For the last two decades of the twentieth century, business led the charge for school reform in order to have better prepared students for the workplace. Yet career and technical education programs, which have the mission of readying young people for employment, continue to be pushed aside by courses designed to prepare students for high-stakes academic assessments. All states have testing requirements for high school students in mathematics, science, English language arts, and sometimes social studies. One result of the emphasis on academic testing is a continuing decline in the number of students enrolled in career and technical education.
To reverse declining enrollments, career and technical education faces a twofold challenge: to restructure its programs and to rebuild its image. Traditional vocational programs provided students with job-specific skills that many parents viewed as too narrow for their children.
The trend is for career and technical education programs to rethink their mission by asking how they can prepare students with high-level academic skills and the broad-based transferable skills and technical skills required for participation in the “new economy,” where adaptability is key. Programs adopt this dual approach in an effort to make career and technical education a realistic option for large numbers of students to achieve academic success, which will translate into employment for them.
These programs teach broad skills that are applicable to many occupations. This preparation for the world of work is anchored in strong academic skills, which students learn how to apply to real-world situations. These academic skills include the competencies needed in the contemporary workplace as well as the knowledge and skills valued by academic education and measured by state examinations.
The reality is that the academic skills needed for the workplace are often more rigorous than the academic skills required for college. The multidisciplinary approach of most work tasks and the amount of technology and information in the workplace contribute to the heightened expectations of all workers, including entry-level.
For career and technical education programs to flourish in the early twentieth century’s test-driven school environment, they must: find ways to continue to prepare students with the skills and knowledge needed in the increasingly sophisticated workplace; embed, develop, and reinforce the academic standards/benchmarks that are tested on the state-mandated assessments; and teach the essential skills that all students need for success in life.
Organizing Programs around Career Clusters
The workplace requires three sets of skills of most workers:
- Strong academics, especially in English language arts, mathematics, and science, as well as computer skills;
- Career-specific skills for a chosen career cluster;
- Virtues such as honesty, responsibility, and integrity.
The U.S. Department of Education Office of Vocational and Adult Education has identified sixteen broad career clusters that reflect a new direction for education. The clusters were created to assist educators in preparing students for a changing workplace. The intent is for secondary and postsecondary educators, employers, and industry group representatives to work together to formulate cluster standards. The careers in each cluster range from entry level through professional/technical management in a broad industry field. Each cluster includes both the academic and technical skills and knowledge needed for careers and postsecondary education. These clusters provide a way for schools to organize course offerings so students can learn about the whole cluster of occupations in a career field. It is an excellent tool to assist students in identifying their interests and goals for the future. The sixteen career clusters are:
- Agriculture and Natural Resources
- Architecture and Construction
- Arts, Audiovisual Technology, and Communications
- Business and Administration
- Education and Training
- Government and Public Administration
- Health Science
- Hospitality and Tourism
- Human Services
- Information Technology
- Law and Public Safety
- Retail/Wholesale Sales and Services
- Scientific Research/Engineering
- Transportation, Distribution, and Logistics
The preparation of students in the career clusters must include academic skills, cluster-specific standards, and broad transferable skills. All of these aspects of the curriculum must be organized in a continuum. As students grow and develop through this continuum, they will prepare themselves for broader and higher-level opportunities.