The Evolution of Career and Technical Education in New England

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The Increasing Demand for Career and Technical Education: A Multi-state Perspective

As career and technical education (CTE) has evolved from a vocational school model to one that provides academics and skills for higher education and careers in skilled trades, technology and applied sciences, demand has increased. State CTE leaders Nivea Torres, Jay Ramsey and David Ferreira provided their perspectives on factors driving this demand for the 21st century skills that CTE offers. 

Dr. Nivea Torres, Superintendent, Connecticut Technical High School System
Jay Ramsey, Vermont State Director for Career and Technical Education
David Ferreira, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Association of Vocational Administrators (MAVA)

How is career and technical education delivered in your state?

Torres: The Connecticut Technical High School system is the only system in the nation that is state-funded and operated. CTHSS currently operates 17 diploma-granting technical high schools, one technical education center and two aviation maintenance programs located throughout the state. The system serves approximately 11,200 full-time high school and adult day students, with comprehensive education and training in 31 occupational areas, and 2,000 apprenticeship students. CTHSS is the largest high school system in Connecticut, serving all geographic regions, demographics and diverse populations and provides both academics and technical education so that students graduate with a diploma and a certificate in a specific trade technology.

Ramsey: Vermont is different than Connecticut and Massachusetts; we have a shared time system. Every high school in the state is assigned to one of 17 regional career technical education centers. While there are pre-technical programs available to 9th and 10th graders, the majority of programs are for 11th and 12th grade students who attend centers for half- or full-day programs, depending on their particular center. Many people assume that Vermont technical centers grant diplomas – they don’t.  Our centers send students out into the world with industry-recognized credentials and their home high schools grant their diplomas.  

Ferreira:  Massachusetts has quite an array of different delivery models. There are 26 vocational-technical schools throughout the state, two county agricultural high schools, a number of city voc-tech schools that are one of several city high schools, and an independent voc-tech school. But they are all comprehensive schools that students attend full-time for their academics and voc-tech education. 

How has the demand for career and technical education increased in your state?

Torres: For the past three to four years, we have had about 6,000 Connecticut students apply for 3,000 seats, which is a reflection of the growing need and interest in CTE in our state. One of our technical high schools saw a large increase last year, with close to 1,000 applications for 200 seats. They can only accommodate a fraction of the applicants they get. Our student-based outcomes have also created an interest in this model. Over 30% of our students go into the workforce and our graduation rate is at an all-time high of 97.4%.

Ramsey: Since 2004, Vermont has seen a decrease in its overall student population. However, we have had an increase in CTE students in that same time period. In 2004, a total of 5,080 Vermont 11th and 12th grade students participated in technical education out of 13,300 students from those grades – a 27.5% participation rate. In 2014, we had 5,404 students participate out of 11,617 – a participation rate of almost 30%. So participation increased by nearly 3% even as our total student population went down.

Ferreira: From 2008 to 2014, the number of young people in Massachusetts’s public high schools has declined by 3%. In the same seven year time period, the enrollment in vocational, technical and agricultural high schools has increased by 6.5%. You would think with declining overall enrollment, you would see a decline in career and technical education as well, but that is not the case. In particular, we’ve seen higher demand in certain regions, especially in our Gateway Cities, whose economies have suffered as manufacturing jobs shifted overseas.

What is driving increased student demand for career and technical education?

Torres: We have worked to market and rebrand ourselves as a district, which has raised awareness of the kind of education we offer and increased demand. But it also has a lot to do with how students want to learn. Many state and national conversations have focused on reimagining the traditional high school model to provide project-based learning. But this already is our technical school model; it is the way we are delivering our courses on a daily basis. STEM and STEAM are already our reality. Some comprehensive high schools are exploring the concept of “makerspaces,” providing the space and tools for students to explore and create. Our classrooms are already makerspaces, with labs, technology and tools students use to create, test and apply their learning. Our model meets the growing demand of students who want to be engaged differently than a traditional model of lecture and chalkboard. While we encourage students to pursue higher education, leaving high school with certification and job prospects is attractive. 

