Career and technical education is a term applied to schools, institutions, and educational programs that specialize in the skilled trades, applied sciences, modern technologies, and career preparation. It was formerly (and is still commonly) called vocational education; however, the term has fallen out of favor with most educators.
Career and technical programs frequently offer both academic and career-oriented courses, and many provide students with the opportunity to gain work experience through internships, job shadowing, on-the-job training, and industry-certification opportunities. Career and technical programs—depending on their size, configuration, location, and mission—provide a wide range of learning experiences spanning many different career tracks, fields, and industries, from skilled trades such as automotive technology, construction, plumbing, or electrical contracting to fields as diverse as agriculture, architecture, culinary arts, fashion design, filmmaking, forestry, engineering, healthcare, personal training, robotics, or veterinary medicine.
Career and technical education may be offered in middle schools and high schools or through community colleges and other postsecondary institutions and certification programs. At the secondary level, career and technical education is often provided by regional centers that serve students from multiple schools or districts. For example, the Boards of Cooperative Educational Services in New York administers a network of 37 regional career and technical education centers that serve students throughout the state. Many states have similar regional centers or statewide networks that operate as part of the public-school system.
In some cases, career and technical education is provided through a high school, where it may or may not be an integrated part of the school’s regular academic program. Students may also attend separate career and technical institutions for part of the school day, or a regional center may be the primary school of enrollment, where students take both academic and career and technical courses. In other cases, career and technical programs may take the form of a distinct “school within a school,” such as a theme-based academy, that offers an interdisciplinary or career-oriented program in which academic coursework is aligned with specific career paths, such as culinary arts, nursing, or engineering.
Some educators and school-reform advocates argue that career and technical education is an underutilized learning pathway that could help to increase the educational engagement, achievement, and attainment of students who are not excelling in more traditional academic programs. The practical learning experiences that are often provided in career and technical programs appeal to many students, and certain common elements—the focus on critical thinking, new technologies, real-world settings, hands-on activities, and the application of learning to practical problems, for example—align with a growing emphasis on 21st century skills—skills that are relevant to all academic subject areas and that can be applied in educational, career, and civic contexts throughout a student’s life. Advocates may also argue that career and technical education programs are an antidote to some of the weaknesses of traditional academic programs. For example, rather than learning from books, taking tests, and discussing abstract concepts in classrooms, students gain practical, relevant, marketable skills that will them more employable adults after graduation.
Over the past few decades, learning expectations for career and technical education have risen significantly, largely in response to the increasing sophistication of modern careers that are demanding higher levels of education, training, and skill from the workforce. For instance, yesterday’s “auto mechanics” are today’s “automotive technicians,” and automotive programs now routinely provide training in the use of advanced computerized diagnostic equipment in addition to more traditional mechanical repairs. Students enrolled at career and technical centers, which are typically secondary-level public schools, are required to meet the same learning standards that apply to students in public high schools. In addition to state-required learning standards that apply to public schools, many states have developed standards specific to career and technical programs.
In the United States, career and technical education is often stigmatized, and there is a widespread perception that career and technical centers provide a lower quality education or that students who attend such schools are less capable or have lower aspirations. At least in part, these perceptions are lingering stereotypes associated with traditional “vocational” programs of past decades. There is no concrete evidence that such generalized perceptions and stereotypes are valid, and many studies have shown that students enrolled in career and technical programs can and do outperform students in more traditional academic settings.
Discussions about career and technical education also intersect with ongoing debates about academic “tracking,” or the sorting of students into tiered courses based on past academic performance or perceived ability. Depending on its structure, academic requirements, and student demographics, a career and technical program can resemble an academic track in that certain types of students or certain educational outcomes may predominate. For example, lower-income students and minorities may be disproportionately represented in a program, or graduation rates and college-going rates may be markedly lower. Critics of tracking may argue that such results more than likely reflect the particular structure and culture the education system, rather than an accurate representation of the abilities and aspirations of the students enrolled in the programs.