The past, present, and future of CTE 

The Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act was signed this summer against a backdrop of increasing interest in career preparation in schools.  


On a steamy day in late July, Donald Trump signed the first significant education bill of his presidency. Upon signing the bipartisan Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act, Congress and the president managed to reauthorize a $1.2-billion education program that should have been reauthorized in 2012. Previous attempts during the Obama administration to reauthorize “Perkins,” as the program is commonly called (for the Carl T. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act), fizzled, but this time around the administration had both Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and First Daughter Ivanka Trump pushing for reauthorization. Their involvement, coupled with a bipartisan effort in Congress, helped seal the deal, and the bill was approved and signed by the president in record time.  

CTE’s new image 

Policy makers and business leaders have for some time been focused on career and technical education (CTE) as an important part of college- and career-readiness. That’s a welcome change from the past, when any coursework geared toward workforce preparation (as opposed to college preparation) was usually relegated to the students deemed not ready or not smart enough for college. That dark age of CTE has thankfully passed and now most people — including educators and parents — seem to agree that there is value in emphasizing both academic knowledge and career preparation in schools. The 2017 PDK poll made that point loud and clear: 82% of Americans expressed support for classes that teach job or career skills, even if that means students might spend less time in academic classes.  

The dark age of CTE has thankfully passed and now most people seem to agree that there is value in emphasizing both academic knowledge and career preparation in schools. 

But CTE can mean different things to people and policy makers, and despite the progress educators have made in viewing it as an important pathway to professional and economic success, past attitudes about CTE being a “lesser path” still linger. Some parents bristle at the idea of school becoming a “workforce factory” that focuses more on training and development than it does on knowledge and learning. (President Trump leaned into this fear when he made a left-field remark about merging the U.S. Departments of Education and Labor.) Education Week’s Catherine Gewertz (2018) points out in a recent article that, despite all the attention being paid to CTE, the students enrolled in such programs are still disproportionately from low-income households and racial minority groups, a point that naturally raises a red flag about possible student tracking.  

Still, many states, particularly in rural areas, are strongly embracing CTE as a way to ensure more students graduate high school with economically viable career options. For example, higher education leaders in West Virginia recently set an ambitious goal to increase the number of West Virginians who go on to get a high-quality postsecondary credential after high school by 2030. The new goal of 60% almost doubles the current percentage, so the state has aptly named this effort “West Virginia’s Climb.” And in Nebraska, where 80% of school districts are considered rural, state education leaders are working closely with local communities and industry to identify growing business sectors and evaluate and improve CTE programs leading to work in those sectors. South Dakota, Idaho, Mississippi, and other states are also developing new CTE strategies to keep students on track and expand postsecondary options (Advance CTE, 2018).  

Secretary DeVos has suggested that education leaders in the U.S. should look to Europe for ideas about how to improve CTE, but Marc Tucker (2018), from the National Center on Education and the Economy, makes two important points in a recent blog post about why this suggestion is more complicated than it appears. First, he points out that work-based learning opportunities in Europe are developed and offered by employers, not school systems. The connective tissue between the workplace and schools runs deep and is integrated into the fabric of education in these countries. Second, Tucker notes that CTE programs in Europe are not and have never been viewed as a lesser pathway or, as he puts it, “the education of last resort.” Secretary DeVos makes a fair point in her assertion that U.S. school systems can learn a lot from European CTE programs, but for now it is an apples and oranges comparison.   

What the new bill does 

So how will the newly reauthorized CTE bill help states and districts embrace CTE as an important and integrated part of college and career readiness? Broadly speaking, the new law follows the same trajectory as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in that it dials down the federal role considerably, limits the secretary of education’s power, and prohibits any requirements related to the Common Core State Standards. States are now allowed to set their own goals and indicators for career and technical education without getting the secretary’s approval. The law’s language also reflects a new focus on the chronically unemployed or underemployed, and its definitions are now updated to align with the legislative terminology in ESSA and the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. 

The goal is not just to get young people jobs, but to produce more high school graduates with better credentials that improve their workplace options. 

These efforts to simplify and align the law’s language and requirements pleased stakeholders on both sides of the aisle, but some are concerned that the law offers states and districts too much freedom. These concerns echo what some educators warned about when ESSA was passed in 2015: If the federal government steps too far away from accountability requirements, state and local leaders will use their freedom to ignore the most challenging students. This debate over how and if federal accountability requirements should be administered has been argued for decades with no clear winner declared yet, so for now the new CTE bill will have to serve as a nod to those who favor the “less fed, more state” model of accountability.  

A better future? 

At the end of the day, what really matters are the facts and the numbers behind high school graduation rates, postsecondary attainment, and employment — and all point to the need for a change in attitude and operation about CTE. According to a recent article from the Brookings Institution (Ross & Bateman, 2018), nearly 30% of young adults are not in school and have no more than a high school diploma. Although many of these young people are working, their long-term career options are limited, even in the best of circumstances. It is well known that individuals with only a high school diploma are more likely to be unemployed or, if working, to earn less than those with further education. For those without a diploma or a GED, the prospects are even more dismal. Therefore, the goal is not just to get young people jobs, but to produce more high school graduates with better credentials that improve their workplace options. Brookings points to several strategies that can support this effort, including stronger advising in high school, high-quality dual enrollment programs, and more robust education pathways into the labor market.   

So will the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act really help schools improve their CTE offerings? The answer will make itself known in the months and years ahead. At the very least, though, some progress on education was made this summer in Washington. And for a town mired in partisanship and discord, that is a refreshing change.   


Advance CTE. (2018). CTE on the frontier: Rural CTE strategy guide. Silver Spring, MD: Author. 

Gewertz, C. (2018, July 31). What is career and technical education, anyway? Education Week. 

Ross, M. & Bateman, N. (2018, January 31). Millions of young adults have entered the workforce with no more than a high school diploma (Blog post). The Avenue. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution. 

Tucker, M. (2018, July 13). An open letter to Secretary DeVos on creating a world-class career and technical education system (Blog post). Tucker’s blog. Washington, DC: National Center on Education and the Economy. 


Citation: Ferguson, M. (2018). Washington view: The past, present, and future of CTE. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (2), 64-65.  


MARIA FERGUSON ( is executive director of the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University, Washington, D.C.

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