Salida student participates in a building trades apprenticeship program

Creating & Scaling Innovative Career and Technical Education: 5 Lessons from Colorado

“Why am I learning this? How is this relevant to my future?”

In a rapidly-changing economy, our answers to these age-old questions from students are more important than ever. Similar to other states, too many students are exiting Colorado’s education system—both its high schools and colleges—without the skills they need to succeed. As a result, Colorado is producing only half the homegrown talent our economy needs to thrive.

At Colorado Succeeds, a nonprofit, nonpartisan coalition of business leaders devoted to improving education across the state, we recognize that there is both a moral and economic imperative to address this disparity.

While there is no silver bullet, there is a silver buckshot in Career and Technical Education (CTE), which provides students with the academic and technical skills, knowledge, and training necessary to succeed in their future. Colorado is leading the way on creating and scaling innovative CTE policies and initiatives. In recognition of CTE Month, here are five lessons Colorado can offer other states.

  1. Understand your supply and demand: The Colorado Talent Pipeline Report, produced annually by the state Workforce Development Council, paints a robust picture of Colorado’s current and future education and labor markets. This helps inform smart policies and direct state resources where they are needed most.
  2. Create multiple pathways to the middle class: Colorado recognizes that the “four-year degree or bust” mentality isn’t working for students or businesses. In response, the state has diligently created alternative options for students to enter middle-class careers, such as providing incentives for industry credentials tied to in-demand skills. These incentives reward districts financially when students earn a credential aligned to top jobs. Students can also participate in Colorado’s Swiss-style apprenticeship program, which allows them to work for an employer and develop real-world skills. And computer science, one of Colorado’s largest industries, is now accessible statewide thanks to the creation of new academic standards and graduation guidelines in technology.
  3. Partner or perish: Colorado schools are partnering with businesses to redesign school and meet community needs. Salida School District, located in mountainous Chaffee County, created a building trades apprenticeship program alongside local industry. Students in the program build affordable housing for educators, all while earning an industry-recognized credential. And Colorado schools, refusing to let our state’s geographic barriers stand in their way, are collaborating with one another to leverage resources and expand opportunity. STEM School Highlands Ranch, just outside Denver, is partnering with smaller schools on the Eastern Plains to share its problem-based learning approach and create virtual internship opportunities for students.
  4. Reimagine how you define and measure success: This is where Colorado is practicing what it preaches. The state doesn’t just tout its CTE opportunities, it recognizes them formally in its accountability system. Industry credentials and concurrent enrollment are just some of the options in Colorado’s graduation guidelines. What’s more, students can now earn a STEM-endorsed diploma when they demonstrate mastery in one or more STEM fields. This gives them a leg up on job or college applications, and encourages them to exceed, rather than simply meet expectations.
  5. Help students become savvier consumers: Given Colorado’s solid foundation and impressive portfolio of CTE options, initiatives such as Skillful and Launch My Career Colorado have launched pilots in the state to arm students with the information they need to make informed decisions about their future, from what credential they need for a job to how much a specific degree will cost.

Why is a CTE approach important? It comes down to hope. Thanks to Gallup’s groundbreaking research, we know that a student’s hope—defined by Gallup as goals, level of self-efficacy, and perception of viable pathways—is a greater predictor of their post-secondary success than their GPA or SAT scores.

CTE creates hope for the future by providing students with relevant and engaging learning experiences, setting them up with a clear pathway after high school.

A path that clearly connects their education to the real world and, in some cases, may come with a credential, a STEM-endorsed diploma, or a mentor from an apprenticeship.

This piece originally appeared on the PIE Network‘s blog.

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