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A General Theory for Relevance and Responsiveness


Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs are valuable education offerings by high schools and colleges. These programs are important not only for students, but also for the local and regional economy. A lack of skilled workers is an acute issue hindering many communities. Luckily this issue can be resolved by training and employing more local people, but it is not a simple or easy solution. It takes time, determination, and vision.

The need for a general approach to determine the relevance and responsiveness of CTE programs has never been greater. Workers are expected to have more skills, abilities, and knowledge than ever before; but without some sort of clear and consistent approach to guide the development of CTE programs, it will be difficult or impossible to meet these expectations.

All CTE programs share a mission to serve students and industry. These programs provide students with affordable, accessible, and relevant educational training that leads to sustainable career opportunities. At the same time, CTE programs also provide employers with a reliable pipeline of educated, adequately prepared workers. 

One area where many CTE-offering schools and colleges differ is HOW they determine which CTE programs to offer. Changes in the economy, industry, and society mean there’s an ongoing need to review, revise, and reimagine all CTE programs. There are many variables and prevailing circumstances to consider such as:

  • Are there job opportunities for graduates of the CTE program?
  • Are there opportunities for CTE graduates to further their education?
  • Do available jobs for CTE graduates offer sufficient wages?
  • Do available jobs offer sustainable working conditions?
  • Do available jobs offer opportunities for career progression?
  • Are graduates successful in getting hired in these jobs?
  • Are these job opportunities aligned with local and regional goals?
  • Are students enrolling in the CTE program?
  • Is the school or college capable of adequately supporting the CTE program?
  • Does the CTE program create tension (competition) internally or externally?

The “yes” or “no” answers to these questions can be grounded in facts. While supporting data may be hard to obtain (e.g., graduate employment data), it is possible.

Ideally these variables and circumstances are evaluated objectively and guided by data. However, subjective factors influence the evaluation process, too. Factors such as:

  • Skills and knowledge of existing instructional personnel
  • Alignment of program with leadership’s goals and strategies
  • Affinity for legacy offerings, processes, and practices
  • Stance toward future changes (proactive, reactive, inactive)
  • External pressures on resources, expectations, and interactions
  • Support from industry and community

These subjective influencers are relevant and essential to the success and sustainability of a CTE program. It is important they be appropriately considered in the evaluation process. 

Having worked at close range with CTE leadership and their partners on the issues of relevance and responsiveness, I notice an interesting pattern: an absence of a clear and consistent model to evaluate, update, and reinvent CTE programs. The lack of clarity can cause misunderstanding, confusion, erode trust, and diminish support. The lack of consistency can produce unintended consequences such as a sense of inequity, exclusion, and a loss of relevance and/or responsiveness.

There is a need for a durable and reliable formula to determine the need for a CTE program. Such a formula should be:

  • Rational - Supported by a logical model
  • Intentional - Aligned with articulated goals
  • Explainable - The value and function are obvious
  • Usable - Simple to learn and easy to use
  • Replicable - Reliable and verifiable results 
  • Informed -  All relevant variables, circumstances, and subjective factors are considered

CTE programs are an investment in the future. The lack of a skilled workforce is a barrier to community development and economic vitality. It’s important that our schools and colleges provide the best combination of CTE programs possible. But, how that’s done is vague, seemingly random, and possibly misguided. A formula shared and evolved by the national community of CTE schools and colleges would be a valuable step forward.