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Researchers Urge Caution Regarding Expected SOTU Push to Expand Career and Technical Education

Kevin Welner, (303) 492-8370,
Marisa Saunders, (310) 866-2263,

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BOULDER, CO (January 20, 2015) - This evening we can expect President Obama, Congressional Republicans, or both to continue the push to expand so-called Career and Technical Education schools and programs. CTE programs are being promoted as win-win partnerships between schools and businesses, preparing students for jobs in today’s economy.

These ideas have some potential to be beneficial, but they also have potential to be harmful. As Dr. Marisa Saunders explained in a 2011 NEPC brief, vocational education approaches have a long history of becoming dead-end tracks for students from lower income families and for students of color. The trick, she explains, is to avoid the tracking and segregation by taking the best of CTE ideas and the best college preparatory approaches and creating “Linked Learning” schools.

These Linked Learning schools, which are primarily in California, are “built on the fundamental insight that career and technical education can be academically rigorous,” explains Saunders.

“Learning both academic and technical knowledge is enhanced when the two are combined and contextualized in real-world situations. … Connecting academics to such real-world contexts promotes student interest and engagement.” She also points out that “students provided with both academic and career education are more likely to be able to later choose from the full range of postsecondary options.”

“But if poorly designed or enacted,” she warns, “the reform will only maintain the same old vocational education programs or alternative schools, continuing discredited practices of ability tracking rather than transforming the comprehensive high school.” In her NEPC brief, Saunders describes four essential components a well-designed Linked Learning reform:

  • A college-preparatory academic core that satisfies the course requirements for entry into a state’s flagship public university, using project-based learning and other engaging classroom strategies; 
  • A professional/technical core well-grounded in academic and real-world standards;
  • Field-based learning and realistic workplace simulations that deepen students’ understanding of academic and technical knowledge through application in real-world situations; and 
  • Additional support services to meet the particular needs of students and communities, which can include supplemental instruction, counseling, and transportation.

“As we watch these politicians tonight, we should keep an eye on their CTE proposals. Do they learn from the lessons of the past, carefully crafting CTE to avoid the stratification and watered-down learning that have plagued vocational education in the past?” says University of Colorado Boulder Professor Kevin Welner, who directs the National Education Policy Center.

Saunders is currently Principal Associate at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. Her brief, titled, Linking Learning to the 21st Century: Preparing All Students for College, Career, and Civic Participation, is available at, and it includes model statutory code language authored by attorney Christopher Chrisman.


The National Education Policy Center (NEPC) is housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education. Its mission is to produce and disseminate high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. We are guided by the belief that the democratic governance of public education is strengthened when policies are based on sound evidence.  For more information about the NEPC, please visit