February is National Career and Technical Education Month, which prompts the question: "What exactly is career and technical education?"
Let me begin by explaining what it is not.
Today’s career and technical education is not the vocational education of the 1970s. Where vocational education was perceived as limited to specific students – those not planning to attend college – today’s career and technical education is for all students and is integrated with core subject areas in a rigorous and relevant curriculum.
Today, students involved in career and technical education go on to earn both two-year and four-year degrees. Some continue on to earn advanced degrees. With our world’s reliance on technology of all sorts, students pursuing specific technical degrees can earn upward of $60,000 a year with a two-year degree.
No matter their discipline or background, these students are at the forefront of new industries – some of the biggest being green energy and medical technology – and will fuel new developments in infrastructure efficiency well into the future. It all started with career and technical education when the students’ interests were first sparked and the seeds for future successes were planted.
A year ago, the South Dakota Department of Education launched the High School 2025 initiative, which outlines the high school model of the 21st century.
High School 2025 aims to infuse rigor and relevance into the educational experience. That means students should be able to tailor their high school experience to meet their unique academic and career interests and goals.
Under High School 2025, each student creates a personal learning plan that outlines his or her long-term academic and career goals. Students create their plans with the help of teachers, school counselors and parents. They revisit the plans as their goals change.
Students also review 16 career clusters, which are broad career fields, and have opportunities to take courses within the cluster that interests them. Courses might take place in a traditional classroom setting, but they also might be delivered online or in an environment more similar to the workplace through internships, pre-apprenticeships and service-learning opportunities.
This focus on careers enhances the work that students already are doing in the core subject areas of math, English, science and social studies.
As part of High School 2025, the Department of Education is making sure students have access to career guidance materials in a variety of formats. We recently published the second edition of the South Dakota My Life magazine, which is designed to give middle and high school students an introduction to the career clusters and the fastest-growing occupations.
The magazine is accompanied by a Web site, which enables students to take interest- and aptitude-inventory surveys, perform in-depth searches on particular career fields, find job availability forecasts, keep a log of their educational plans and career goals and research postsecondary institutions.
Ultimately, the goal of High School 2025 is to better prepare students for life after high school whether that leads them into postsecondary studies, a branch of the military or directly into the work force.
As educators, parents and communities, we need to ensure that the high school experience is relevant so that our young people understand the connection between what they are doing now and how it will affect their lives in the future.
As a result of this focused approach, students will have a better idea of what direction they would like to take after high school instead of wondering: "What am I going to do now?"
Wherever that road might lead, career and technical education can be a key to get there.