Massachusetts sets the bar again, this time in CTE

Getty Images/DGLimages

The most recent rankings from U.S. News & World Report once again have Massachusetts at the top in pre-K—12 education. For the vast majority of pundits and analysts, this should come as no surprise. Bay State students have excelled on the national and international stage for years. But what may surprise some is the state’s success with a particular type of schooling—career and technical education (CTE).

The most recent Perkins data show Massachusetts’s positive results on measures like technical-skill attainment, school completion, and graduation rates. A 2015 report from Achieve highlighted its transformation into a CTE leader, as well as some particularly successful programs. Another report showed that participating in one of the state’s high-quality CTE programs raised the probability of on-time high school graduation by 3–5 percentage points for higher-income students and 7 percentage points for their lower-income peers. And 2016 survey data showed high levels of satisfaction from both students and parents. In short, much of the data indicate that Bay State CTE programs are on par with the quality of the rest of their pre-K—12 offerings.

It could be argued that the Massachusetts’s vocational education laws and policies are a key part of its CTE success. Other states looking for ways to improve their sectors could certainly adopt them as their own and hope for the best. But each place has its own unique context and needs, and copy and pasting laws isn’t a guarantee for success.

That’s where the Alliance for Vocational Technical Education (AVTE) comes in. AVTE is a Massachusetts-based coalition that aims to increase access to high quality CTE in the Bay State. The association recently published a white paper that, among other things, outlines five domains that characterize an excellent CTE sector, and that other states can use as a starting point for following in Massachusetts’s footsteps. Let’s take a look.

Access and equity

It’s important that all students, regardless of their background or needs, have the opportunity to enroll in high-quality CTE programs. A necessary condition of that is providing students and parents with quality information about their options. And in terms of equity, states should make sure that admission policies and procedures aren’t biased in favor of certain students or certain populations.      

Infrastructure

Without the proper infrastructure in place, CTE programs can’t serve students well, let alone contribute to closing achievement gaps. AVTE points to a few key aspects of good infrastructure, namely employing effective teachers and staff, updated facilities, and access to appropriate equipment. Perhaps the most important lesson is that high-quality CTE sectors need reliable and adequate funding. Modernized buildings, proper equipment, and highly qualified staff cost money, and states that want the benefits of excellent career and technical education must be ready to fund them.

Curriculum, instruction, and assessment

In the past, CTE has been labeled as “blue-collar stuff” best left for kids who aren’t on a college path. Many of today’s programs, however, are just the opposite. Students earn industry-recognized credentials that will place them in good-paying jobs, but they also earn associate and bachelor’s degrees. This transformation has a lot to do with the curriculum, instruction, and assessments used by the programs. For starters, high expectations must be non-negotiable. CTE students should never be held to lower standards than their peers in traditional academic programs. And curricula should be aligned to state academic standards, as well as national benchmarks and local employer needs. States should also carefully consider how to license and train their CTE teachers; AVTE recommends using nationally validated teacher competency testing. As for assessments, AVTE recommends utilizing pre-and post-technical tests to measure exactly what students know and are able to do.

Career readiness

The primary goal of CTE programs is to prepare students for careers. To this end, AVTE recommends collaborating with recognized industry credential providers like NOCTI to develop state-customized credentials that accurately measure readiness. Similar to the way a good ACT or SAT score demonstrates college readiness, earning an externally validated credential can give CTE students solid proof of their readiness and skills. AVTE also emphasizes the importance of meaningful partnerships between CTE programs, businesses, and community members.

Data and outcomes

There’s no way to determine whether programs are effective without measurable outcomes, such as rates of graduation, dropout, job placement, and college-going and -persistence. States should make these data easily accessible to the public so that students and their families can make well-informed choices.

***

States looking for ways to improve their CTE sectors could do worse than importing Massachusetts’s policies. But if ESSA has taught us anything, it’s that each place has its own unique context and needs. That’s why personalizing and implementing these five domains would be a smart move for states interested in mirroring the Bay State’s CTE success.

 
 
Jessica Poiner
Jessica Poiner is an education policy analyst in the Fordham Institute’s Columbus office. She was a 2011 Teach For America corps member who worked and taught in Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District.