As our world rapidly changes and advances, K-12 education largely remains the same as in decades past. The important debate about redesigning schools has mainly focused on preparing students for college. Yet roughly 40 percent or more of high school graduates do not enter college. The one-size-fits-all college preparatory track is doing a disservice to students and jeopardizing their future career opportunities.
Often overlooked in the discussion is critically important Career Technical Education (CTE), which prepares students to enter the workforce directly. There is no shortage of demand for skilled and knowledgeable workers in the fields of plumbing, electrical, welding, carpentry, masonry, electronic fabrication, agriculture, landscaping, and culinary. These professions require specialized training, and when done well, CTE programs can create post-secondary pathways for the growing percentage of students who are not college bound.
A key component of creating an outstanding CTE preparation track in today’s K-12 schools is employing top-tier subject matter experts with real-world professional experience in the industry rather than just book knowledge. Furthermore, students need CTE instructors with not only a passion for but also advanced skills in the particular area of study.
However, policy barriers keep educators from reinventing K-12 schools. Two significant obstacles make recruiting and retaining seasoned CTE instructors in high school classrooms exceedingly difficult. First are certification requirements that create an obstacle to highly skilled and knowledgeable subject-matter experts entering the teaching profession. Second are uniform salary schedules that overlook qualifications, subject matter expertise, and experience outside of K-12 classrooms.
Teacher Certification Barrier
Teacher certification laws create a rigid and deficient process for selecting and employing CTE teachers. Though intended to ensure competent teachers lead our classrooms, in reality, they frequently keep highly qualified people out of the profession. By requiring a retired professional or mid-career switcher to attend an expensive and time-intensive college or state alternative certification program, a pipeline of potential candidates is cut off.
Additionally, teacher certification has not been proven to equate to success in promoting student learning. On the contrary, data has consistently revealed that, on average, private schools, charter schools, and schools that hire Teach for America non-certified teachers produce superior student learning outcomes compared to traditional public schools employing primarily certified teachers.
Teacher certification laws should be reformed to provide districts with more flexibility in hiring CTE teachers. This should include employing adjunct teachers, who could teach on a limited-term contract rather than as full-time employees. The use of adjunct teachers would allow industry professionals to bring their valuable content-area knowledge and direct field experience to the classroom as contractors, teaching subjects in which they specialize.
The adjunct teacher concept has been well-tested in U.S. colleges and universities. The advantages of employing independent contractors as teachers are considerable. These include more flexible staffing as enrollment numbers change, cost savings since expensive benefits are usually not included, and the ability to attract a wider pool of candidates, including those seeking less than full-time employment.
High-quality teachers with strong subject matter expertise are foundational to quality student learning, whether with core curriculum content or CTE instruction. District and school leaders should be free to attract and hire CTE teachers who will best fit their programs and student learning needs.
Teacher Compensation Barrier
The current pay structure is another barrier that prevents highly qualified CTE professionals from entering the teaching profession. Teacher compensation systems reward seniority, regardless of performance or experience outside the teaching field. With the ability to only offer an entry-level salary while ignoring a professional’s years of honing skills and obtaining knowledge in a particular field, administrators have little to entice individuals to leave their career field and enter the classroom. The need is particularly acute because the teachers graduating from schools of education rarely have professional background experience in CTE fields.
Teacher compensation rules should be reformed to allow administrators to determine compensation on an individual basis — for initial hire as well as for yearly adjustments based on performance — within their allocated staffing budget. High-caliber professionals are attracted to jobs that recognize their expertise and reward their on-the-job performance — both of which the current system fails to do.
Recognizing that the teacher is the number one at-school factor of student learning, it’s essential to open the pipeline to the K-12 teaching field for highly qualified subject matter experts working in specific industries rather than relying on a dwindling and less qualified supply from schools of education.
This is especially true for CTE. With today’s labor shortage in many professions that fall within CTE, coupled with teacher shortages as well as high student disengagement and absenteeism rates, attractive CTE offerings are a strategic solution. More students need to be engaged and equipped to enter high-demand CTE careers.
A major step forward would be for states to remove outdated teacher certification requirements and compensation structures that hinder recruiting high-caliber candidates from their industries. Performance based pay should be added to incentivize and reward teachers who produce high-level learning results among their students. And, adjunct teachers offer an exciting new, highly flexible and lower-cost staffing solution. CTE, reinventing high school by effectively preparing students to enter the workforce directly, should lead the way in these new education policy approaches.