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What happened to vocational education?

August 26th, 2014


A University of Idaho colleague recently asked me, “What defines technical education?” This question was not unusual; I have answered this question many times before.


The answer requires some explanation. Beginning in the 1980’s, what was called vocational education for decades was rebranded nationwide as career and technical education (CTE.) This was done in an effort to project a new image, and escape what was viewed as a negative public perception. In 2006, the last reference to “vocational” was removed from federal legislation. Also during this period, the higher cost of career and technical programs caused such programs to disappear from high schools all across the country, and expand in community and technical colleges that made CTE central to their missions.


During this period of name change, general education courses were increasingly taken together with occupationally specific education (CTE.) No longer is occupationally specific skill training offered without the foundational skills such as applied math and writing and reading for understanding. The Common Core is now poised to further impact CTE.


Some remnants of the politically incorrect term “vocational” remain. For example, the Hedlund Building on the North Idaho College campus still says “vocational,” and my Ph.D. will always remain in vocational-technical education (that should date me!) Idaho chose to use the name professional-technical education (PTE) instead of career and technical education, and was the only state in that nation to use this name. I’ll refer to CTE. In Idaho, CTE also means separate funding. CTE is separately funded in Idaho, and operates a statewide technical college system as well as provide funding for high school programs.


As with many things, varied definitions can be found. Here is the federal legal definition for career and technical education:


Career and Technical Education (CTE) is a sequence of courses that:

Here is a simpler, more brief, definition:

Career and technical education is a term applied to schools, institutions, and educational programs that specialize in the skilled trades, applied sciences, modern technologies, and career preparation.


Why is the definition of CTE important? It is important because students pursuing a college or university education want their tuition to produce a paying job at the end of the experience. If the learning experience is more closely aligned with the needs of employers, the more likely a job can be found. The traditional differences between academic learning and CTE have become less clear, and in fact, college applicants are wise to investigate how closely their chosen college or university major is linked to business and industry expectations. The more closely linked a program is to the job market, the more likely the graduate is to find employment.


My favored definition is as follows; career and technical education (CTE) draws curriculum from the current knowledge, skills and abilities used in business and industry. This definition can be contrasted with what we call academic learning. Academic learning typically draws curriculum from tradition, books and academic experts. This difference in the source of curriculum is what truly defines the difference between CTE and academic instruction.


Vocational education didn’t disappear; in fact, the practical “vocational” perspective toward the role of education in life has come to dominate student choices. Recent surveys of entering college students report the number one reason (85%) for pursuing a college education is “to get a better job.” Isn’t that a definition of vocational education?


By Robert G. Ketchum, Ph.D.

Previously published in the North Idaho Business Journal

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