Last September, a piece in U.S. News and World Report argued that too many high school students are unprepared for college, and that all four years of high school ought to be devoted to college prep. The article went so far as to suggest that college prep should begin as early as the eighth grade. College and career readiness are both central aims of the Common Core. But one year into the rollout of the standards, is the focus on college readiness taking priority over careers?

From our vantage point, the pressure on secondary students to pursue further education after high school continues to mount, making students often feel that college is their only option. But in an educational era that increasingly emphasizes getting students into college, how can we step up our support for career and technical education (CTE)—can we use this period of change to design programs that teach students real-world workplace skills, in addition to helping them succeed academically?

As Erika Anderson observed in a much-discussed 2012 article in Forbes, a four-year degree is hardly the only path for students, especially in today’s tech-driven economy. “A college degree doesn’t guarantee success,” she wrote, “and not getting a college degree doesn’t guarantee failure.”

Rediscovering CTE

Three years ago, in a speech at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan lamented that career and technical education has been “the neglected stepchild of education reform.” Those words still ring true.

Although there has been something of a resurgence of CTE programs in the United States in recent years, the stigma attached to this type of education still exists. In the fall 2014 issue of American Educator, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, addressed this gap and noted the persistence of a two-tier educational system, writing, “Despite the proven success of CTE programs nationwide, many are still struggling with funding or lack of support—and outdated biases that view CTE programs as vocational and meant to relegate students to second-class citizenship.”

While CTE programs are commonplace and successful in many European countries, in the United States they have long been inaccurately viewed as an option solely for those not suited to academic pursuits, and for troubled and at-risk youth. This kind of misinformation continues to stigmatize CTE, even as the facts present a quite different and powerful narrative.

According to the Association for Career and Technical Education, “CTE serves 94% of all high school students, including male and female students, students from many races and ethnicities, and students from higher- and lower-income backgrounds.” Additionally, the average high school graduation rate for students concentrating in CTE programs is over 90%, compared to a 75% national freshman graduation rate (the portion of freshmen who graduate on time). And more than 70% of those in CTE programs went on to pursue postsecondary education “shortly after high school.”

With these stats, the tide should finally turn in favor of a CTE path for high school students. And Congress and state legislators appear ready to help. With the passage this year of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act—which the library community strongly and vocally endorsed—more support looks like it is finally on the way for those students who do not wish to seek a traditional four-year college degree.


In a major announcement last month, New York education officials approved a groundbreaking initiative that offers students the chance to develop career-ready skills in addition to preparing for college, recognizing that one standard diploma is not a fit for all. Beginning in the fall of 2015, students in New York will now have the option of graduating high school with a CTE diploma, enabling them to pursue what the New York Regents called “multiple pathways” as they look to attain degrees other than the standard Regents diploma. With these more flexible graduation requirements, New York joins states such as Florida, Texas, North Carolina, and Wisconsin that have CTE-focused endorsements for their high school diplomas.

If the latest initiative follows some of the state’s other current programs, students may benefit significantly. One notable example is the Pathways in Technology Early High School (P-Tech) program. Launched in 2013, P-Tech is billed as a “public-private partnership” that will enable some 6,000 New York students to at once earn a high school diploma, a college degree, and a pathway to a job.

Students at Freeport High School (N.Y.) are among those enrolled in P-Tech. Under the program, they can earn a Regents Diploma and an Associate Degree in Applied Science while still in high school, at no cost, through a partnership with Farmingdale State College. This program also includes mentoring and internships within the tech industry, and P-Tech students will likely be the first in line for jobs with partnering companies after graduation.

Another program expanding options for high schoolers is Virtual Enterprise International. This program provides “a virtual business simulation,” in which students run their own businesses and work in classrooms set up like offices, all while earning college credits in business.


Such programs look not just to help students graduate, but to offer them a pathway to a career—which should be a perfect fit with the “college and career readiness” goals demanded by the Common Core. We hope such efforts will be expanded, and more schools will be given these opportunities.

Embracing CTE could also be a great opportunity for professional and educational publishers. What new products are needed for these students? How can schools and educational publishers partner to expand opportunities for them?

While the talk leading up to Common Core has largely focused on college readiness, there is also an opportunity here to finally recognize that a traditional four-year degree path may not be a desire or even an option for certain students. And recent efforts to boost the CTE pathway acknowledge that there are many avenues to success for students after high school. This is a significant development, and what happens now—especially as some states begin rethinking or scaling back Common Core—will be important to monitor. Are you working on any CTE programs in your school or library? Are they affected by the Common Core? We want to hear from you. E-mail us at