In June, Rakiyah Wright graduated from Bloomfield Tech, a vocational-technical high school in New Jersey. At Bloomfield, she took academic classes, learned trades, participated in the Green Energy Club, fundraised for global-warming awareness, and was offered several internships, she says, during and after her senior year. Wright received a scholarship to New Jersey Institute of Technology, where she now majors in biomedical engineering.
"An engineer's job is to use discipline, skill, and practical knowledge in order to design and build that [which] will improve the lives of people," Wright says. "And I know that my high school has set me on the right path in order to accomplish my goals."
But the type of high school that Wright attended—vocational-technical, which is now known as Career and Technical Education (CTE)—often receives a negative perception.
"Vocational education has been stigmatized over the past few years as being somewhere where you send those students who were possibly a disruption in elementary school or middle school," says Michael Gagliardi, the CTE principal at Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational Technical High School (GNBVT) in Massachusetts. "That's an idea that's long since passed. Our schools are very well equipped; they're state of the art as far as technology goes; and that's really not what vocational education is about anymore."
The stigma of vocational education that Gagliardi mentions is something that a June 2010 Economist article identifies as a "unique disdain." The reporter adds that "Americans hate the idea of schoolchildren setting out on career paths—such predetermination, they think, threatens the ethos of opportunity."
GNBVT senior Jacob Miller set out on a specific career path when he decided to go to a technical high school, and says he's had more opportunities there than he could ever imagine having at another school. With a focus on media technology, Miller has landed internships in the field and a videographer job at the local cable access channel. Miller has more career experiences on his résumé than many college students, and he's still about six months away from high school graduation.
[Lean why nonsummer internships may be a better fit for some students.]
However, the title of the Economist article asks if such a defined career path is "Too Narrow, Too Soon?" Gary Patton is the director of secondary education at the Warren County Career Center in Ohio, which offers technical education to high school students. He says he understands this concern, but career and technical education helps students "explore the avenues of their interests." Patton explains that students can test out a field they're interested in to figure out if that's really what they want to do.
Miller, for example, who delved so deeply into media opportunities at GNBVT, knows now that he wants to go a different route after graduation: political science. The class president has applied to seven colleges and says that, "although I don't want to go into the media field, I still think that with the education I'm getting, it's helping me with things like problem solving."
Gagliardi says that about 75 percent of GNBVT graduates go on to pursue higher education, a trend that is in line with the government's new mission for CTE programs.
"It can no longer simply be about earning a diploma and landing a job after high school," said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in an April 2011 speech. "The goal of CTE 2.0 should be that students earn a postsecondary credential or an industry-recognized certification—and land a job that leads to a successful career."
[Read Duncan's views on how discriminating against LGBT clubs violates law.]
About 120 miles from GNBVT, many Vinal Tech High School students in Connecticut lean toward the workforce rather than college after graduation. While about 44 percent of graduates pursue higher education, roughly 49 percent seek jobs in industries such as auto repair, cosmetology, and electromechanical technology.
"Unfortunately, in our society, we've looked at it as if everyone needs to be a college grad—which we know is untrue," says Marsha Casey, who has been teaching social studies at Vinal Tech for seven years and is one of two State Vocational Federation of Teachers (SVFT) union representatives at her school. "I think we're going to see blue collar workers come back."
Casey's prediction may have some merit, as this view is supported by an October 2011 CBS report on CTE education. The report follows Nick Senniti, who became a certified welder through his vocational education at Lehigh Career and Technical Institute in Pennsylvania and was offered three jobs when he graduated in 2009. Senniti and many other career-bound CTE graduates are fulfilling the latter option of the mission Duncan mentioned: the "industry-recognized certification" instead of the "postsecondary credential."
Whether CTE students plan on taking their skills to college or becoming certified for a trade, their schools will have to push those goals while also absorbing a budget cut of about $137 million, as Duncan noted in his speech.
Schools supported under the Perkins Act, which helps technical education programs in order to boost their effect on the economy, "need to make a convincing case for funding," Duncan said. "That starts by demonstrating that you are improving student outcomes. And there's no better data than by identifying how many students are going to postsecondary education and starting careers in the pathway they studied."
[Explore postsecondary options through the Best Colleges rankings.]
There seem to be many "convincing cases" for CTE success stories. Katelyn Fitzsimmons, a senior at GNBVT in Massachusetts, says that, from a very young age, she's loved to help people learn. She will soon graduate with vocational training in early childhood education, and then plans to attend Bridgewater State University, where she hopes to double major in elementary education and political science. Bloomfield Tech graduate Rakiyah Wright is a few months into her first year at New Jersey Institute of Technology and is already starting to consider her next step as well.
"I have great aspirations, she says, "like going to med school or grad school to get my doctorate degree."
See U.S. News's coverage of Technology in the Classroom.