State ESSA plans embrace CTE, but there's still much work to be done

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Kate Kreamer and Ryan Reyna

The movement to expand career readiness is growing across the country. After reviewing all fifty-one state Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) plans for our new joint brief, “Mapping Career Readiness in State ESSA Plans,” we found that almost all include at least one strategy to advance this work. Much more so than in the past, states are simultaneously creating more of these opportunities and holding schools accountable for their number of career-ready students. This is a significant shift in state policymaking that, if implemented in equitable and high quality ways, has the potential to benefit millions of learners.

Unfortunately, it is too soon to declare victory because most states failed to fully leverage ESSA’s flexibility to advance career readiness. For example, few states aligned their long-term goals to their vision for success, leaving many states’ overall strategy for supporting learners’ college-and-career readiness little more than rhetoric. And very few states leveraged ESSA to promote the integration of academic and technical instruction into their professional development or standards.

Seven findings—some good, some bad—are particularly noteworthy:

  • Forty-nine states’ ESSA plans included at least one strategy to expand career readiness.
  • Thirty-five plans included a career-focused metric in their high school accountability rating systems. The most common measures were dual enrollment, industry-recognized credentials, and work-based learning opportunities.
  • More than half of states included a statewide vision for college and career readiness in their ESSA plans. Yet only thirteen addressed career readiness in their long-term goals.
  • Thirty-six states used Title IV funding to encourage districts to support career and technical education (CTE) and career readiness. But only fifteen described specific state-level activities that will accomplish this.
  • Eleven plans included efforts to attract qualified professionals, train current teachers to better understand career readiness, and develop “grow your own” teacher pathways in high school. However, only seven states committed Title II funding to those activities.
  • Zero states connected career readiness to their academic standards and assessments.
  • Five states will use CTE or career pathways to support critically low-performing schools.

While the news is mixed, some progress is especially heartening—such as the lattermost finding. This is an area where states have a lot of room to support career-readiness activities for some of the students who need them most. Ohio, for example, plans to encourage low-performing high schools to implement CTE as part of their school improvement plans. And, in Idaho, a member of the state agency that oversees CTE is also a member of the state team that coordinates supports for schools identified for improvement.

It is also important to remember that ESSA plans are still just, well, plans. States still need to translate their words into actual policies, programs, and supports, which affect the day-to-day operations of schools and classrooms. Through this implementation, states and districts can take numerous steps to strengthen and expand career readiness:

  • Review gaps in access to and participation in high-quality career pathways and offer resources and assistance to close those gaps.
  • Ensure that career pathways are equitably provided.
  • Provide professional development to better integrate academic and technical content.
  • Establish business rules to ensure career-readiness data are effectively collected and measured.
  • Publicly report the results of college-and-career-readiness measures.
  • Integrate career readiness into school improvement strategies.

State leaders must harness this opportunity to truly provide all students with meaningful pathways to success beyond high school. We look forward to furthering this goal by spotlighting promising practices and working across states as they implement their ESSA plans.

Kate Kreamer is the deputy executive director at Advance CTE, and Ryan Reyna is a senior associate at Education Strategy Group.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.