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Time to give CTE what it deserves — R-E-S-P-E-C-T
Changing our perception of career-technical education is one of the best things we can do for students and the profession.
By Deidra M. Gammill
When I transferred from my high school’s English department to a position in our teacher academy program, I expected the typical congratulations and well wishes from colleagues. That’s not exactly what I heard.
“Oh, you’re going to be teaching students how to decorate bulletin boards,” said one. “If it’s a class for kids who want to be teachers, you won’t ever have to worry about having too many students,” said another.
Granted, the comments were mostly good-natured and benign. But they also were very telling. Many of my colleagues were shocked that I chose to move from teaching a core academic subject to a vocational one — a two-year program for students who want to be teachers or work with children. In their eyes, I had downgraded from a rigorous academic course to an easy (and therefore unimportant) one that wasn’t even required for graduation.
I have to admit, I was once one of those teachers who dismissed the importance of career-technical education (CTE) courses. I thought of them as more fun and less stringent than a core course like English. Several years ago, my daughter took a culinary class in high school and fell in love with the idea of becoming a chef and opening her own restaurant. She was an A/B student and wanted to enroll in a culinary program after graduation. But I insisted she go to college first and earn a bachelor’s degree; then she could pursue a culinary career.
My daughter is now in her third year of college working on a bachelor’s degree in culinary arts. However, the degree she will earn will probably not be the deciding factor in her first job out of college. Her senior internship and kitchen experience will be the most important elements of her resume. She could have garnered both an internship and kitchen experience had she enrolled in a two-year culinary program administered by the local community college. Perhaps the greatest irony of the situation is that many of her university professors also teach in the community college program, so the quality of instruction would have been just as good at a fraction of the price. In this case, insisting she earn a four-year degree had more to do with the stigma I attached to CTE and community college certificate programs than it did with the actual education she needed in order to pursue her career path.
I came to understand the value and the rigor of CTE courses when I changed departments and began teaching in the teacher academy. The course, while engaging and hands-on, is challenging. The curriculum covers a great deal of the same material students will learn if they enroll in university-level education courses. They write reflections on their field experiences, critique and discuss current articles from Education Week, and take a state-administered test each spring. If there are differences between teacher academy and an English class, then they are tied to content and a state test required for graduation, not rigor or relevance.
Career-technical education is not a lesser form of learning; it’s a different form of learning. CTE courses are brimming with opportunities for teachers to integrate literacy and math skills as real-life applications. And ultimately, isn’t that what learning is all about — real-life skills that benefit the individual and the community? If we want successful doctors, where better to start than in a health sciences course that blends medical knowledge with training in a community health clinic each week? If we want creative mechanical engineers who design environmentally friendly vehicles, why not cultivate those interests and skills in a high school auto mechanics class? If we want teachers who love the day-to-day of being an educator, why not give them the opportunity to work in real classrooms with real students? I don’t want any children being taught by teachers who love the idea of teaching but hate being in the classroom.
Although vocational education has been transformed into career-technical education, the stigma lingers that CTE courses are often “less than” classes for “less than” students taught by “less than” teachers. I saw this clearly when I recently emailed a questionnaire to CTE teachers across Mississippi to see how they and their colleagues view CTE courses. I had wondered if my experience as a new CTE teacher was atypical or the norm, so I asked other teachers about their experiences and perceptions. The results were surprising; many in education still believe that students who “can’t hack” traditional academic classes or who have no plans of going to college are the only ones suited for CTE courses. Sadly, teachers play a part in perpetuating this stigma.
Mississippi is a blue-collar state, steeped in agriculture, music, and tourism. If any state would appreciate CTE’s value, I reasoned Mississippi would. But the survey responses indicated that non-CTE teachers still harbor outmoded notions about CTE classes and students. In general, the technology and engineering courses garnered slightly more respect than auto mechanics, metal fabricating, and the building trades. Courses in culinary arts, teacher academy, and even digital media all fell under the umbrella of what one teacher called “do-nothing” classes. Many of the CTE teachers reported academic teachers making comments such as “CTE students do nothing but go on field trips and have parties” and consistently implied that CTE teachers have much easier schedules and fewer students.
Since CTE courses aren’t perceived as essential to education nor required for graduation, parents, academic teachers, and even some school counselors discourage students from enrolling in the classes. For example, one teacher responded to my survey with this vignette: During a CTE recruiting activity hosted by the district, a student toured the teacher academy program with great interest, indicating he was considering a career in education. The CTE teacher later learned that the student’s father had not allowed him to enroll in the course since “vo-tech classes are for stupid kids.” Teacher academy is a course for students interested in becoming educators (a field that requires a college degree). Yet it was denigrated as being a course for students without academic ability because of its connection with the CTE program.
Moving down the ladder?
Other teacher academy instructors echoed the feeling that they were stigmatized not only for teaching a vocational subject but also for choosing to prepare future educators. Most CTE teachers come from careers in business and industry, and the teacher academy teachers likewise come from the profession. Most teacher academy instructors have been academic subject teachers and, in some states, including Mississippi, they are required to be National Board Certified Teachers. In spite of the credentials required to join the teacher academy, there was a general feeling among teacher academy instructors I surveyed that their colleagues perceived that they had moved down the career ladder. The only CTE teacher who indicated her colleagues felt she had taken a step up was a former special education teacher.
Several respondents indicated colleagues had asked them why anyone would want to encourage a career in teaching. Others said students had told them that their mentor teachers had actually discouraged them from becoming educators. The current demands placed on teachers, coupled with a general feeling that the profession is not respected or valued, leads some teachers to actively discourage others from joining the profession. Despite agreeing to let teacher academy students spend at least a portion of their time working one-on-one with students or reading to small groups, mentor teachers often only allowed students to grade and file papers, which gave them a false sense of an educator’s work.
CTE courses — including teacher academy courses — are intended to be hands-on and typically they brim with project-based learning experiences. Adults perceive them as do-nothing classes or jokes. But students often gravitate to them because they involve active learning and the chance to learn real-world skills. CTE courses also have been shown to significantly reduce dropout rates (Ritter, 2014) among high school students, in part because students are able to see how their academic study blends with real work situations. Because these courses integrate academic knowledge with career-based learning, they also help schools meet the career-readiness components outlined by the Common Core State Standards.
We must look critically at what students need to be successful and acknowledge our bias against courses and career pathways that aren’t traditionally academic but still hold enormous value for students. Reaching this common understanding will require honest reflection and change — sometimes two of the biggest hurdles to surmount.
English, math, science, and history will remain the mainstay of education, but they can no longer be taught in isolation. Academic teachers and CTE teachers must work together, with the support of administrators and parents, to provide blended learning courses that prepare students to think, problem solve, and work. Whether a student goes to college is secondary. Educators must ask whether students are prepared to enter society as productive, well-educated, skilled citizens who will advance our world in the areas of science, technology, and literacy. A 20th-century education will no longer serve our students. We must shift the paradigm and change the culture of our schools to embrace real-world learning opportunities.
Ritter, R. (2014). Career and technology education course participation decreases dropout rates. In M. Searson & M. Ochoa (Eds.), Proceedings of Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference 2014 (pp. 1602-1607). Chesapeake, VA: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education.
DEIDRA M. GAMMILL (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a National Board Certified Teacher, a Teacherpreneur with the Center for Teaching Quality; she also teaches teacher academy classes at Petal High School, Petal, Miss.