Twenty-first century career and technical education (CTE) bears no resemblance to the oft-derided “shop class” of decades past. Today’s best CTE programs combine college-level coursework with on-the-job training or apprenticeships, providing students with a clear pathway to both a job and a degree. These models, however, have emerged after decades of criticism over sub-par “vocational education” programs that disproportionately enrolled low-income, minority and disabled students.
Origins of U.S. Vocational Education: The Smith-Hughes Act of 1917
The Smith-Hughes Act of 1917 was the first federal legislation funding the provision of vocational education in U.S. public schools. The law provided matching funds to states and created a Federal Board of Vocational Education to supervise states’ plans for developing occupationally-focused curricula.
Smith-Hughes enjoyed broad support from organizations as varied as the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, labor unions and the National Education Association. Driving this support, ironically, were the same concerns prompting interest in CTE today: Technological change affecting labor markets; worries over US competitiveness with rising powers (in those days, Germany); and complaints from businesses over the shortage of skilled workers.
Though well-intentioned, the system created by the Smith-Hughes Act (and later supported by successive iterations of the federal Carl D. Perkins Vocational Education Act) turned out to be deeply flawed.
The Bad Old Days: “Voc Ed,” Tracking and Systemic Inequity
The Smith-Hughes Act segregated vocational students into separate programs and schools focused on specific occupations, such as agricultural field work, housekeeping and construction trades. “Voc ed” quickly developed a poor reputation.
Research by Jeannie Oakes and colleagues found that educators reserved vocational programs for students “not expected to be successful in academic programs” – including a disproportionate share of low-income and minority students and students with disabilities or behavioral problems. Students who took a lot of vocational education courses typically did so at the expense of academic coursework, according to the Department of Education, and were less likely to go on to college than their peers. Vocational education also had little or no benefit for workers’ wages, and critics rightly attacked the system for perpetuating systemic inequity and discrimination by steering minority students away from college preparation.
“Most high school teachers and administrators do not think much of vocational education… And when they speak of it, the phrase “dumping ground” is often on their lips,” as a 1992 RAND analysis subtitled “Low Esteem, Little Clout” concluded.
The Shift to “Career and Technical Education”
The ensuing backlash, along with high-profile concerns over students’ academic proficiency, led to significant declines in vocational education enrollment in the 1980s and through the 1990s. The passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001 also cemented the prioritization of academic achievement over job skills.
Nevertheless, interest in and demand for career preparation in education began to accelerate through the 1990s, as globalization wrought wrenching change to labor markets and the skills workers needed to compete. As the U.S. economy shifted from manufacturing to services, higher education increasingly became a prerequisite for more jobs, while businesses demanded employees with workplace skills such as “critical thinking,” communications skills and the ability to collaborate in teams (“soft skills”). Taken together, these trends meant that the old, bifurcated model of academics versus career preparation was obsolete.
In 2006, Congress renamed and reauthorized the Carl D. Perkins Vocational Education Act as the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Improvement Act, codifying the rebirth of vocational education as CTE. (See more on the Perkins Act here.)
The 2006 legislation (also known as “Perkins IV”) laid the groundwork for today’s CTE by authorizing and funding “tech-prep” programs that combined academic and career-tech instruction beginning in high school and continuing through at least two years of post-secondary education. The law encouraged on-the-job training where possible and required programs to lead to “technical skill proficiency, an industry-recognized credential, a certificate, or a degree in a specific career field” or “placement in high-skill or high-wage employment, or to further education.”
Though the Department of Education later deemed the effectiveness of the tech-prep model “inconclusive,” the marriage of academics with workforce readiness has spawned numerous innovative models of instruction that build on the tech-prep template.
Many of these programs fall under the umbrella of “dual enrollment,” where high school students earn credit from a partnering college or community college. In 2010-11 (the most recent year for which data are available), 1.4 million high school students participated in dual enrollment, with about 601,000 taking CTE courses (“CTE dual enrollment”).
One outstanding example of this model is New York City’s PTECH 9-14, which partners high schools, colleges and employers to create a seamless six-year program from high school to college to career. Students begin college-level work while still in high school and participate in career-training opportunities such as job shadowing, paid internships and mentoring. Another high-school-based model, CareerWise Colorado, couples classwork with paid apprenticeships at local employers. Students spend three days a week in the classroom and two days on the job.
Career preparation today means not only learning the skills specific to a particular occupation but acquiring the “soft” skills employers expect, ranging from critical thinking and leadership to simply showing up on time every day. Because these skills are best learned by doing, effective CTE programs incorporate on-the-job experience (“work-based learning”) with a partnering employer.
The Perkins Act and Federal Support for CTE
The largest source of federal funding and support for career and technical education (CTE) in U.S. schools is the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, first passed in 1984 as the Carl D. Perkins Vocational Education Act and reauthorized on multiple occasions since.
Congress most recently reauthorized the law in 2018 as the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act (also known as “Perkins V”). Perkins V authorized $1.34 billion a year in formula funding for state grants and detailed a number of requirements for aligning CTE programs with job market demand, improving program quality and tracking outcomes. (Many of these reforms were proposed by President Barack Obama’s administration in a 2012 report calling for CTE reform.) Perkins V also allows the use of funding for career exploration activities for students in grades 5-8, which earlier versions of the legislation had forbidden.
Perhaps the biggest shift in Congress’s approach to career training and education occurred with the 2006 reauthorization of the Perkins Act, which codified the term “CTE” over “vocational education.” This legislation explicitly encouraged the inclusion of academics into career-focused education and paved the way for today’s programs.