Business (Manufacturers) and Labor (Building Trades) coming together to save CTE from its death spiral in California … I hope our State Legislators and the Brown Administration take heed.

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