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The ‘Back-Tracking via CTE' Award

Lexington Institute for NEPC Review: Updating Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century (Lexington Institute, February 2014)

The U.S. has a long history of tracking low-income students and students of color into dead-end vocational classes that prepare them for neither college nor a career. Every so often policymakers notice this, wring their hands, and say “never again.” Yet hope springs eternal in the human breast. So we can trust that a new generation of politicians will pop up with “innovative” ideas about how to create vocational tracks that produce completely different results.

Not ones to disappoint, a collection of think tanks and elected officials of both major parties are now promoting the idea that Career and Technical Education (CTE) schools will prepare their students for jobs in our New EconomyTM. We encourage the Lexington Institute to accept its Back-tracking Bunkum Award on behalf of the many other think tanks and policy wonks, across the centuries, that have discovered and rediscovered this most derivative of ideas. The Lexington report, Updating Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century, offers advice on how to unleash CTE’s potential to meet the needs of employers and employees alike in our rapidly changing economy. It is built on the Petrillian assumption that we should separate academically talented children from those in need of a non-academic alternative.

Reviewers Marisa Saunders and Jaime del Razo, both of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, concluded that the report manages to over-reach and under-reach simultaneously: It uses “a few poorly developed examples to make broad claims about key attributes of successful programs;” at the same time it does not capture the potential of high school CTE programs to bridge between academic features and the potential to use CTE approach to make learning more relevant and engaging. By replicating the harmful mindset that career education is somehow in conflict with college preparatory curricula, thus requiring separation of academic and voc-ed students, the report reinforces longstanding divisions by social class that funnel students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds disproportionately toward a vocational track, while affording those from higher socioeconomic backgrounds greater access to higher education and the higher incomes that come with it.