By: Dr. Christine Powell
Pay close attention this year as public school across the United States are realigning education curriculums in support of College and Career readiness objectives for graduates. Recently, the “Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act” was signed paving the way for students to gain valuable knowledge and hands-on experience necessary for jobs in a broad range of industries. As a high school special educator, I see tremendous possibilities as a result of this bill for students with diverse learning needs to gain access to exploratory career courses as they prepare for life after graduation.
CTE PARALLELS SPECIAL EDUCATION TRANSITION PLANS
Career Technical Education (CTE), previously called vocational education, is the present-day label used to denote specialized courses and programs that focus instruction in skilled trades and occupational readiness (Drage, 2009). The aim of career technical education for high school students is to prepare them for career endeavors (ACTE, 2009). This goal matches special education career transition goals for students served in special education. CTE pathways can include classes in Building and Construction, Business, Marketing, Finance, Hospitality and Tourism, Manufacturing, Medical, Communication Technologies, Media, Automotive Manufacturing and Repair, as well as other coursework relevant to current labor market needs.
As special educators, we know the value of skill building for our student population; often connecting academics to job skills is abstract and seem so far off in terms of time for most of our students. However, the current wave of new career linking educational opportunities has its roots in economics. Although unemployment is currently the lowest it has been in a century, the United States is currently experiencing a ‘skills gap.’ The ‘skills gap’ refers to the scarcity of students being trained to fill existing, in-demand jobs left unfilled due to a shortage of qualified individuals.
Career Technical Education participation serves a crucial link to post high school occupation transition for students with disabilities. At the high school level, CTE classes integrate core academics, job-specific knowledge with relevant curriculum and employability skills within the secondary classroom/workshop setting (Drage 2009). CTE classes combine academic skills with career cluster pathways, leading students from high school up into community college programs. Students with learning differences who successfully participate in CTE are shown industry requirements, develop soft skills, as well as earn high school credits that go towards meeting their high school graduation requirements.
SPECIAL EDUCATORS ARE THE NEXUS OF CHANGE
As a teacher in the field, I see a need for special educators and case managers to be more proactive in linking students with diverse learning needs in these CTE experiential courses. Firstly, when looking at future job projections, the positive trend in job availability for skilled workers shows no sign of declining; in fact, long-term occupational projections remain strong for trained individuals up through the year 2024. Forty-three percent of job openings are predicted to be in the middle-skill level job sector requiring individuals to be trained beyond high school, but not requiring a four-year degree (Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics by State, May 2015).
Secondly, the benefits of special education student engagement in CTE is well supported in the research. The enrollment of students with disabilities in Career Technical Education programs has shown to lead to a decrease in the high school dropout rate for this subgroup, and a subsequent increase in the high school graduation rates when participation in CTE is a factor (Bryk & Thum, 1989; Gray, 2004). This increase in the graduation rate may be a result of experiential learning opportunities that are a part of CTE coursework.
In CTE courses, students learn by doing and can apply abstract concepts to concrete learning projects. An example of this would be a student learning about automotive repair through book work, then applying what they have learned through observation and doing the repairs themselves. Additionally, researchers Harvey, Cotton, and Koch (2007) found that students with disabilities “who participate in a career technical education program significantly increase their chances for postsecondary success in both academia and employment” (p.1). Furthermore, special education students who complete a CTE course have additional skills relevant to a vocationally specific career; showed an increased tendency to vie for competitive wage jobs and to work full time after high school (Wagner, Newman & Javitz, 2015; Wehlage & Rutter, 1986).
John Wagner, the author of the book, Most Likely to Succeed, touches on how education is changing to fit the needs of individuals in a rapidly changing society by stating, “The skills needed in our vastly complicated world, whether to earn a decent living or to be an active and informed citizen, are radically different from those required historically” (p. 27). Special Education stakeholders need to understand that training programs in CTE are part of new comprehensive education efforts, and students with disabilities who take part in these programs increase their odds for post-graduation job obtainment (Harvey, Cotton, & Koch, 2007). Engagement in CTE courses enhances learning opportunities for students with disabilities and provides real-world skill development. Taking advantage of these course offerings levels the playing field for career development.
About the Author
Dr. Christine Carrington Powell is a career Special Educator currently working in Southern California as a high school teacher and teacher trainer. Christine is a Fulbright Distinguished Teacher Scholar studying CTE pathways for diverse learners in Singapore. Her area of expertise includes teacher professional development and analyzing educational organizations to increase inclusive learning opportunities for students with disabilities. Reach Christine at http://www.linkedin.com/in/drccpowell/
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