Historically, Career Technical Education (CTE)—once called vocational education—was an alternative educational option for learners who were considered non-college bound. As a result, a disproportionate number of low-income learners, learners of color, learners with disabilities, female learners and other historically marginalized populations were “tracked” into terminal vocational programs that denied their full potential and left them with limited opportunity.
Today, the quality of CTE has vastly improved, making it a preferred path for many secondary and postsecondary learners. Yet even today, many learners do not have access to high-quality programs of study in their communities. The same systemic barriers that contributed to tracking in the 20th century—implicit and overt biases, resource inequity, school segregation—result in inequities today.
State leaders have a critical responsibility to ensure each learner has opportunities for career success and is supported in identifying and realizing his or her goals. State leaders must identify and dismantle historical barriers and construct systems that support each learner in accessing, feeling welcome in, fully participating in and successfully completing a high-quality CTE program of study. This means leveraging data to identify and address equity gaps, building trust with historically marginalized communities, establishing feedback loops to ensure each voice is heard, allocating resources appropriately to expand access to high-quality CTE, and putting measures in place to support each learner to achieve success.
Once the right systems are in place, CTE can be a powerful tool for closing achievement and opportunity gaps. High-quality CTE programs of study can prepare each learner to earn a credential of value that enables him or her to achieve economic and social mobility, obtain employment in a career of choice with family-sustaining wages, and access opportunities for advancement and lifelong learning. It is only through such an intentional focus on equity that states will be able to truly put learner success first.