Transforming Education Systems to Make Room for Innovation

In the last two weeks, I explained how other states can learn from Colorado’s success in creating career and technical education programs that works well for students, employers, and school systems—and that, together, will help make agile learners America’s future. I summarized our experience and lessons in Colorado into five key points: understand supply and demand; create multiple pathways into postsecondary and career; ensure that school districts and businesses come to the table as collaborators; re-imagine how success is defined and measured; and empower students to realize their potential.

But much work remains if Colorado and the rest of the country are going to achieve these goals. We must, above all, transform how our education system operates. Instead of forcing learners to conform to system constraints, we need to respond to the diverse and changing needs of students and the world around them. To facilitate this, we ought to promote policies that further this four-part agenda:

Jesus Salazar, CEO of Prosono, testifies about the importance of CTE at the Capitol.

1. Strengthen pathways to postsecondary institutions and careers through sound transfer-of-credit policies: Colorado has a framework that requires certain core academic courses to transfer to institutions of higher education. But it’s equally important to allow technical certificates and industry certifications to count towards postsecondary credit. Ideally, all work-based-learning experiences should culminate into a transferable credential.

2. Align funding with competency-based-education strategies: Per-pupil funding formulas often include elements related to student attendance and time in school. But these can prevent local school systems from implementing large scale innovations, such as apprenticeships, competency-based learning, capstone projects, and other practices designed to support students in building and demonstrating transferable critical thinking and problem solving skills. Such funding systems can also conflict with graduation policies that emphasize competency rather than seat time. These policies should be revised in a manner that permits districts to develop a range of competency-based programming options without fear of losing funding.  

3. Embrace concurrent enrollment:

 These programs traditionally allow high school students to enroll in postsecondary coursework and earn college credit at little or no cost to the student. But too many high schoolers don’t have access to them, especially in rural areas. Colorado and other states should encourage more K–12 systems and community colleges to expand concurrent enrollment courses that are eligible for transfer of credit and serve the needs of communities.

Another way to expand these offerings is through policies that encourage more educators to earn advanced degrees in relevant content areas, whether those are CTE or other academic content areas. This would create more teachers who are qualified to lead concurrent enrollment courses in a wider variety of sectors. Student benefit by having more of these courses offered at low costs within high schools.

States could also consider creating streamlined processes for allowing non-traditional educators to teach concurrent enrollment courses. This might include using prior work history and professional credentials to meet the requirements, or allowing professionals to teach under the direction of an endorsed CTE instructor.

4. Align data systems: Students, employers, policymakers, and the public at large would all benefit from understanding how postsecondary credentials translate into the workforce. In Colorado, for example, multiple systems track participation in and completion of concurrent enrollment courses and work-based-learning opportunities, like apprenticeships, industry certificates and certifications, postsecondary attainment, and CTE course of studies. An aligned system that pairs with employment and postsecondary outcomes would allows us to better understand their value to students, businesses, and the economy more generally.

States should strengthen such systems, either on their own or by partnering with outside vendors. Organizations like Credential Engine, for example, are creating a one-stop-shop registry of all credentials, allowing job-seekers, students, workers, and employers to easily search for and compare credentials. Employers, too, are uniquely positioned to help populate these databases by identifying the certifications that are most valued in their industries, and by gently pressuring institutions of higher education and other learning providers to include these certifications in their programs.


As I argued in the inaugural post of this series, our society is moving deeper into the Age of Agility. Learners must now develop knowledge, skills, and competencies to succeed in an uncertain future and adapt to a dynamically changing world. While the pace of change is accelerating at an exponential rate, the needs of learners are also becoming more complex, and their interests increasingly more diverse.

This means that all of us—and especially policymakers, advocates, educators, and philanthropists—must ensure that all learners have access to experiences that maximize their potential. High-quality CTE programs are essential to meeting this objective. And progress made in Colorado and other parts of the country proves that these programs are effective and scalable. Yes, there’s much to learn and more work to be done, but CTE is headed in a positive direction, and its future is bright.

This post was originally published as the final installment of a three-part series on The Thomas B. Fordham Institute website.

Colorado Succeeds