I've been advocating for more high-quality career and technical education (CTE) opportunities for teens, in order to keep them engaged with school and lower the drop-out rate. So I do want to acknowledge that many of the existing programs are not up to snuff. A new report by New York City public advocate Bill de Blasio–a Democratic mayoral hopeful who often critiques Mayor Bloomberg's school reform record–finds:
- About half of New York City's CTE high schools are on the state's Persistently Low-Achieving list
- Most CTE programs are in low growth fields: Arts and A/V Technology comprise 18 percent of the City’s CTE programs—more than any other—but the field’s jobs will only increase 3 percent by 2018
- Business Management and Administration comprise 14 percent of programs, but jobs in the field will only increase 2 percent by 2018
- Jobs in Human Services will grow faster than any career cluster in New York State by 2018 (18 percent), but the field only accounts for 1.5 percent of CTE programming
I agree with de Blasio that the explosion of CTE programs in highly-competitive, low-growth creative fields such as fashion design and sound engineering is a problem. We see a similar trend in the for-profit college sector, where advertisements (like the ones you see so often in subway cars) and curricula are crafted to exploit young people's interests in music, video games, and the like. One perpetrator is Full Sail University, the Orlando for-profit college, owned by a Mitt Romney donor, that charges up to $80,000 for a 21-month program in "video game art" that has just a 38 percent graduation rate.
All that said, I don't think the solution is to tightly tailor CTE programs to fit economic projections of growing industries. The service sectors are growing, but we don't want to limit working class kids to these often low-skills, low-pay jobs. Instead, we should advocate for more creative curricular connections between school and various places of employment. Consider the example of Tech Valley High School, outside of Albany:
…every student pursues an internship during January. This year, one teen shadowed an Amtrak engineer riding the Northeast Corridor; another interned at a local graphic design firm.
The flexibility of Tech Valley’s career curriculum—students can choose an internship that matches their interests, from baking to computer coding to marine biology—goes a long way toward scrubbing away the stigma of CTE as the “slow track” for working-class kids with few options. Every academic subject at Tech Valley is organized around projects intended to introduce teenagers to potential occupations. A history class worked alongside local attorneys to put Christopher Columbus and other European explorers on mock trial for decimating Native American populations. For a unit on pH levels, biology students worked with employees of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to collect Hudson River water samples and test whether the river was safe for swimmers.
I think of this type of curriculum as career "relevant," in that it actively shows students how their in-classroom learning can be applied to the labor market, but without limiting them to any specific job or field, as traditional vocational education does. The idea is to allow teenagers to explore the world of work in a way that emphasizes the importance of continuing education.