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New Jersey has taken a distinctive approach to career and technical education (CTE): empowering county governments, rather than just traditional school districts, to take the lead on vocational high schools. These county schools end up functioning largely as agencies of their local governments.
Because of this atypical governance structure, these schools have an especially strong relationship with the state’s community colleges (which are also largely county entities), county elected officials, and local employers. The county vocational schools are also schools of choice—they provide options to families—yet unlike charter schools, they can use entrance criteria and screen prospective students based on academic performance, attendance, discipline, and commitment to a vocational line of study.
As a result, these county schools can offer focused training in traditional technical fields (such as welding), help educate students for a region’s growing employers (such as health care firms), and enable high school students to acquire valuable industry credentials and accumulate college credits. But New Jersey’s policies have also enabled counties to create schools that attract high-performing students who have every intention of immediately going to college. In fact, some of these “academies,” with programs in fields such as information technology, engineering, and biomedical sciences, have sky-high student PSAT scores and graduation rates. On the other hand, their student bodies do not always reflect their counties’ demographics. These factors, when combined with policies related to funding and transportation, can cause tension with traditional school districts.
Taken as a whole, New Jersey’s experience suggests that, by separating these schools from the normal public-education governance and delivery system—that is, establishing them outside of traditional districts and inside county governments—the state has enabled them to innovate in valuable ways. They can look and operate differently than standard-issue, district-run, comprehensive high schools. But simply enabling schools to be different does not necessarily determine how they will be different. Specific state-level policies on funding, entrance criteria, district-paid tuition, transportation, accountability, graduation requirements, and more significantly influence everything from how expensive the schools are to which students attend them to how closely linked they are to regions, employers, and colleges.
States considering emulating New Jersey’s approach should be clear about what they aim to accomplish. State policy can enable local leaders, educators, and entrepreneurs to create new and different CTE high schools. If state leaders want particular types of schools created, they can craft specific, narrow state policies. If, however, they want local leaders to have a great deal of flexibility so new CTE schools meet the varying needs of local families, political leaders, and employers, then state leaders can craft more general and liberating policies—but state leaders should recognize that very different types of schools will then emerge.
High school programs aimed at career and technical education (CTE) have garnered more and more attention in recent years. America’s current low labor force participation rate, a national skills gap, mounting college debt, and an emerging point of view that a four-year college degree need not be the goal for all students have contributed to a renewed focus on high school programs aimed at preparing young people for work.1
Although much energy has gone into studying labor market forces and defining “college and career readiness,” the field would benefit from more analysis of how CTE initiatives actually come about and how they work on the ground. That is, what are the policies and practices that make high-quality, career-focused schooling possible? What are the obstacles? The opportunities?
This report explores New Jersey’s system of county-based vocational high schools. Like most other states, New Jersey allows traditional high schools to provide CTE programs—in fact, more students are in CTE programs spread across the state’s hundreds of comprehensive high schools than in the county’s vocational schools.2 At the same time, the county-based schools are solely dedicated to providing CTE, and they possess a range of features distinct from their district counterparts and other high schools across the nation.
The high schools have been around for decades, but they have also changed over time. They occupy an unusual place in the state’s overall K–12 system, sitting outside the traditional district structure and inside county governments—which has several implications for funding, governance, and relationships with employers and institutions of higher education. They are schools of choice, not schools of assignment, and each is allowed to have an admissions policy, which can mean entrance criteria (or “selective admissions”). These factors influence their student composition and institutional performance. And while they are popular with many families, business leaders, and government officials, they can generate some resentment among district schools and their communities.
There is much to be learned from New Jersey’s approach, including takeaways related to system governance, parental choice, school demographics, entrance criteria, funding, and courses of study. But possibly the most important lesson is that leaders in other states should consider first: What exactly are we trying to accomplish regarding CTE in high schools?
Many different goals can be associated with career-focused schooling. Maybe a community wants a choice-based high school with a specific curricular focus and whose student body mirrors that of local assignment-based high schools. Perhaps leaders want to help students not interested in college get prepared for work on the day after graduation. Perhaps a region wants to create a pipeline of workers for a particular local industry. Maybe the state wants students to accumulate as many college credits while in high school as possible. Maybe the state wants to help high-performing high school students who do want a four-year college degree get a head start on their future careers.
All these goals (and others) are legitimate, but they require different approaches. A school designed to develop employees for certain industries may not be well suited to helping students maximize the number of transferable college credits they earn. A selective-admission school for high-achieving, college-going students might end up with a student body that does not reflect its community’s racial and economic diversity.
The policies states craft will influence the kinds of schools created. State leaders who are certain about the kinds of schools they want can write prescriptive policies—but they should be aware that such policies might inhibit the creation of other types of schools. State leaders who want to maximize local autonomy and allow “1,000 flowers to bloom” can create highly flexible policies—but there will be far less certainty about what schools emerge.
As government leaders and advocates search for ways to better prepare more students for the next step, they will need to make policy choices across a host of domains, and those decisions are seldom simple. Many trade-offs are involved. While some analyses of CTE in high schools may focus on what types of schools exist, which courses are offered, and what results students achieve, this report aims to examine policy’s role in influencing those outcomes and what those outcomes look like within the four walls of these vocational schools.
To that end, this report is a blend of policy analysis and case study. I have reviewed and analyzed the language of state statutes and regulations, state department of education rules, and county- and school-level policies. I also toured three county schools, interviewing school leaders and other stakeholders across New Jersey.3 The purpose: show how policymakers’ decisions have shaped these schools’ fundamental features—and draw lessons and make recommendations accordingly.
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