Starting in middle school, students have access to guidance counselors familiar with career and technical education and emerging 21st–century careers. Students even have the opportunity to enroll in a career cluster program, giving them the opportunity to explore and complete more than one career pathway upon graduation from high school.
The soft skills a middle school student would learn in a career and technical education class range from time and career management, conflict resolution, interpersonal and presentation skills, to team work and work ethics. Middle school students are held to the same rigorous curriculum as their counterparts on the high school level because of the requirements of the standards and benchmarks.
What are the career standards?
The Career and Technical Education (CTE) classes students can take in middle and high school include at least 16 career clusters and over 300 programs. Each state’s department of education can develop other career clusters, or groupings of careers that require similar skills, beyond the 16 offered nationally.
A student can start a CTE program in middle school and transition the program into high school, postsecondary, two-year, and a four-year college.
The standards and benchmarks of the 300 programs are reviewed and revised every three years by practicing professionals in the field. Just like the standards for college readiness, the standards taught in a CTE class describe a specific behavior, action, or competency a student should be able to demonstrate based on the instruction, and the benchmarks describe the knowledge or skill that a student should acquire in order to demonstrate achievement of the standard.
The 16 career clusters are:
- Agriculture, Food, and Natural Resources
- Architecture & Construction
- Arts, Audio, and Video Technology & Communication
- Business Management & Administration
- Education and Training
- Engineering & Technology Education
- Government & Public Administration
- Health Science
- Hospitality & Tourism
- Human Services
- Information Technology
- Law, Public Safety & Security
- Marketing, Sales, & Service
- Transportation, Distribution, & Logistics
How career readiness learning happens
Career and Technical Education courses integrate academic core mathematics, science, and reading into their curriculum through applied real-world experiences. CTE teachers are not math, science or reading teachers, but they are teachers of math, science, and reading. The teachers may not use the same terminology as the math or science teachers but they teach the same concepts.
For example, students are able to apply the algebraic formula for finding an angle in their construction trades class, but the students would refer to it as the slope or pitch of a roof. The instructor would be responsible for making sure that the students understand that an angle and a slope/pitch are really the same concept but two different terms — one based on theory and one based on real-world experiences.
The applied instruction enables the students to see the application of academic subjects outside the school setting, which will help the students with understanding and retention of the concepts taught. Applied learning is often the most effective way to teach math and science.
In CTE, students learn the context of actual work problems. Whether it is in a technology or a health science class, the students learn through project-based activities. Math and science concepts are essential workplace skills, and the CTE teachers capitalize on the teachable moments on how the real-world experiences intertwine with the concepts learned in the core classes.
How students learn about careers
Career and Technical Education programs offer the students the opportunity to take a sequence of classes to complete their knowledge for a career cluster. Throughout the sequence of classes, there are standards that will enable the students to acquire knowledge in their chosen field of study.
Some career clusters require the students to participate in internships, externships, on-the- job training, and job shadowing.
- Internships: Students have the opportunity to gain practical knowledge in the occupation or industry sector through a structured experience. Students integrate the occupational and applied academic learning with applied knowledge and skills learned in the classroom to an actual work situation. The internship will have an amount of hours set by the standards of the program. Students receive credit hours for internships.
- Externships: Students explore and observe the working environment but are not required to be on-site for a set number of hours. Students do not receive credit hours for externships.
- On-the job training: Students work in their chosen field while going to school either during the day or evening. A high school student could be part of the customer service or health care field. They would attend high school during the day and work evenings and/or weekends in their chosen career. This would be considered an apprenticeship if it is in a trades program.
- Job shadowing: Students in middle and high school get the opportunity to shadow adults for part or all day to see what is involved in their chosen career field. Students can explore a variety of careers through this method to help narrow their future course of study. If leaving the school setting is not possible, there are numerous online job-shadowing websites the students can explore.
Other career clusters have industry certification tests students can take once they complete the program. The industry certification demonstrates the student has acquired the necessary knowledge for entry level in the career field. Industry certification tests must meet the criteria and be accepted by industry in the career field. If the high school student transitions to a two- or four-year college, the industry certification can be articulated the same as an Advanced Placement (AP) test is accepted.
Career and Technical Student Organizations
Each CTSO has student leadership opportunities on the local, state, and national level. Students extend their learning through career development events, conferences, workshops, competitions related to career clusters, community service, networking, and teamwork building skills. Here is a list of the National Coordinating Council for Career & Technical Student Organizations (NCC-CTSO).
- Future Educators Association (FEA)
- Business Professionals of America (BPA)
- Health Occupations Students of America (HOSA)
- Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA)
- Family, Career and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA)
- Technology Student Association (TSA)
- Future Farmers of America (FFA)
- Distributive Education Clubs of America (DECA)
With 16 career clusters and over 300 programs, Career and Technical Education has moved in a new direction — it is no longer referred to as Vocational Education. CTE classes are available for all students interested in the knowledge they’ll acquire as they transition from secondary to postsecondary to technical, baccalaureate, or a professional degree.
Dr. Sandra Lyn Jewell is a faculty member in the master’s program at Marygrove College – Detroit, where she teaches reading & literacy courses as well as a faculty member in the master’s program at Concordia University – Portland, where she teaches in the K-12 education and career & technical education departments.Learn More: Click to view related resources.
- "Browse by Career Cluster," O*NET OnLine. National Center for O*NET Development