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Career and technical education builds real-world skills and then some

In Lynn, Mass., a high school girl wearing safety goggles shapes and solders copper plumbing pipes. A boy in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., manipulates gear cogs on a computer screen to engineer a competition robot. And in Newark, N.J., a teenager steps into an elementary school classroom—as teacher for the day.

Student in lab
Students in lab

These are just a few of the lives that are being shaped by career and technical education, an approach that combines experiential practice and academics to unlock learning for so many students.

The AFT believes that bringing

to all students can engage them and make academic material more relevant. Experiential learning can give young people opportunities to go beyond textbooks, worksheets and lectures and get into the muscle and bone of learning—by doing. For example, in a civics class about local government, students might learn about the legislative process in their city, then imagine their own school as a city, take on the role of “city” council members, and propose “legislation” that has real meaning in their lives—whether it’s more after-school programs, longer recess times or better sidewalks outside their school.

For students who really commit to CTE—taking multiple courses with industry-certified teachers in programs with professional-grade equipment—results can be profound. Instead of analyzing a diagram on a page, they might wrap an actual blood pressure cuff around a classmate’s arm, tugging at the Velcro to adjust it before reading the results. They feel the heft of the industrial drilling machine as they guide its weight toward its target. Or sweat beside the kitchen oven as they try to plate meals for visiting administrators in time for lunch.

In school and on the job

CTE is a powerful motivator: It engages students who might otherwise give up on school, dropping out in the face of academic courses they have trouble connecting to their own lives. Linda Romano nearly flunked out of high school, but enrolling in a CTE nursing program saved her. “The program was relevant to my life, and I felt I had a purpose,” she says in an AFT Voices post. Decades later, she teaches nursing to students like her.

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