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How State Action on CTE Can Bring Us Closer to the Big Blur

January 23, 2024

At A Glance

Once a maligned pathway, career and technical education has been reimagined and may be what the United States now needs. But much remains to be done to realize its potential to blur the lines between high school, college, and careers.

Contributors
Meredith Hills Senior Policy Manager
Practices & Centers

The term “career and technical education” has long been associated with vocational programs that disproportionately put students who are from low-income backgrounds, who are women of all backgrounds, or who are people of color on a track to low-quality and low-wage jobs. These career and technical education (CTE) programs were designed to teach young people the specific skills they needed for one job while the programs’ academics lacked the rigor required for college admission. The result of such an approach, combined with the United States’ long history of systemic discrimination in the country’s school systems, often pushed students into these CTE programs and failed to set students up for career success or economic advancement. But much of CTE today is a world away from that, chock-full of effective programs that blend rigorous academics with hands-on technical instruction in ways that help students succeed along career and college pathways.  

This shift is not lost on the many students now signing up for CTE. Case in point: In Massachusetts, where students pursue secondary CTE as a pathway to MIT and UMass Lowell’s tech programs, the system of vocational technical schools has a waitlist of 3,000 students. And in Delaware, a medical assistant CTE program is paving the way to college and a career path in health care.  

For employers, CTE can provide the competencies they want to see in their workers. A national survey of employers showed that technical and workplace skills are often valued over academic achievements. The four traits employers most often cited as desirable when making a job offer were “flexible/adaptable,” “lifelong learner/motivated to grow,” “job-specific skills,” and “soft skills.” The skill ranked least important was “advanced/honors courses.”  

CTE may be what is needed in the United States to achieve what Jobs for the Future (JFF) has dubbed the Big Blur: erasing the arbitrary boundaries between high school, college, and careers to create one integrated system that puts youth ages 16 to about 20 on a path toward the attainment of postsecondary credentials of value and for preparation and entry into career fields that pay livable wages. JFF views high-quality CTE as a bridge to the Big Blur, considering how these programs can serve as a catalyst for systems alignment and a gateway for early exposure and preparation for high-paying careers.  

Yet much more work remains to be done to realize the potential of CTE in JFF’s vision for the Big Blur. CTE is woefully underfunded; it has been estimated that federal and state governments spend just 3% of their middle and high school budgets on CTE. Therefore, bringing high-quality CTE programming to all students remains elusive in most states. As JFF recently documented, Delaware stands out for its efforts to scale CTE and to take steps to bring it into alignment with the Big Blur.  

In this blog, we encourage states to adopt policies that expand access to high-quality CTE programs and to pave the way to redesign high school and college in the image of the Big Blur, so that all students have an opportunity to engage in career-connected learning. We provide tangible steps that all states should take in 2024 through legislative efforts and as they update their federally mandated CTE state plans. 

Achieving the Big Blur would require:

Incentives for accountability and financing to promote new ways of organizing learning
Alignment of high schools, colleges, and labor markets so that 11th-grade students enter new institutional structures focused on postsecondary and career preparation
Governance model that unifies decision-making authority over grades 11-14 as well as over districts and postsecondary institutions that are working as a unified institution
Staffing structures designed for effectively organizing learning and work experiences and support systems for older adolescents in grades 11-14

The Time Is Now

2024 presents an unmatched opportunity for states to elevate and improve the role of CTE experiences through federal and state policy. This year, states must resubmit their four-year plans as required by the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century (Perkins V) Act. And in the states, CTE has momentum. According to a report from Advance CTE and the Association for Career and Technical Education, 36 states enacted or passed 123 CTE-specific policies in 2022. (The analysis of 2023 legislative trends is not yet available.) 

The report, which includes a review of trends in CTE and career-readiness policies in the United States through the decade ending in 2022, says that the CTE policies most commonly addressed were industry partnerships and work-based learning, followed by career/academic counseling, dual/concurrent enrollment, articulation (the linking of two or more educational institutions to facilitate a smooth transition for students from one course, program, or educational level to the next), and early college.  

Steps to the Big Blur are a Cornerstone of High-Quality CTE Programs  

Perkins V describes several key characteristics of CTE that, when implemented, effectively provide building blocks for realizing the vision of the Big Blur. 

