Students should not be tracked into college OR career–they need both

Career and technical education (CTE) is undergoing a change across American schools. No longer does it resemble the vocational training programs of 10 or 15 years ago that, oftentimes, wordlessly tracked students viewed as low academic performers into meager-paying jobs.

This change is important for a number of reasons, but perhaps none as essential as delivering on education’s promise to create equity and opportunity. When is the appropriate time to tell a child he or she is not “college material”? Thirteen-years-old? Fifteen? Education should create options, not limitations.

Adults tracking students into buckets of this or that does not empower young people to find their strengths or passions. Tracking also cut off college preparatory students from work-based experiences, hands-on learning, and opportunities to explore innovative programs and develop new passions. The goal of education should be to prepare every student to have the option to be successful in a four-year college, should they choose to pursue that path.

Our kids deserve no less.

Young people also deserve to be prepared for the economy that is emerging—one that will demand highly skilled workers. We cannot cling to a past for which we may be nostalgic, but is not returning. Research from Georgetown University projects that 65 percent of jobs will require some college by 2020, compared to 1973, when only 28 percent required it. That’s only four years from now.

Imagine five, ten, or twenty years into the future. A depressing statistic out of Oxford University states that 45 percent of all jobs will be non-existent in the next 25 years. A tomorrow where a high school degree alone leads to a well-paying job doesn’t exist.

In my home state of Rhode Island, at present, less than 45 percent of Rhode Islanders have a postsecondary degree or industry-recognized certificate, yet 70 percent of jobs in the coming years will require it. Bridging that gap is essential for the state’s economy, but more importantly, to ensure Rhode Island’s young people have jobs that can sustain a family. Closing this chasm is going to be a priority for Rhode Island and for states across the country.

Politicians, business leaders, and educators are beginning to tackle the problem in earnest. For example, JPMorgan Chase has invested $75 million—in collaboration with the CCSSO, Advance CTE, and the Education Strategy Group—to strengthen career education and create pathways to economic success, partly through recently announced grants to ten states including Rhode Island, Delaware, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Wisconsin. States will receive $2 million over three years to expand and improve career pathways for all high school students.

As a grantee, Rhode Island is working to ensure every student has access to work-based learning and advanced coursework opportunities, in every high school, by 2020. This means that all students, regardless of background, will tap into a college and career readiness curriculum.

The Governor also just announced a plan to make two years of college free to Rhode Island students who attend one of the three state colleges.

These bold, but necessary, steps will rely on systemic, faithful execution over time. The work will also need to overcome an embedded perception problem. Many families, educators, and students still view CTE as a tracking mechanism for students who do not have post-secondary aspirations. The reality is that over 75 percent of CTE concentrators pursue postsecondary education.

States will have to work hard to flip this narrative so that suburban, urban, and rural kids from every socioeconomic background are equally immersed in all aspects of the program.

Regardless of the optics, the truth is that the new economy is clamoring for students prepared by a college and career­ curriculum—­preparation that is robust, integrated, and aligned to the needs of employers. For students to be qualified for the high-wage, in-demand jobs of the future, the bifurcated tracks of the past must happily become a hazy memory.

Photo courtesy of the Hawaii State Department of Education

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Katelyn Silva

Katelyn Silva

Katelyn Silva is mom to a preschooler, wife to a teacher, and a social justice seeker in Rhode Island. She operates her own education writing consulting business. She was previously the Chief Communications Officer at Rhode Island Mayoral Academies, a nonprofit dedicated to opening intentionally diverse public charter schools. Prior to that, she was the Communications Director at the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute.

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