During my career as a public school teacher and administrator, I have seen firsthand how high-quality career and technical education (CTE) programs can boost the engagement of students, their on-time graduation, and their academic learning. These are foundational parts of addressing the impact of lost instructional time because they give students opportunities to apply knowledge and skills learned in a classroom setting while also addressing labor market needs. Research has shown that students who complete CTE courses in high school are more likely to graduate and enroll in postsecondary education or succeed in work.

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona has stressed that students should have pathways that lead to successful careers. To achieve that, he has called for reimagining the connection between K-12, higher education, and the workforce. “As our nation recovers from the pandemic, we must ensure today’s students are ready to meet tomorrow’s needs.  Investments in Career and Technical Education – programs that are proven to successfully reengage students and prepare them for in-demand, good paying jobs – are key to that goal,” said Secretary Cardona.

The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding provided by the federal government in response to the COVID-19 pandemic can be used by states and school districts to support a wide range of educational initiatives, including CTE.  While CTE was not specifically mentioned in the stimulus funding bills, many districts are using ESSER funds to prioritize and expand their CTE programs. ESSER funds can also be used by districts for CTE programs and other activities authorized by the Perkins Career and Technical Education Act.

States are using ESSER funding for CTE in a variety of ways, depending on their unique needs and priorities. For example, the Delaware Department of Education, DuPont, and my organization, Discovery Education, are engaged in a one-of-a-kind partnership that has increased student access to high-quality STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) instructional resources, as well as instructional materials and other supports, that enhance career and technical education programs across the state. In approved American Rescue Plan-ESSER state plans, several states have identified expanding CTE opportunities as a strategy in their efforts to engage students in learning and address the disruptions to teaching and learning caused by the pandemic. Here are specific examples of how states are using ESSER funding for CTE:

  1. Expanding CTE programs: Many states are using ESSER funding to expand their CTE programs and provide students with more opportunities to explore career pathways and gain job skills. Examples include investing in new equipment or technology, hiring additional CTE teachers, or offering new courses, content, or certifications.
  2. Professional development for teachers: Investing in Professional Learning and training meets both ESSER and CTE objectives. It is important for CTE teachers to participate in ongoing professional learning, such as training on modern technologies or teaching in a blended model. Conversely, it is also important for general education teachers to participate in professional learning to help them understand how they can incorporate career information into their curriculum, beginning at the earliest grade levels.
  3. Addressing learning loss: The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted learning for most students, including those in CTE programs. States are using ESSER funding to provide additional academic support for CTE students who fell behind during remote or hybrid learning.
  4. Investing in digital curriculum resources: Schools and districts have made significant investments in technology in response to the pandemic. Digital learning allows CTE programs greater flexibility in course delivery and content variety, and it facilitates personalized learning.
  5. Starting or expanding summer and after-school learning: These programs can help accelerate learning and re-engage students. They operate outside school hours and can include areas such as eSports, robotics, and other STEM/STEAM activities.

Overall, ESSER funding provides states with an important opportunity to invest in their CTE programs and ensure that students have the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in the workforce.

In addition, pre-pandemic, high-quality CTE programs like those offered by New York City’s P-TECH schools and a North Carolina information technology academy are built on strong partnerships between school districts, employers, and community colleges. In high-quality CTE programs, students take an integrated sequence of technical and academic courses – with supplemental, engaging content – that include opportunities to participate in work-based learning and earn postsecondary credit or industry-recognized credentials.

The federal stimulus funds create an exciting opportunity to make a significant investment in CTE programs, either for expansion or creation. The infusion of ESSER stimulus funds is the perfect time to ensure high-quality CTE programs have a central place in PreK–12 education. We need to ensure that we are providing students with career-specific learning opportunities that equip them with a robust set of skills to prepare them for their future.

Written by Dr. Karen Beerer, Senior VP of Teaching & Learning at Discovery Education

Karen Beerer, Ed.D. is the Senior VP of Teaching & Learning at Discovery Education and has 28 years of experience in public education as a teacher, reading specialist, principal, supervisor of curriculum and professional development, and Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment. Dr. Beerer helped create Discovery Education’s new guide to ESSER funding, now available here