A new Fordham Institute report authored by University of Texas professor Matt Giani finds that industry-recognized credentials (IRCs) are “mostly not transformative” for the high school students who earn them. But the truth is that it’s all about the context.
As a longtime statewide coordinator for career and technical education (CTE) in Texas, I see firsthand how CTE and IRCs can be transformative in students’ lives. For example, earlier this year, I visited a large school district on the border, and when I asked about their CTE program and its positive points, I heard eye-opening testimony from the superintendent. She passionately explained how much local parents and families loved IRCs. Why? Largely because earning an IRC could give the whole family an economic boost, providing hope for a better future and a way out of the poverty they were stuck in. Something as seemingly simple as a Certified Nursing Assistant certification (CNA) was viewed as transformative in the eyes of the community and its families. While a CNA is widely regarded by many experts as merely a “nice to have” or as a steppingstone entry-level piece to larger career opportunities, families may place much higher value on these credentials, based on their local context.
Another example of the importance of local context occurred in another site visit to a large urban district with a robust CTE program. One of the highlights of the three-day campus visit was the opportunity to talk to a number of CTE students in the school. They were, in many ways, just like the students quoted throughout the new Fordham report. These young people were refreshing, honest, and able to see things differently.
One young man told us he was in the Health Science career cluster because he and his parents wanted him to become a doctor. He told me that he had obtained the Certified Pharmacy Technician certification and was doing a paid practicum as a tech in a local pharmacy. It was a smart move because he was gaining valuable practical experience on the job in pharmaceuticals, and this knowledge would help him succeed in medical school down the road. He was also saving money to help pay for his further education. He acknowledged that he was taking a different path from the traditional “academic” one of his friends who had similar goals, but he thought he had it figured out.
This fresh approach to high school for students focused on academics is something CTE programs should build on and promote. In Texas, for example, we are considering how rigorous core courses such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate can be embedded into our programs of study, which will more clearly demonstrate how CTE programs truly integrate academic learning and technical skills and knowledge. Stay tuned for that important work.
CTE continues to trend upward. And on the ground here in Texas, we can see that IRCs are helping that along—and that, in many local contexts, they can transform students’ lives. School systems just have to continue making changes that help IRCs add to students’ educational outcomes, especially among low-income and minority groups, who have historically been underserved. IRCs should be integral to districts’ efforts to develop robust and industry connected programs of study. Texas, for example, has clearly identified and connected them to schools’ grades on the state’s A-to-F accountability system, and this has made educators and their leaders pay more attention to IRCs, since they’re a part of how their efforts are scored. Other states can and should follow suit. If they do, more lives will be transformed.