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Arne Duncan Urges CTE to Prove its Worth

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan urged the career and technical education community this morning to upgrade its programs to prove they are "worthy investments" as federal funding for such offerings grows tighter.

Duncan's comments were part of an address he gave this morning at a joint meeting of the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium and the U.S. Office of Vocational and Adult Education. As prepared for delivery, the speech abounds with support for new-age CTE, but it could also come across as a warning.

He reminded his audience that the federal budget negotiated for fiscal year 2011, and the one the Obama administration proposed for 2012, cut Perkins funding, a key source of support for CTE programs. And he said that in tight budget times, programs need to prove that they work.

Duncan reiterated points he has made in earlier addresses on CTE: that it has to be as rigorous as college prep, and prepare students for all the same possibilities as college prep does. The goal, he repeated, is no longer just getting a high school diploma and a job, but getting some kind of postsecondary credential or industry-recognized certificate. (See the speech he made back in February when Harvard released its controversial "Pathways to Prosperity" report urging rigorous CTE as one of many options for high school students.)

In today's address, the secretary also made a point of addressing the tracking concerns that some have raised about career and tech ed. Good CTE should expand students' options and put them in charge of their futures, he said.

"High school graduates—not the educational system—should be choosing the postsecondary and career paths they want to pursue," his prepared remarks said. "Too often, the K-12 system made these choices for children, tracking them into dead-end courses—instead of providing them with the skills necessary to succeed in college and careers and the guidance students needed to make good decisions about their future."

And there's that word again: guidance. This is a worrisome area, since it's not hard to figure out that without good information and encouragement, disadvantaged students will be unable to choose future pathways from the same place on the playing field as their more fortunate peers. And we all know that the counseling capacity in schools is not up to handling this job. (I've ranted about this before.)

The folks who wrote the Harvard report pointed to guidance as a key concern as well. With counselor-to-student ratios at 250-to-1 in high school and 457-to-1 in K-12 overall, and very little training on career and college guidance for pre-service counselors, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, the capacity challenge is not insignificant.

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