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State of the Union Address Sparks Cautionary Reaction in Career Tech. Ed.

In his State of the Union address last night, President Barack Obama touted the power of good career and technical education as a pathway to high-paying jobs. 

As my colleague Alyson Klein reports on the Politics K-12 blog, Obama highlighted the importance of obtaining some education after high school, and offered a vision of collaboration among community colleges and employers that would facilitate work-based learning for students, and also fill companies' needs for qualified workers.

Typically, when a president gives a particular cause a high profile, its most ardent advocates are thrilled. And that reaction wasn't absent from the career-tech field. LeAnn Wilson, the executive director of the Association for Career and Technical Education, released a statement praising Obama's focus on postsecondary skills.

She said she was "encouraged by the increased attention that this administration has given CTE as an established mechanism for increasing access to economic opportunity and strengthening the foundation of the American workforce."

But last night's presidential CTE shout-out drew a seriously cautionary statement from some of those who have dived deepest into the topic. The National Education Policy Center issued a statement warning that while strong career and technical education programs hold promise, they also "have the potential to be harmful."

"Vocational education approaches have a long history of becoming dead-end tracks for students from lower-income families and for students of color," the NEPC statement said, citing a 2011 policy brief on the topic by Marisa Saunders of Brown University. In that brief, Saunders emphasizes the importance of building CTE programs that offer the same level of academic rigor as good college-prep programs, so that students from families with lower incomes and lower levels of education—who tend to enroll disproportionately in such programs—don't end up segregated in weak education tracks.

NEPC calls attention to California's expansive network of "Linked Learning" schools as an example of the fusion of tough academics and career preparation. (We profiled that program in a 2011 story, as well. Take a look.) Linked Learning schools are "built on the fundamental insight that career and technical education can be academically rigorous," the NEPC said in its statement.

"But if poorly designed or enacted," Saunders warned in the policy brief, "the reform will only maintain the same old vocational education programs or alternative schools, continuing discredited practices of ability tracking rather than transforming the comprehensive high school."

Strong CTE programs must have four key components, she argues: College-prep academics that are strong enough to ensure a students' entry into their state's flagship public university, a solid core of professional or technical training, field- and work-based learning that facilitate students' real-world application of knowledge, and a range of support services such as counseling and transportation that eliminate barriers to program completion.

Kevin Welner, a University of Colorado-Boulder professor who directs the NEPC, urged educators and policymakers to "keep an eye" on politicians' promises and plans for CTE to see if they "learn from the lessons of the past, carefully crafting CTE to avoid the stratification and watered-down learning that have plagued vocational education in the past."

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