[Best Practices] Designing and Implementing a CTE Program in Your District

Monday, January 9, 2017 -- Casey Stone

Educators are familiar with the benefits of career and technical education (CTE). This curriculum engages students in hands-on, real-world learning; encourages a collaborative, project-based approach; and prepares students with the concrete skills they need to be successful in in-demand careers. If you need more proof, just take a look at some of the latest statistics. It’s apparent that CTE is one of the key strategies to help education adapt to 21st century needs.

Although CTE learning typically looks quite different from the traditional classroom model, getting a program off the ground doesn’t have to feel like a daunting task. As with any project, the key is to go in with a plan. During my time as a technology specialist and later as a district CTE administrator, I experienced this firsthand. Since then, after coming to Edmentum as an Education Consultant, I’ve had the privilege of working with schools and districts across the country as they’ve grappled with the complicated and always unique program development process. Along the way, I like to think I’ve gained some good insight on what works (and what doesn’t) in creating a CTE program that fits your district’s needs and can grow with you and your teachers.

Here are seven best practices I’ve found for administrators looking to design and implement a new career and technical education program:

1. Articulate your purpose

CTE is really a blanket term for a number of program models and educational outcomes. So, it’s important to clearly identify from the start why you want to implement CTE in your district and what goals you hope to achieve through your program. For example, are you hoping to provide students with different and more flexible options for dropout prevention? Are you looking to improve student achievement in core academic skills through an interdisciplinary approach? Or are you looking to offer more elective options to help students be college and career ready? No matter what your district’s goals are, make sure that they are clearly defined from the outset and used as the basis for all of the subsequent decisions you make about how to set up your program.

2. Determine which courses you will offer

One of the key benefits of CTE is that it places a focus on building skills in the classroom that are directly and immediately applicable in the real world. Offering the right courses to teach these skills is a huge piece of any successful program. Stay in tune to the skills that are most in demand across industries and make sure that you know which skills and careers are getting kids excited—and keep in mind that both are going to change over time. Early on, determine which courses you’ll offer to teach these skills—doing so will be a big help in planning other logistical aspects of your program. Be sure to think about how you will infuse core skills into your CTE curriculum, and consider offering an exploratory course at the middle school level to build a solid foundation of interest and enrollment in the program.

3. Evaluate your staffing resources

Once you know what you want your CTE program to provide, it’s time to think about how to actually make that happen. Do you have teachers within your district who are qualified to teach the courses you want to offer? If not, will you need to hire? Are there online courses that can fill in gaps? Keep in mind that many CTE certifications are in niche fields—teachers holding standard licenses may not have the expertise you need. Additionally, do you have the support staff you need to make your program successful? Counseling and guidance staff are key in effective CTE programs and are great resources to help students determine paths where they will be successful and learn how to navigate a different kind of educational model.

4. Think about professional development

Your staff members are the individuals who will carry out the day-to-day implementation of your CTE program, so their understanding and buy-in is absolutely essential to success. It’s important to have a plan to offer ongoing professional development (PD) and training opportunities in order to keep staff in the loop about the objectives of your CTE program and make sure that they’re equipped with the knowledge and resources they need to put strategies into action. This PD will look different for different staff members. For guidance and intervention staff, it’s important to provide them with a strong understanding of the goals and benefits of CTE so that they can be effective advocates and translators for students and families involved in the program. For your CTE instructors, especially those with an industry background or a more niche one,  it’s important to provide them with interdisciplinary instruction knowledge. And, of course, make sure that all of your staff are clear on the latest standards and comfortable with all of the technology your program is utilizing.  

5. Find your funding

It’s an unfortunate reality—budgets need to be kept in mind from the beginning with any large project. As you’re planning for your CTE program, think about the dollars currently available in your district, as well as new sources of funding you may be able to tap. Federal Perkins grants are the go-to source for CTE funding, but there are also some career-cluster specific grants that your program may be eligible for. Do your research early (the Association for Career and Technical Education and Advance CTE both have great resource pages), and don’t be shy about submitting applications.

6. Build partnerships within the community

The hands-on, clear connections to real-life careers are one of the biggest draws of CTE for students who are (understandably) always asking “why?” CTE courses become truly effective, not to mention popular, when they offer learners the chance to get out of the classroom and experience the working world firsthand. Building relationships with industries in your district’s community is the best way to create these opportunities. Reach out to different companies and express your interest in creating partnerships between their professionals and your students. Start small by proposing brief site visits or in-class speakers, and work up to more robust ongoing opportunities like mentoring, project-based learning partnerships, or internships. You may be surprised by the enthusiastic responses you receive from industries—after all, it’s a win-win situation when your students can achieve academic success and companies end up with access to more of the skilled workers they need. Plus, working adults love a change of pace as much as students and appreciate the opportunity to give back to their community.

7. Make a plan for ongoing evaluation

Implementing a CTE program isn’t a one-time undertaking. It’s a long-term commitment to a model that will inevitably grow and evolve, and along the way, you’re sure to try both great and disappointing strategies. Achieving success is all about iteration and scalability. From the outset, think about how you will gather feedback from everyone involved—your staff, students, parents, and industry partners. Surveys can be a great tool to make sure that every group’s needs are being met. Consider the data that you will have available from student test scores, online programs, and classroom formative assessment, and reflect on how you can put it to use to determine if your CTE programs is meeting its objectives. Think about how you can compile all of this information to get a meaningful read on how your implementation is going, and make adjustments to course offerings, curriculum, assessments, format, and other program components on a yearly basis.

With clear goals, some careful planning, and a dedication to continuous improvement, a career and technical education program can be a huge asset to your district to improve student outcomes. At Edmentum, we believe in the power of high-quality CTE, and that’s why we’ve worked hard to expand our online course library to include over 160 semesters of CTE courses across all 16 nationally recognized Career Clusters®. Want to learn more? Check out this video to see how Keller ISD in Texas has had success using Edmentum courses to provide individualized CTE instruction!