Q & A: James Stone, CTE Researcher

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Career and technical education (CTE) has come a long way from the shop class of three decades ago. James Stone, the director of the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education at the Southern Regional Education Board, does research focused on strategies that improve the capacity of CTE programs. A Distinguished University Professor in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Louisville, Stone was a retail manager before starting his academic career as a high school marketing teacher.

He recent spoke with ASBJ staff writer Michelle Healy about the benefits of high-quality CTE programs.

Is CTE different from vocational education?

As a general rule, yes, but there are still many examples of what existed as far back as the 1950s and 1960s around the country. So while there are really terrific programs that feature high-quality instruction, work-based learning programs, connections to career pathways, and active career-tech student organizations, there are still lots of places where they are just struggling to try and figure out what’s the best thing that can be done to help young people move ahead. There’s a lot of variability in quality in CTE programs across the country.

Is the stigma associated with CTE and vocational education gone?

Stigma, like beauty, lies in the eyes of the beholder, I suppose. Even in the worst of times, there were communities that placed a lot of value on what was then called vocational education because, if they were good programs, they did a lot for young people who weren’t necessarily going directly to college. And even for those who were, especially if they wanted to be engineers, a good dose of work-based, secondary-level career and technical education would be a wonderful addition.

What are some benefits of a high-quality CTE?

It provides a vehicle for young people to understand why what they’re learning in their (academic) classes is so important. We’ve done research where we’ve interviewed teachers who have had students go through some of the contextualized learning in an auto shop or maybe cosmetology, or IT lab. They talk about how it really changed students’ ability to wake up and pay attention in class. Research shows that when math, science, and English are woven into CTE courses and students apply their knowledge to real-world problems, they become more engaged and perform better.

Can these skills set young people up for well-paying jobs?

Having the skills that industry values—and if they are built on a stackable, credential-based career pathway—that’s an added value that most parents who see these boomerang kids sleeping on couches in the basement wish they had thought about sooner. There is the opportunity to develop marketable skills while you are still in high school and enhance the understanding of core academics, but I emphasize that this is in quality programs. Not all programs with the same labels provide the same benefit. And that’s part of the problem.

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