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What Does a CTE Curriculum Look Like?

If you’ve been hearing more and more about Career and Technical Education (CTE), you’re not alone. The educational model has grown in popularity in recent years due to the success of its career-driven approach to learning. Today, more and more middle and high schoolers, as well as college and trade school students, have access to Career and Technical Education programs. These programs complement more traditional academic subjects and create direct pathways into the working world through skill-based learning. But because of the new approach to Career and Technical Education, we’re looking at what types of CTE courses are offered, and what goes into developing a CTE curriculum.  

The Four Key Pillars of CTE 

CTE curriculum is based on four foundational pillars set by the U.S. Department of Education. These pillars are key to building a truly impactful CTE curriculum for students (particularly at a high school level). They are:  

  1. Dual Enrollment 
  2. Work-based Learning 
  3. Workforce Credentials 
  4. Career Advising and Navigation 

The first pillar, Dual Enrollment, gives high school students the opportunity to take college-level courses before graduation. This has the obvious benefit of letting them acquire college credits, but also to learn about and explore different career paths. Dual Enrollment is an effective way to boost high school achievement and to encourage students to pursue post-secondary studies or attain career-focused credentials. 

The second pillar, Work-based Learning, is fairly self-explanatory. With this strategy, students learn practical skills in a real-world environment and gain hands-on experience in different industries or communities. The idea is to introduce students to a variety of career options and teach them skills that can lead to fruitful careers—sometimes right out of high school. 

Workforce Credentials follows the previous pillar but with the added bonus of certification. Students can therefore gain industry-recognized credentials from their CTE coursework and gain a competitive edge in the labor market after graduation. This CTE strategy is especially valuable for students that plan to enter the workforce immediately after high school. 

The final pillar that makes Career and Technical Education successful is Career Advising and Navigation. The aim is to give students a realistic idea of career choices as well as post-secondary education options. This can be provided in the form of guidance or built into a CTE curriculum so that students feel prepared to enter the job market, both in terms of skills and awareness. 

What Types of CTE Courses Are Offered?  

There are a wide variety of CTE courses that can be taught at a high school or even post-secondary level. To keep things organized, they have been classified into clusters, which represent different industries and potential career paths. Today, there are 16 CTE clusters: 

  • Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources 
  • Architecture and Construction 
  • Arts, A/V Technology and Communications 
  • Business Management and Administration 
  • Education and Training 
  • Finance 
  • Government and Public Administration 
  • Health Science 
  • Hospitality and Tourism 
  • Human Services 
  • Information Technology 
  • Law, Public Safety, Corrections and Security 
  • Manufacturing 
  • Marketing 
  • Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) 
  • Transportation, Distribution and Logistics  

Of course, not every school will be able to offer CTE courses in all 16 clusters. In most cases, educators choose what CTE clusters they will focus on based on resources, availability of qualified instructors, and local industries. 

For example, a high school in a rural town with a big farming industry might be more inclined to offer CTE lessons on agriculture than on marketing. Even within a single community, different schools can have different clusters they excel in, like a STEM-focused school or a health sciences-focused program. 

Developing a CTE Curriculum 

Ultimately, good teaching is good teaching, whether you’re talking about a core subject or a specialized CTE course. That’s why when developing a CTE lesson plan, it’s important to draw from proven educational strategies, such as learning objectives, and ensure lessons align with educational standards at both a national and state level.  

As with core subjects, a CTE curriculum should also aim to gradually build students’ knowledge and skills. For example, within the Health Science cluster, it would be a good idea to begin with the basics, like an “Introduction to Health Science” course. From there, lessons could become more focused on specific career pathways, like diagnostic or support services. At the end, students could receive a certificate as proof of the skills they have acquired.  

Adrienne Emerson, Education Content Manager at Sphero, highlights what is perhaps the most important consideration when putting together a CTE curriculum: “All CTE curriculum is based around how to develop skills that will translate into a career. And many CTE pathways even end with a project or independent study where students can implement the skills they have learned in a way to help the school, community, or other students.”  

Ultimately, it’s important that students are equipped to take their newfound skills and apply them in the real world.  

Teaching CTE 

There are a couple of different pathways to becoming a CTE teacher. Educators that typically teach core subjects can undergo additional training in order to lead a specific CTE cluster. “As a teacher, having knowledge of the career and field are paramount to successfully teaching CTE classes,” Adrienne points out. 

Alternatively, professionals from business and industry can become CTE teachers in order to pass along their knowledge and skills to the next generation. For teachers with a CTE Teaching Certificate, there are many resources available to help learn how to manage a classroom and build a curriculum that is aligned with core subjects. In the end, it’s important for core and CTE teachers to create a seamless experience for students by forming connections across all subjects. 

“Awareness of CTE education will impact most teachers as we try to get all students involved in some type of CTE education in high school,” Adrienne says. “Core subjects are the basis of the skills needed in CTE classes, so as the popularity of CTE pathways grows, we expect core classes will change slightly to relate more to career focused skills.” 

Prepping the Next Generation 

Whether building a CTE curriculum within the Architecture and Construction cluster or for a STEM topic, the goal is the same: to get students engaged and excited about their future by teaching them knowledge and skills they can use outside of the classroom. Educational resources and projects, like Sphero’s STEM kits, can therefore be a great asset to educators as they prepare the next generation for the future.  

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