Back to Skills

Career and Technical Education Might Motivate Students To Learn

Back to Skills

There were a few readers who shared their thoughts with me on the new Center on Education Policy report, and their comments had some similar underlying themes. Among them was the idea that schools are hurting student motivation by encouraging all students to attend college.

That’s something that Walt Gardner, who writes Education Week’s Reality Check blog, also mentioned when I interviewed him about the CEP study. The idea that every student belongs in college is short-sighted, said Gardner, who taught for 28 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District. He suggested schools could motivate students better by boosting vocational training programs that prepare them for the workforce.

The CEP study mentions attempts by schools to boost student motivation through instructional programs that tap into their interests (such as science or technology), as well as ones that encourage more individual thinking, and some that tie the curriculum to community service projects. But as with any education initiative, the outcomes cover a wide range.

Career and technical education is gaining prominence nationally, although it’s a more comprehensive approach than the vocational tracking that used to split off a stream of students from their college-going peers. Most of these new hybrid programs aim to give students students  the academic grounding they need if they decide to continue their educations beyond high school. (There was a nice read on this topic recently, from the Atlantic’s Brian Resnick.)

The question of whether college is being over-sold is a controversial one. But it’s not a new debate, as University of California-Berkeley education Prof. David Kirp told me in a September interview.

“The arguments we’re hearing today are the same ones we heard in the 1970’s,” said Kirp, who served as a member of President Obama’s 2008 transition team. “It’s Groundhog Day in American politics.”

Kirp, the author of Kids First: Five Big Ideas for Transforming Children’s Lives and America’s Future, said he didn’t believe “anyone is going to argue a high school diploma is going to give you the skills you need to do well in this economy.”

At the same time, Kirp said, “a four-year degree isn’t always necessary — but you’re going to need something beyond high school.”

I spent nine years in Las Vegas, and while the Clark County School District – the nation’s fifth-largest – has some serious hurdles to clear, its career and technical education academies are phenomenal. The campuses are palaces, and students can study everything from veterinary medicine to aviation to more traditional trades. The dropout rates at the career academies are typically less than 2 percent, compared with the districtwide rate of about 6 percent. The CTE students have a higher graduation rate, and do better on the required high school exit exams. That means they are qualified for college, if they opt for that path.

And that’s really the point, isn’t it? To prepare students not just for a life that’s chosen for them, but for a life they want to have?