Throughout most of the twentieth century, a high school diploma and some specific work skills were enough to enter the workforce and make a living. As such, for about 80 years, the role of vocational education remained largely unchanged in its mission to prepare students for jobs in agriculture, business, industry, and the service sector. However, toward the end of the century, as the world of work changed due to technology innovation and use of information in the global economy, new skillsets were demanded in labour sectors. Meanwhile, there were consistent reports pointing to the inadequate preparation of high school graduates for successful participation in the new economy. At that juncture, it was a clear a new approach was needed to prepare students for transitions to further education and/or work. A high school education was no longer enough to participate in the new economy where problem solving, teamwork, and technology literacy became commonplace requirements. For example, the manufacturing industry slowly shifted from manual to automated processes requiring the use of computers and robotics. In a way, the emerging workforce requirements brought back a conversation about the purpose of education and whether it should be more in tune to the needs of employers. This narrative was reinforced, in particular, by reports noting the perceived mismatch between the demand and supply of talent in areas of the economy requiring science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) preparation. Out of this discussion, school reform in the 1990s resulted in a shift from vocational education to career and technical education (CTE), as the field is now known.
The charge for CTE is to enhance the rigour and relevance of the curriculum to prepare students for careers – rather than for specific jobs – in the new economy. A key mandate for CTE is to integrate academic and technical education in the context of high-tech, high-wage career pathways. In this context the role of CTE has become more relevant in terms of preparing youth for further education and work. To this end, the education ideas proposed by Dewey have received renewed attention as the basis for new designs integrating academic and technical education and for promoting college and career readiness. Concurrently, the premises of contextual teaching and learning underline and support interdisciplinary concept connections as a means to promote learning for understanding. To meet the new goal, CTE has broaden its scope and it is organized around sixteen career clusters, each featuring multiple career pathways defined by coherent sequences of courses referred to as programmes of study.
Today, according to a national report on the status of CTE, related coursework is offered in about every public school and is part of the mission of community colleges in the United States. In high schools, the vast majority of students take at least one CTE elective, while some concentrate through enrollment in career academies. It has been also reported that participation in CTE results in positive student outcomes comparable with performance in college-prep programmes. However, albeit the documented benefits of participation, some lingering issues such as quality of implementation and the stigma associated with vocational education still linger in CTE. These and other issues appear to prevent a wider appreciation of CTE as a viable option for all students to become college and career ready in the new economy.