Ramsey: There are a lot of factors. Part of it is because of the increased rigor of CTE programs, as well as the context and relevance of this education. Students and families also see the value of CTE for their futures. It’s a potential track to college, and we have dual enrollment courses and articulation agreements that offer students the chance to earn early college credit. There’s also the value of leaving high school with industry-recognized credentials. Some families may see CTE as a path to a good job that doesn’t require a four-year degree and the student loan debt that may come with it. We will likely see a continued increase in demand and enrollment in the near future because of state and federal CTE policies as well. Vermont now requires schools to help students create personalized learning plans starting in seventh grade, and calls for CTE and workforce planning as part of it. Also, the alignment of federal programs that allow CTE to be a part of more students’ educations – like the Every Student Succeeds Act, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act (WIOA), and the likely reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Act – will continue to increase both opportunities and demand for CTE. 

Ferreira: Parents are definitely seeing the high cost of college, the high rate of unemployment among college grads that are not in STEM fields, and the large amounts of student loan debt graduates often have. Many are now looking for their children to graduate from high school with a career path they may follow into college or take directly into the workforce. Also, high voc-tech graduation rates and low dropout rates are compelling, especially for parents in communities with struggling schools. The average regional voc-tech school graduation rate is 94.5%, compared to the 86.1% statewide average and 70% Gateway City average. The dropout rate in Massachusetts voc-tech schools is only 0.6%. Parents know there must be something good happening in these schools and want their children to have this opportunity. Also, we’re attracting new kinds of students. Now that everything is computer driven, even traditional trades have changed dramatically in the use of technology. And while we continue to have traditional trades like HVAC and plumbing, there are new STEM programs like environmental tech, biotech, dental assisting and medical assisting. This has opened up voc-tech schools to a much more technical side, which has driven enrollment in two ways: students who are interested in technology are now more attracted to voc-tech schools, and the number of female students has risen to unprecedented levels. Long ago, it used to be about one-third female students at best, and now our schools are generally seeing close to 50% female enrollment. 

What are some dynamics of career and technical education unique to your state?

Torres: Connecticut tech schools have great name recognition and a long-standing tradition of alumni involvement. Many of our students are second- and third-generation tech students. The people who have attended our schools are not only plumbers and electricians but also superintendents and private business owners who use the skill sets they learned to continue to thrive. There’s been a discussion of the resurgence of CTE – but it’s never really gone away. However, it continues to undergo a number of transformative changes. We are dedicated to being innovative and creative and to respond to the needs of business and industry, but we are also focused on ensuring that our schools are aligned with K-12, post-secondary and adult programs so that we can provide a continuum of educational services to prepare our students for college and career. We have a base of citizens who have always known the value of a technical education, and we have been able to position ourselves to appeal to new families and students who are seeing CTE through a different lens.

Ramsey: We are always thinking about the career and technical education system and how the system can work better and serve more students. One thing we’ve worked on is how technical centers can be resources for academic teachers in bringing applied learning to their classroom, as sometimes teachers know the theory but not the application. We’re working to help academic teachers understand that CTE centers have rigorous programs that help students graduate with the skills necessary for college and career readiness. This is important in Vermont as the student population continues to decrease and education policy around school consolidation is in play. A small high school might only have 40 students in 11th and 12th grade, and so they may not be as willing to send students to a technical center because of the impact it has on their building to “lose” this student. Educating schools about the value of a career and technical education, and how it may be in the best interest of a student, is critical. 

Ferreira: There are parts of Massachusetts where there is no waiting list to get into the tech school. But there are other areas where schools have to turn away more students than they can accept. In our Gateway cities, there is extremely high demand. The Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational Technical High School has more than 1,000 applications for 585 seats. Even in urban centers where students have schools of choice, they are gravitating to the voc-tech school option. In Worcester, the second largest city in Massachusetts, there are 500 students on the wait list for Worcester Technical High School – it is a school of choice among six public high schools. In Springfield, Putnam Vocational Technical Academy has 300 students on its wait list. Our voc-tech schools have so many more offerings to meet the economic needs of Massachusetts, and they are a path to higher education and career that makes sense for many families. 

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NEASC 2016-06