A Moment with Dr. Moore

January 24, 2024

Changing the Story of CTE: The Role of the High School CDA

Career and technical education has gone from a second-tier path for students who weren’t college bound to a top priority nationwide. Forty-two states have signed the Common Career Technical Core, a commitment to ramp up CTE programs and make them more rigorous, reports the nonprofit advocacy group AdvanceCTE. This widespread, bipartisan support for CTE programs reflects a change in public opinion since the 1990s, when most Americans considered college the key to success. Now a growing number of people think it’s more important to prepare students for careers than college, a trend that reflects the soaring cost of college. Students are starting to look at $24,000 to $25,000 in college debt a year, and that’s for a state school. The return on this investment is uncertain, as growing numbers of students think, especially since many aren’t sure what field they want to pursue. In the past five years, the nation has recorded its deepest slide in college enrollment as growing numbers of young folk have chosen to follow a different path.

The focus of CTE programs has now shifted away from traditional vocational programs, such as auto mechanics, cosmetology, agriculture and home economics, to a wide range of in-demand fields: health care, cybersecurity, robotics—and early childhood education, leading to more interest in the high school CDA®. Programs like these give students a route to gain both a skill to be job ready after graduation and the academic coursework to succeed later in college. Besides, CTE can be a powerful source of motivation since it engages students who might otherwise give up on school, dropping out in the face of academic courses they have trouble connecting to their lives and goals. Bringing real-world experiences to students can engage them, make coursework more relevant and increase their success in school.

The average graduation rate for students who concentrate on CTE during high school is 94 percent, compared with overall graduation rates of 85 percent, according to the Association for Career and Technical Education. And students who concentrate in CTE are more likely to pursue postsecondary education than students who do not. They can even give themselves a boost toward a college degree by pursuing dual-enrollment programs or credentials like the CDA that provide college credits in some states. Work-based learning, like internships and apprenticeships with pay, is another strong incentive, says Sandra D. Robinson, a high school principal in Fort Lauderdale, FL. “These types of programs actually help keep kids in school because a lot of the kids do have to work.”

So, much has changed in CTE since my own high school days when I was part of a home economics program, making cinnamon rolls, sewing an apron and trying to get myself accustomed to the kitchen. Now CTE opens doors for high schoolers to explore different career options, and that builds opportunities for all students. “It’s no secret that for decades, we trapped certain students into certain pathways,” said Kate Kreamer, deputy executive director of AdvanceCTE. “Marginalized populations, Black students, Latinx students, students from low-income families and communities were often put in terminal programs and told ‘some students are college bound and some students are not college bound.’ That is inequitable.”

And building equity is a big part of the Council’s mission, so we created a CDA Handbook for High School. It provides a systematic approach to earning a CDA through a uniform framework with resources to guide instructional planning and support personalized lessons. The Council’s goal is to guide instructors in planning and implementing classroom and field experiences that align with the CDA process. And we put a spotlight on the high school CDA when we recently awarded our millionth credential to 18-year-old Jada Vargas, who lives on the Fort Apache Reservation in Whiteriver, Arizona.

Jada knows that the CDA provides students with essential skills to work successfully with children and academic knowledge that can prepare them to pursue college degrees in the early childhood field. “In my senior year,” she explains, “I took advanced college courses in early childhood education at Alchesay High School on my reservation and participated in lab hours interacting with young children in Alchesay Beginnings Child Care Center.” Now she urges other students to pursue a CDA because it pays off. “A recent survey,” as she explains, “found that 80 percent of center owners and directors were more likely to hire someone with a CDA credential than someone without it.” The survey also showed that CDA holders get higher pay and more promotions than educators who do not hold a CDA.

And financial considerations like this are driving the growth of CTE programs as a broader field of study, especially since the start of the pandemic. During that time, preparing students for college fell from our country’s 10th highest priority to the 47th, according to the Purpose of Education Survey, an annual snapshot of American views on education. “With the pandemic, I’ve seen the narrative really start to shift,” said Kate Kreamer at AdvanceCTE. “It opened people’s eyes to the fact that a college degree is not a guarantee of financial security like we used to think.”

The pandemic also opened the public’s eyes to the importance of early childhood education as our nation confronted a child care shortage, leaving many children without the qualified teachers they need. The upside of this blow to equity in early learning is that it’s led to more respect for our profession and the birth of CDA programs like that at Philadelphia’s Parkway West High School. The school serves students from low-income and marginalized communities, among them Mohamed Allie, a senior and CDA student who knows the value of the instruction and work experience he’s receiving. “I feel like I’m really doing something that is having an impact on our youth,” Mohamed says. “Early childhood education is a very important part of my life, and I hope other kids can experience the same thing. Whether they are learning as a student or going into the education field, it’s a rewarding thing to know you are helping other people.”

That makes the CDA a special kind of CTE program, Jada points out. “As I celebrate the overwhelming idea that I’m the one-millionth person to earn my CDA, I see my role as having a bigger purpose,” she says. “Earning a CDA ensures that a teacher is skilled, and the research shows that the quality of child care has a long-term effect on children’s cognitive and emotional growth through kindergarten and beyond,” she says. So, earning a CDA in high school doesn’t just provide students with more chances to enter a much-needed field. It also builds equity for children by giving them more of the qualified teachers they need.

As we continue to face a child care shortage, we should take more steps to show young people that early childhood education is a viable career choice. Let’s connect them with apprenticeship programs that allow them to enter the field and then rest assured they will keep getting raises as they continue in the profession long-term. Let’s also spark our high schoolers’ minds and imaginations by introducing them to the CDA when they’re still searching for a career. Expanding the high school CDA is part of the way we can keep changing the story of CTE from a second-tier path to a way of connecting students with in-demand careers. Early learning is clearly one of those fields, and high schoolers who prepare for it with a CDA wind up with another advantage: they get to make a difference for young children.

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