  • Program of study requirements
    • A CTE program of study, formalized by definition in Perkins V, has parallel traits to the Big Blur, including rigorous academic and technical courses, multiple entry and exit points throughout the pathway (each with a credential), alignment to labor-market needs, and postsecondary attainment. A program of study positions learners for credit and credential attainment opportunities that match their individual needs, instead of matching them based solely on their academic grade level. If designed with an eye toward the Big Blur, this means that grade levels and the high school/college distinction could disappear, replaced by a series of learning experiences with embedded work-based learning. 
  • Career-connected learning
    • Career exposure and training activities, work-based learning experiences, and industry-recognized credentials are hallmarks of high-quality CTE programs. When Perkins was reauthorized, it revised the definition of “work-based learning,” including by adding the word “sustained.” The point addressed by that change is that random acts of work-based learning don’t truly address learner needs. Sustained experiences lead toward the Big Blur’s vision for students to learn in multiple models, including in classrooms, workplaces, and the field. Work-based learning and credential attainment appear again in the Perkins secondary accountability metrics, though states can choose if and how to measure it. 
  • Career navigation and counseling 
    • Perkins V elevated the role of career advising and exploration with new designations of these services to out-of-school youth and with an expanded scope of what career guidance and academic counseling must cover. This is also a component of a program of study that can be funded by state leadership funds, and Perkins funds can now be used as early as grade 5. JFF’s metric for quality in the Big Blur vision is whether students develop the knowledge and skills needed to build professional networks, engage in self-advocacy, identify good jobs and good employers, and overcome barriers based on race, ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic background.  
  • Employer engagement in co-design and delivery 
    • CTE programs rely on stakeholder input and alignment so that they are more responsive to local and regional workforce needs, and one partner that is key to achieving the Big Blur is employers. Perkins V lists employers as a stakeholder for state plan development and programmatic design. Our aspiration for the Big Blur is that employers will have an impact on all points along the pathway: shaping curricula and course selection, co-teaching, training and then hiring qualified job candidates, and ensuring that the work environment is welcoming for all young people.  

 

Sustained experiences lead toward the Big Blur’s vision for students to learn in multiple models, including in classrooms, workplaces, and the field.

How to Move Closer to the Big Blur Through CTE Implementation

Perkins V is the major federal lever to move and shape state action and implementation of strong, high-quality local CTE programs. States this year must revisit their Perkins state plan and determine adjustments, and this is a chance for them to move closer to the Big Blur. Plans are generally due in May 2024 but as early as March if done as a combined Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) plan.  

In October 2023, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education (OCTAE) published a memo with recommendations for updating state plans, many of them with the potential to increase the impact of CTE programs and move states closer to achieving the Big Blur vision. But how should states work to achieve this? We suggest the following:  

  1. Define high-quality CTE. States are encouraged to “use ‘high-skill,’ ‘high-wage,’ and ‘in-demand’ to connect CTE programs and good jobs,” as opposed to selecting just one of the three, as required by Perkins. A high-quality program of study must include career and academic guidance, which is defined in Perkins V as access to information about career exploration and planning, career options, financial aid, job training, secondary and postsecondary routes, dual enrollment, work-based learning, support services, and more. Essentially, a high-quality CTE program would set a student up for seamless transitions between high school, college, and the workforce. In turn, this would begin to break down the barriers that the Big Blur seeks to erase. 
  2. Use funding to support innovative programming. Perkins V increased the allowable allotment of a state’s reserve fund from 10% to 15%. However, only 14 states authorized that full amount, and a handful of states excluded reserve funds altogether. OCTAE recommends that “each state fully leverage state leadership funds and the reserve fund to support student equity, spur innovation, and improve state and local CTE programs and ecosystems.” The reserve funds can be used to increase access through dual enrollment, to improve access in rural regions, and to make targeted responses to equity gaps. Reserve funds can also be leveraged to support and/or incentivize partnerships between secondary and postsecondary players. This would set up seamless postsecondary transitions while a student is still in high school, bringing this part of the student experience closer to the Big Blur. 
  3. Articulate systems alignment. As of today, only nine states have combined Perkins V and WIOA state plans. Though a combined state plan is ideal to promote shared goals and planning across state entities, individual plans can still promote this by sharing components in each. To avoid siloes of state agencies, OCTAE encourages Perkins eligible agencies to “partner with agencies administering WIOA core programs and other agencies to strategically position Perkins-funded programs at the intersection of the state’s education and workforce systems.” At a minimum, agencies in each state should have a shared vision for CTE, workforce development, and economic development. If a state’s agencies operate individually, they will prevent seamless movement for those on pathways, and the state will not be able to make progress toward the Big Blur. 

 

Looking Ahead

With state and federal attention turned to CTE and the Big Blur, policies from both governmental levels must be leveraged to continue building out the best examples of CTE programs and expanding access and quality to ultimately make JFF’s vision for the Big Blur a reality.  

As noted earlier, Delaware is an exemplar. The state takes advantage of federal policy levers that are available but not required, and it has innovative education-to-career programming. Successive governors have combined plans into a single state plan, a step seen as essential to coordinating statewide education and economic endeavors. This has helped reinforce collaboration across the spectrum, from middle grades through the workforce, and it has moved the state beyond having parallel goals for agencies toward integrating quality indicators across programs. Delaware’s combined state plan goes beyond minimum requirements and incorporates multiple indicators that reiterate that secondary and postsecondary education should not operate in silos. The cross-cutting reporting metrics include postsecondary credit attainment, work-based learning participation, and attainment of a recognized postsecondary credential. 

The Big Blur has not yet been fully achieved, but until it is, we must push forward innovative education programming. Starting in at least grade 11, students should have access to postsecondary experiences that add value to their academic and career trajectory. This aligns with one of the tenets of high-quality CTE, that it should no longer be dismissed as an inferior pathway. We must ensure that all populations receive recruitment and retention supports for CTE programs—particularly those populations that were systemically tracked into the low-quality CTE pathways of the past. 

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Jobs for the Future (JFF) is a national nonprofit that drives transformation of the U.S. education and workforce systems to achieve equitable economic advancement for all.