Headshot of Stephen Pruitt

Stephen Pruitt

February is national Career and Technical Education Month. I think it’s a great idea to have a month where we as a nation can take the time to learn more about and appreciate all that career and technical education (CTE) offers our students. And believe me, our students are learning a lot in these classes.

In Kentucky, our CTE programs start at the 6th grade with exploratory courses aimed at generating student interest in various careers. I like to refer to these classes as the appetizer course, offering a broad view of many possible career options for our younger students. If students don’t know a job exists, then it’s hard for them to prepare for it during high school or college.

As high school approaches, students are guided by counselors, parents, teachers and their passions to choose one of more than 35 different career pathways that best suit their interests. These pathways – which are the culmination of course work and work-based learning experiences – help prepare students for a wide variety of potential future careers, everything from engineering and teaching to farming and information technology.

Last year alone, more than 131,000 students enrolled in a CTE course in the Commonwealth. Schools choose which pathways they offer based on local and regional workforce needs. Each pathway immerses students in the academic, employability and job-specific skills they need to be successful in the industry in which they have career aspirations.

CTE programs also have solid partnerships with postsecondary institutions. Many courses offer dual credit opportunities that allow a student to enter a postsecondary institution with college credits, which not only saves a student money but also increases the likelihood that he or she will earn a degree.

We are taking these partnerships to the next level with our New Skills for Youth Initiative, which is funded by a grant from JPMorgan Chase and the Council of Chief State School Officers. This initiative, now in its second year, is helping to create regional hubs where multiple school districts partner with a postsecondary institution to offer training that is tailored to the needs of employers in the region. Employers work with K-12 and postsecondary education to help create seamless pathways for students to get the credentials and the certifications they need to walk out of the classroom and into a good-paying job.

I’ve often heard it said that the way out of poverty is education. I think that’s only partly true. The real way out of poverty is a career. Everything taught in Kentucky’s high schools, regardless of what type of class it is, should be leading our students toward a career. For many students, these certifications are the key to a secure future.

One of my goals for the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) is to have the Commonwealth leading the nation in the number of industry certifications earned by our students. We’re well on our way. In the 2015-16 school year, more than 12,000 students earned certifications in such varied skill sets as a Microsoft Office specialist, emergency medical technician and Automotive Service Excellence (ASE). And because these CTE students earn their certification while they are still in high school, their families don’t bear the costs of the required tests, which can range up to the hundreds of dollars.

While classes are at the core of career and technical education in Kentucky, students have other excellent opportunities to explore their future careers. Statewide, more than 50,000 students are members of eight nationally recognized career-technical student organizations. These groups include Future Business Leaders of America, Family Career and Community Leaders of America, the National FFA Organization, DECA (marketing education), HOSA-Future Health Professionals, the Technology Student Association, Skills USA and Educators Rising. 

These organizations are co-curricular, meaning that the activities and competitive events they sponsor are directly tied to classroom instruction. Through participation in these organizations, students can apply what they have learned in class and gain recognition for their skill development. They also can practice the leadership, communication and teamwork skills that are so desperately needed in our world today. 

Career and technical education has consistently proved to be a wise investment. CTE even increases the likelihood a student will graduate from high school. According to a study published late last year in the American Educational Research Journal, high school juniors and seniors who completed a CTE course were less likely to drop out of school and more likely to graduate on time. That finding is backed up by KDE data.

In the 2015-16 school year, Kentucky seniors who completed three CTE courses – what we call a program of study – had a graduation rate of 98 percent. In comparison, the graduation rate for all high school students in the Commonwealth during that same year was 88.6 percent.

Of those seniors who completed a CTE program of study during the 2015-16 school year, an impressive 94 percent successfully transitioned to a job, the military, an apprenticeship or postsecondary institution. That kind of track record is why I support CTE.

Also, the national study published last year found that taking CTE classes while in high school had no impact on whether a student would attend college – an important point to highlight. I have often heard parents saying they don’t want their children to take CTE classes because they fear their child’s high school will take them out of the college preparatory path. While this is not the case, the perception is still there. This study seems to show that perception is wrong and I, for one, am glad to see it.

All students, regardless of their plans after graduation, can benefit from the skills learned in CTE classes.

While we’ve done well setting up an exemplary CTE program in the Commonwealth, I think we can do better. We need to encourage all students to explore the value that CTE programs can deliver, whether it is earning an industry certification, earning college credits or both. And we, as parents, educators and community members, need to support our children in finding their passions to better prepare for a future career.

Our business and community members can support CTE as well by offering students job shadowing or mentoring opportunities. When a high school CTE teacher calls and asks you to participate in their program, I encourage you to grab the opportunity. When a business opens its doors to high school students, not only is it helping students build the skills they need to become successful members of the community, the business is also helping itself by training its future workforce. This kind of partnership helps create stronger students, better workers and more successful businesses.

While February may give us just 28 short days to recognize all that CTE offers our youth, the Commonwealth is working all year long to help expand the benefits of the program to all students. CTE helps ensure that each and every student is empowered and equipped with the knowledge, skills and dispositions to pursue a successful future. I think that is a goal that we all can get behind.