Three Ways Federal Policymakers Can Transform CTE to Benefit Learners, Workers, and Employers

Published mar. 22, 2021

As federal policymakers grapple with the challenge of reopening schools and getting the economy back on track while laying the foundation for a more equitable future, they are recognizing that career and technical education (CTE) programs could play key roles in the long-term effort to build a talented workforce.

Support for CTE is growing on both sides of the aisle in Congress, and in the Biden administration. In February, the co-chairs of the Congressional CTE Caucus—Representatives Jim Langevin (D-RI) and Glenn Thompson (R-PA)—introduced a resolution to formally recognize February as National CTE Month. And at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee, Miguel Cardona, who’s now secretary of education, joined senators in praising CTE programming, and he pledged to work to ensure that all students have access to college and career pathways when they graduate from high school.

The question now is, how do federal policymakers build on that momentum and harness the potential of CTE to drive innovation in education, improve outcomes, and strengthen workforce connections?

JFF urges the Biden administration and Congress to think boldly about CTE to ensure that it contributes to an equitable economic recovery and becomes an integral component of programs that meet the needs of today’s learners, workers, and businesses.

We’ve identified three strategies Congress and the administration should pursue right away to achieve those goals: Use the bully pulpit, work across silos, and create a new innovation grant that significantly increases funding for secondary and postsecondary CTE programs. Here’s a look at each one of those strategies in more detail.

The question now is, how do federal policymakers build on that momentum and harness the potential of CTE?

Use the Bully Pulpit

Because it has a prominent national platform, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Career and Technical Education (OCTAE) can use the bully pulpit to drive innovation and improve learner outcomes. For example, OCTAE could craft a nationwide communications campaign and organize meetings and events that promote messages designed to improve attitudes toward CTE. It could also push for the integration of CTE into core academic curricula. The cumulative impact of such efforts could help expand and diversify the pool of CTE instructors. Such initiatives should set clear expectations that all CTE programs connect to in-demand industries and public infrastructure spending.

OCTAE’s priorities should include promoting effective and innovative practices and sharing information about what’s possible for CTE in virtual learning environments.

Work Across Silos

Educational programming still remains largely disconnected from the needs of students, workers, and employers. By strengthening collaboration between the U.S. Department of Labor and agencies with strong employer connections, OCTAE could build upon current efforts to develop an infrastructure that supports employers building relationships with school districts and postsecondary institutions. That effort could deepen existing education and workforce relationships and alignment with in-demand industries and occupations identified by state and local leaders.

OCTAE should also encourage employers to collaborate with schools and training providers to develop a diverse array of short-term work-based learning experiences (such as micro-internships or pre-apprenticeships) in addition to traditional longer-term internships and apprenticeships.

State and local intermediaries can also play a key role in developing a comprehensive infrastructure that fosters connections between education and industry, and OCTAE should encourage states to use discretionary funds to support such efforts. Examples of intermediaries that are effectively building connections among educators, employers, and workers include Minneapolis, Minnesota’s AchieveMpls, California’s INNOVATE Tulare-Kings, and New York City’s Here to Here.

Federal lawmakers should significantly increase funding for secondary and postsecondary CTE programs.

Create a New Innovation Grant

Federal lawmakers should significantly increase funding for secondary and postsecondary CTE programs in order to meet the future workforce needs of our evolving economy. Increases to the Perkins CTE formula are desperately needed. In addition, there’s opportunity for the federal government to spur innovation through new grants focused on programs of study that do the following:

  • Bridge high school, postsecondary education, and the workplace, and offer courses that are aligned to regional labor market needs
  • Expand opportunities for students to begin earning college credit and industry credentials in high school
  • Provide rigorous, sequential, and clearly articulated coursework that integrates academic and technical subject matter and leads to industry-recognized postsecondary credentials
  • Include multiple entry and exit points for postsecondary students (including out-of-school youth and adults) by adopting a modularized curriculum that corresponds to stackable credentials and jobs
  • Invest in intermediaries to support a comprehensive pathways infrastructure
  • Increase the focus on academic and career counseling services and student support

A good deal of momentum has built up around CTE programming over the past few years, and federal policymakers and the Department of Education should keep up the progress. JFF looks forward to working with the Biden administration to build an innovative education system that supports and values CTE programming and connects to workforce needs.