California’s Career Technical Education: The Best of Two Worlds

There’s an old joke. A plumber goes to a house call to repair a leak. The plumber fixes the problem and tells the homeowner, “That will be $300.” The homeowner says, “I’m a doctor, and I don’t make $300 for a house call.” The plumber replies, “I didn’t make $300 for a house call, either, when I was a doctor.” Career technical education (CTE) is for real.

The key to CTE is the combination of technical and academic knowledge. In the 20th century, a boy or girl would be asked to choose between going to college or learning an occupational trade. After all, how much science did you have to know to manually weld machine parts or sew an apron? But today you have to know physics, mathematics, and technical problem-solving, just to repair your car or design a new fashion.

To address this need, the California Department of Education has 7th-through-12-grade standards for learning the basics of nearly 60 technical careers – from information technology and health care to construction, agriculture, hospitality and tourism, media and entertainment, business and finance, and more.

CTE 9th-grade STEAM pod student works on a paper sketch and 3D model as part of character design in the games unit. The process involves both paper and digital models. (Photo courtesy of Palisades Charter High School)

Ross Arnold knows California CTE from the ground up. He is a former executive director of the California Association for Career and Technical Education.

Arnold said, “The best way to think of [CTE’s importance] is…one out of every eight Americans lives in California. We produce more students out of our high schools and colleges than any other state. Unless we have an educated, well-prepared populace, we’ll lose our industries to other states – maybe to other countries.”

Unlike today’s professionalized CTE, Arnold said that decades ago, “The shop classes didn’t lead to careers. They led more to hobbies.”

Arnold, a CTE teacher, added that, recently, in his own classroom, “I had to show that there was a growing demand for [CTE] jobs…if I didn’t show at least a seven-percent increase in demand for these jobs, we dropped the class.”

California has a host of schools with exceptional CTE programs. One of these schools is Palisades Charter High School in Los Angeles. Donna Mandosa, the school’s technology director, teaches a CTE class in the STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) “pod,” a term used in the spirit of the school’s dolphin mascot.

Students adjust the gear mechanism as they make a go-kart from reclaimed parts for a CTE “20% Time/Genius Hour” project. (Photo courtesy of Palisades Charter High School)

Mandosa holds a master’s degree from Harvard University in technology and education and has 15 years of experience managing information technology teams. In California, a CTE certification requires both academic and industry experience.

In her CTE class, Mandosa explained, “Our 9th-graders do a bit of virtual reality, a bit of game design, and a bit of 3-D modeling and printing. We also do ‘Genius Hour’ projects, in which the students come up with a study proposal within STEAM engineering concepts. So there’s an entrepreneurship/start-up vibe to it.”

Recalling one student’s success, Mandosa said, “When Tre, a junior, came to Palisades, we did not have a game-design class. Tre started teaching other students so they could do this fun thing on campus. He was part of the team that helped launch a game-design class. Tre has said he wants to go into game design as a career.”

The bottom line for Mandosa is “CTE gives students real-world experience,” which translates into industry credibility. “It makes sure they have a seat at the table.”

Photo at the top: Palisades Charter HS CTE students test walk-on-water (WOW) shoes that they made using engineering and chemistry. They later tested the WOW shoes in the school pool. (Photo courtesy of Palisades Charter High School)

Joe Barison is a public affairs specialist in ED’s Office of Communications and Outreach.

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