A Brief History of Career Technical Education: Then vs Now

The history of career technical education (CTE) traces its origins to post-Civil War America, with the opening of the St. Louis Manual Training School in 1879 under the umbrella of Washington University. The school grew out of the non-traditional thinking of educator Calvin Milton Woodward, who believed that the traditional school model would struggle to address the country’s need for skilled labor at a time of rapid industrialization.

Rather than isolate academic and technical education, Woodward and his team sought to open a school that addressed both, educating students with both “books and tools.” It would focus particularly on skills needed for woodworking and metalworking. Students at the school did do academic work but also balanced their days with time in the workshop and learning to use various tools.

While the Manual Training School represented the first model of CTE in America, it was far from the last.

The field of CTE has gone through many evolutions over the years, as educators and policymakers have searched for the best model for trade-based education.

But as recently as the early 1980s, CTE fell into disfavor, gaining a stigma as an “alternative” educational program. Fortunately, in recent years, it has begun to shed those stereotypes and is now being seen as a vital element of serving the needs of all students, not just those who are college-bound.

Understanding the history of CTE is crucial for continuing to change negative perceptions of CTE and cementing its place as a valued path for post-secondary students. Doing so will help ensure that ‌all students receive the support, guidance, and encouragement that they need to follow their own path to a brighter future.

A Recent History of Career Technical Education

The first federal legislation to devote resources to vocational education as an expression of education policy was the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917.

It provided states with federal funds to create training programs focused on agriculture and various trade and industrial skill sets. Funding was contingent on the vocational tracks being taught separately from general academic programs, with a fourteen and older target population.

The ‌Smith-Hughes Act shaped the nature of vocational education for about fifty years. Then, reformers began looking at ways of rethinking the model. Rather than focusing on providing the nation with skilled or semi-skilled workers, legislation passed in the 1960s and 1970s refocused vocational ed on students with disabilities or those with economic or academic disadvantages. Around the same time, research began to show that national academic performance was suffering compared to other countries. That prompted more focus on academic subjects and less on trade or work skills.

As a result, vocational education struggled both with resources and with an emerging stigma as a place for underachievers only. Reforms through the 1990s, 2000s, and today have sought to restore focus on the original purpose of vocational ed, especially given the needs of a transforming economy.

The effect of reforms on today’s school counselors has been profound. With questions raised about the value of college education, more students are exploring alternatives and looking for professional support and validation. Counselors need the right perspective and tools to help all students reach their dreams, whether at college, at work, in the military, or in an apprenticeship.

The Importance of CTE in Today’s Student Curricula

Changes in the economy over the past twenty-five years have made CTE an increasingly viable pathway to success. Several of the most satisfying and lucrative careers in fields such as technology align well with a CTE approach and not in a way that shortchanges academics.

Partially in response to these trends, some people are even questioning the value of a college education. The data shows that certain career-track jobs offer greater earnings potential than those requiring college degrees.

But it’s not an either/or question. Academics and CTE can co-exist if schools are to prepare students for the jobs of tomorrow. If nothing else, schools need to provide additional resources for CTE because students are asking for it, and the data supports the investment.

Students today say that they feel somewhat disenfranchised by a school counseling system that seems to put greater weight on college planning than almost anything else. That tends to lead to disengagement from school and career pursuits.

But a proper emphasis on CTE within a system “can motivate students to attend school more frequently . . . and therefore improve academic skills.”

How Technology and Choices360 Can Help Close the Gap

One of the biggest challenges of a renewed emphasis on CTE is helping students, parents, and other stakeholders learn the history of career technical education, get past the stigma, and understand its vast benefits.

Choices360 from XAP is a platform that supports counselors in helping students consider and plan for CTE-oriented careers. The system helps counselors access information and resources to manage opportunities and better connect students so they can be on their way to success.

Choices360 also supports counselors in guiding student career and academic planning with a ready-to-go curriculum that you can fully customize to meet your local outcomes and reporting needs. The portal gives students the capabilities to understand who they are and who they can become, along with measurement tools for staying on track and/or making needed adjustments.

Here at XAP, we believe that exploration lays the foundation for planning. That’s why we help school and district counseling leaders implement equitable programs and strategies to ensure that students graduate high school not only with a diploma but also with a plan.

To see how we can help you better support your students and drive state, district, and school initiatives with greater ease, transparency, and data, feel free to contact our specialists today!

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