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Should Teachers and Parents Take the CTE Boom Seriously?

Education is in the midst of one of its periodic swings. Testing, teacher evaluation, and accountability are out of favor, while early childhood education, social and emotional learning, and career and technical education (CTE) are decidedly in.

One inevitable question is whether a given enthusiasm is a fad or something more substantial. It can be tough to tell the one from the other. But it's worth trying to do just that for the sake of educators, parents, and policymakers. It speaks to how seriously they should take the reform and how much elbow grease they should put into supporting, shaping, or resisting it. That's why my crack research assistant RJ Martin and I recently took a stab at doing just this for CTE, to see what we could learn.

CTE is especially interesting, since its champions are hoping to address so many persistent frustrations: by making high school more relevant for more students, offering students paths other than college, and rectifying problems that have long plagued vocational ed. With an eye to making sense of what might be ahead for career and technical ed, RJ and I analyzed CTE's public profile over the past two decades and compared that to what we found for some other popular 21st-century education reforms (you can see the study for all the particulars).

After examining two decades of media coverage, we emerged with four key takeaways.

First, as the following figure illustrates, interest in CTE has grown steadily over the better part of two decades. The scope and sustained nature of the growth are striking. Since 1998, the number of U.S. media mentions for career and technical education has increased more than a hundredfold.

Figure 1.jpg

Second, this heightened interest in career and technical education is part of a larger trend, which is seismic growth in attention paid to skills training and workforce preparedness. Indeed, media mentions of "workforce development" dwarf those of CTE and have grown faster.

Third, attention to career and technical education has grown much more steadily than did attention to the major 21st-century reforms. Now, as the figure below makes clear, CTE has not approached the intense attention showered upon No Child Left Behind, Common Core, and teacher evaluation at their peaks. Yet, while those reforms rocketed to public attention over three or four years and then saw rapid declines in media attention, CTE's public profile has looked very different—featuring a marked and uninterrupted build over an extended period.

Figure 2.jpg

Fourth, interest in CTE increasingly outpaces that in other prominent school improvement strategies. From 1998 to 2008, for instance, mentions of school vouchers dwarfed those of career and technical education. Over the past decade, that trend reversed—even though vouchers are more controversial, and, thus, more newsworthy. Meanwhile, whereas interest in CTE was once similar to that shown stuff like school turnarounds, personalized learning, and 21st-century skills, over the past decade CTE has left those far behind.

Figure 3.jpg

It seems a safe bet that CTE's gradual build will give it more staying power than other contested, high-profile 21st-century reforms. For better or worse, career and technical education appears poised to be a focal point in the post-NCLB, post-Common Core world.

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