Career Technical Education: At a Glance

Survey after survey shows Americans are split, even about the very purpose of education. According to the most recent PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward Public Schools, 45 percent of respondents felt the main goal of school is to prepare students academically, while about a quarter each said that preparing students to be good citizens and workers was the main goal. 

But when forced to choose, three times as many respondents (68 percent) said they’d like to see schools offer more career-technical or skills-based coursework than honors or advanced academic classes (21 percent). Fortunately, schools don’t have to choose. 

Career and Technical Education (CTE) balances the pull between the practical and theoretical by applying academic knowledge to real-world problems, preparing students for a wide array of careers. Unfortunately, confusion and stereotypes still reign when it comes to what career and technical education is and isn’t, even as public sentiment shifts to expand these educational opportunities and Congress considers legislation and funding to do just that. 

These inherent contradictions around an issue that seems to enjoy broad support are among the reasons the Center for Public Education decided to peer into the matter and ultimately produce this FAQ. Among the questions this guide will answer:

What is Career Technical Education or CTE?

The origins of vocational education in the United States are rooted in the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917, legislation that was intended to better position the U.S. in the newly industrialized global economy while tackling high youth unemployment rates in cities. Unfortunately, it too often tracked low-income and minority students into low-paying jobs. That changed with the passage of the Carl D. Perkins Vocational Education Act of 1984, which solidified an increasing integration of academic and vocational skills.

Who takes CTE courses?

Today’s CTE is not just for non-college goers. As of 2009, 94% of high school students completed at least 0.5 credits in a CTE course.  However, only 85% of high school students completed a CTE course in an occupational field; the 9-point difference is due to students who participated in non-occupational courses such as typing, career preparation and home economics.  


Which CTE programs are most popular?

Among students who concentrate, the most popular programs in 2012-2013 were business, arts, audio-visual technology, and communication, and Health Science.  Distinctions can be made between students who take a course in a subject, such as business, but have much lower rates of concentration.

What are the challenges facing CTE?

Industry partnerships with educational institutions are key to a successful CTE program, as they provide opportunities for students to make real world connections through internships or mentoring, for instance. However, a recent survey of CTE educators found that 49% of respondents indicated that they were “not satisfied” with their access to industry partners and mentors.

What’s more, many parents and educators still view CTE as being in conflict with academics, though research shows that students who take a concentration of CTE courses are more likely to graduate and show no significant difference in academic achievement or college enrollment than their peers. 

What can School Board members do?

School boards interested in strengthening their CTE programs can begin by asking some of these questions:

  • How many students are concentrating in CTE programs in your school district?  Are all student groups involved proportionately?
  • What industry partnerships does your district have?  Are there market needs that your school district could help meet while providing meaningful career opportunities for your students?  
  • How do traditional academic departments collaborate with CTE courses?  Are students being taught real-life applications of academic content?

Chandi Wagner is research analyst for the Center for Public Education. Breanna Holland Higgins is a former CPE intern and George Washington University Ed.D candidate. 

Published: December 8 2016
Copyright Center for Public Education 2016