Governance brief explores key relationship between STEM and CTE programs
There is a fast-growing need in California for STEM-centered career and technical education in fields such as advanced manufacturing, health care, renewable energy, and information and communication technologies.

At the same time, CTE pathways can lead to well-paying careers while laying a robust foundation for students’ various education trajectories. The convergence of these factors is explored in CSBA’s latest governance brief, “Supporting STEM Access, Equity, and Effectiveness: STEM and CTE Work for California’s Economic Future.”

The brief is now online and examines California’s workforce needs, how STEM and CTE complement each other, the benefits of CTE for K-12 students and strategies for successful programs.

While about 40 percent, or close to 800,000, of California’s high school students were enrolled in a CTE course in the 2016–17 school year, participation in classes tied to the state’s most in-demand fields were not as popular. The success of students enrolled in these programs also makes the case that higher enrollment would benefit not only the state’s workforce but may lead to higher graduation rates and academic engagement, particularly for students from low-income backgrounds. Overall, the graduation rate for CTE students in California was 92 percent in 2017.

District and county office of education leaders must first leverage data and be knowledgeable about their regional labor markets to develop locally appropriate CTE programs, the brief finds (included is a map of priority career and technical education sectors by region). Opportunities to do so include regional Centers for Excellence at community colleges, which provide labor market data analysis and recommendations for programs at area community colleges. High schools can develop programs in concert with these recommendations, ensuring students have a smooth transition to post-secondary education.

K-12 programs that successfully create STEM/CTE pathways, such as Lompoc High School in northern Santa Barbara County, also have rigorous course requirements that ensure students are less likely to have to enroll in remedial courses at the community college or university level. “A common misconception about CTE is that it provides a remedial path for students who are not college-ready,” the brief reads. “In fact, the coursework is intensive, demanding, and, in some [STEM] fields, requires a solid background in math and science.”

State and federal funding play a key role in expanding opportunities, but district and school leaders can also boost programs by effectively messaging about CTE and building awareness about its opportunities and benefits. “Building awareness of CTE is essential,” said Eric Hoyer, brief author and CSBA education policy analyst. “More parents and students recognize the older term ‘vocational education’ than CTE.”

The messengers are also important: A recent pilot study showed that guidance counselors and teachers are the most effective messengers about career and technical education. For governing boards, this means that districts should prioritize learning sessions for guidance counselors and teachers on CTE.

In a study from the nonprofit Advance CTE, districts in four states piloted various themes for CTE in their middle and high schools. The most impactful messages among all student groups, according to parents and students, were “preparation for the real world” and “exploring career possibilities.” Students responded well to messaging that used phrasing such as “real-world skills,” “mentoring” and “hands-on experience.” Messages that emphasized “investment,” “in-demand careers” and “workforce” were not as successful.

Additional strategies for local educational agencies on CTE:
  • Start messaging about these programs by seventh grade, before students make choices about which high school to attend;
  • Leverage data about your local economy to build more effective programs and become involved in planning during your regional K-12 Strong Workforce Regional Engagement meetings, which are run through the community college system;
  • Support synergy between STEM and CTE programs and curriculum.
Find the new CSBA governance brief

“Supporting STEM Access, Equity, and Effectiveness: STEM and CTE Work for California’s Economic Future” at