In the waning days of January, Chiefs for Change—a nonprofit, bipartisan network comprising state and district education chiefs, including Ohio’s own superintendent, Paolo DeMaria—issued a report containing a series of recommendations on how to improve career and technical education (CTE).

The report presents a compelling case for why stronger CTE programs are necessary, namely that the United States lags behind other leading countries when it comes to quality career preparation during high school. In places like Germany, Finland, and Switzerland, students in grades ten through twelve take a “substantial, coherent course of study focused on a particular career area comprising five to six credits or more.” In the United States, only 6 percent of students do the same.

International differences in education models aren’t necessarily a bad thing. But the lack of adequate career preparation in America has led to some troubling consequences. The U.S. Department of Labor reported a record-high 7.1 million job openings in October 2017, but they also reported approximately the same number of unemployed adults—an indication that the skills and preparation of job-seekers didn’t match the needs of employers. Data also show that there are shortages in middle-skill jobs that don’t require a college degree but do require training and industry credentials.

High-quality CTE could help fill these gaps. According to Chiefs for Change, there are already some districts and states in its network that are on the right track. In Denver Public Schools, for example, approximately 4,000 high school students participate in job shadowing, mentoring, internships, and apprenticeships. In Tennessee, state leaders have aligned industry credentials to improved career pathways that lead to locally available jobs, and have expanded dual enrollment so that CTE students can access technical programs.

The Chiefs for Change report doesn’t recognize Ohio as one of the model states, and no Ohio districts are mentioned either. But that doesn’t mean our CTE sector is not working. In fact, quite a few of the report’s recommendations are already in place in Ohio. For example, it suggests that states build a “truly seamless” transition between postsecondary education and career training by dovetailing CTE programs with higher education and dual-enrollment opportunities. Ohio does this already through Career-Technical Credit Transfer, a policy that allows students to transfer technical-course credit to state institutions of higher education. Some of these transferable courses are available thanks to individual agreements between a secondary CTE program and a higher education institution. Others are available through statewide agreements that require all public colleges and universities in the state to award postsecondary credit to students who meet standards such as a specific class grade or a certain score on an end of course exam. In central Ohio, Columbus State is leading the way through a portfolio that includes investing in innovation grants, college and career pathway partnerships, and programs like Credits Count. (See here for a more in-depth look at all of Ohio’s dual-credit options.)

There are also recommendations that Ohio doesn’t currently follow but should. One such example is the call to expand work-based-learning (WBL) opportunities with local employers. The Ohio Department of Education has a framework for schools to use to grant high school credit to students who demonstrate subject competency through WBL, and there are various apprenticeship and internship programs across the state. That’s a good start. But finding WBL opportunities that count for credit requires students to reach out to their districts and “discuss the opportunities for partnership.” That’s asking quite a lot of high school students who might not even realize they could benefit from work-based learning, let alone be aware of available opportunities. It’s likely that these and other barriers to entry—like transportation issues—are keeping participation numbers low.

There are several ways for state leaders to improve the current structure. For instance, Chiefs for Change advises states to work with the business community to “establish intermediary organizations” that could advocate for WBL opportunities and publicize their successes. CareerWise Colorado, a business-led nonprofit that oversees a three-year apprenticeship program for high school students, is one example. Another option is an organization that makes students aware of the WBL opportunities already available in their area, just like School Choice Ohio does for Ohio’s voucher-eligible families. Legislators could also help by using federal funding and flexibility to create more opportunities, or by incentivizing businesses to participate through the strategic use of tax credits.

Another potential opportunity is for Ohio to do a better job of collecting, disseminating, and analyzing data on high quality career-readiness programs. Despite the thousands of students who participate in CTE, Ohio offers very little information about its programs or their students. For instance, we don’t know how many students currently participate in work-based learning, so there is no way to track progress in expanding such opportunities moving forward. Creating a better data system should be a top priority for Ohio policymakers.

The Buckeye State has a vibrant and growing CTE sector, and it’s important to celebrate what’s working. But it’s also important for policymakers and advocates to continue to push for improvement—and the latest recommendations from Chiefs for Change are a great place to start.  

Policy Priority:
Jessica Poiner - Fordham

Jessica Poiner is a 2011 Teach For America corps member who worked as a high school English teacher in Memphis, Tennessee. While in Memphis, she taught for Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District. A native of Ohio, Jessica holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Baldwin-Wallace University. 

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