As we head into the back-to-school season, we need to remember that for many of our kids, particularly foster children, school is a place of failure and added trauma. Not all of our kids are suited for academics, and we may not be helping them by forcing them into that mold. For older kids who struggle with school, we should take a serious look at recommending career and technical education (CTE) classes.
• CTE is not second-best. CTE has an unfair reputation as being inferior to academic education. In fact, CTE classes can be just as rigorous as, and sometimes more demanding than, academic classes. CTE classes can teach not only information, but soft skills such as balancing work load, showing up on time, and team work. These life lessons are just as important as academic skills, and CTE can be the best option for learning them.
In recommending CTE for our kids, we may have to fight against the stereotype that vocational training is for people who aren’t intelligent enough for academic classes. Let’s face it, schools are run by academics who were trained by academics. Of course they have a bias in favor of their training. But we shouldn’t let conventional wisdom influence us against what might work for our kids.
• CTE doesn’t prevent a later decision to go to college. Students who take CTE classes in middle or high school don’t have to choose a trade instead of college. Many kids discover a field in CTE that they love, and they eventually are inspired to pursue it in college.
A number of years ago, I worked with a client boarding school that followed the traditional Seventh-day Adventist model of having hands-on vocational classes alongside regular academic classes. I am not Adventist, but I came to appreciate the value of the emphasis on CTE training. Most of the students went to college after graduation, many pursuing degrees in fields that they first learned about in their vocational classes. Those who opted for trades graduated with skills that suited them to eventually run their own companies and explore a wide variety of interests. That trend fits with other research that CTE students are no less likely to earn a college degree than students who take traditional academic classes.
• CTE training can be a path to self-confidence and success. Even (or maybe especially) if our children decide against college, CTE can be an important asset for them. Our society overvalues college degrees. Many large employers no longer require college degrees, and just having a college diploma no longer ensures higher earnings (if it ever did). Skilled trades face a serious shortage of workers, and companies are willing to pay a premium for trained craftspeople. I often joke that I have paid a lot more money to plumbers and mechanics than to therapists with master’s degrees. Kids who find a fit in a skilled trade often have far more success than in struggling through academics.
More important, kids can find short-term success in CTE classes that will boost their self-confidence and self-esteem. We know that learning skills helps raise self-esteem. If our kids are struggling with academic classes (and the lowered self-esteem that comes with failing), then maybe it’s time to look for alternatives. Rather than continuing to try to force our children into the academic box, let’s help them explore other valuable and important skills.
As we’re helping our kids plan their school year, let’s recognize that CTE might be a viable path for them. There is nothing second-rate about vocational skills. A couple of my stepsons find the same poetry in car engines that I find in reading Shakespeare. It would be short-sighted for me to insist that the written word is more elegant than the hum of a well-tuned motor. It is just as wrong to insist that college has more value for our kids than a trade or technical path.